Game recognize game

02 02 18

Last week the New York Times ran a lengthy exposé on the booming business of buying followers online. They named names of prominent people in several fields who had purchased followers or engagements to create the illusion of outsized influence. Many of those named already had a large platform, so it was interesting to learn that at some point in their careers media figures, athletes, reality TV stars, and politicians felt the need to put some money into faking a larger social media following. The repercussions have already begun. New York’s Attorney General announced his office has opened an investigation into the Devumi, the bot broker highlighted in the article. The Chicago Sun-Times has suspended film critic Richard Roeper’s columns while it investigates his alleged purchasing of followers through Devumi.

This week Twitter and Facebook began notifying users that they were exposed to Russian propaganda. The rollout hasn’t gone especially well. People are either mad because this has taken so long or mad because they think Facebook is lying to them and censoring content they like in the process. (Not that folks on the right have much to worry about as an Alex Jones segment on the #TheStorm conspiracy theory was a Facebook trending topic in the U.S. this week and on Friday false flag Amtrak conspiracy theories were a Facebook trending topic as well). Pretty much everyone is angry at tech companies right now, which might explain why Facebook’s daily average users in North America dropped for the first time in the company’s history.

Social media is being manipulated. Continually. A recent HOPE not hate report, Bots, Fake News and the Anti-Muslim Message on Social Media, provides concrete evidence that so-called ‘bot armies’ are being used to amplify anti-Muslim messages on Twitter, for example.

It’s a societal issue much larger than our current political climate. But the political coverage of how social media manipulation influences American politics is still severely lacking. #ReleasetheMemo has gone from far right conspiracy to mainstream political freakout. But the hashtag’s origin and amplification online are rarely mentioned in articles covering it. Same goes for coverage of the online reaction to President Trump’s State of the Union address this week. Articles covering what people on social media thought of the speech made no mention of potential bot or troll manipulation.

We all know social media is easily gamed but still can’t bring ourselves to acknowledge that we’re being played. When I read the news about the Chicago Sun-Times suspending Roeper over fake followers I couldn’t help but wonder how often their own coverage of political and cultural events was influenced by social media manipulation. Or if they’d even be able to acknowledge if it was. That’s not a knock on the Sun-Times but an acknowledgement that all the knowledge in the world about social media manipulation won’t be of any use until we accept that we’re still vulnerable.

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