I write about this topic fairly regularly because the internet gives you strange mixture of perspective and pessimism about well, everything really.
Real journalism, journalism that costs money and takes time, is dying. Real printed newspapers are seeing their circulation falling off a cliff, and with the internet now being the source of “news” for many, it’s all about the clicks.
Attract those clicks and you get advertising revenue. To heck with ethics, reputation and morals. That’s in the bin now. The mission is to get as many people in the door with whatever will attract, then whip up anger and frustration. Those last two emotions are important because – when you’re angry – you tend to leave comments on stories. That keeps you coming back, that increases “stickiness” and that drives up the advertising revenue even further. It’s a big win for the publishing company and the guy that owns it.
Real reporting is dead. Instead there’s teams of lower-paid news gatherers who lift stories from Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and so on. Fact checking isn’t important – quality has taken a back seat. It’s all about cranking out the posts, as quick as you can, as much as you can. Can it be twisted to create anger, fear or frustration? If it’s a yes then it’s online. If it’s all three then it’s front page.
We’re through the looking glass, and now – the infamous “fake news” catchphrase is being pushed out by Prime Ministers and Presidents, but it’s those very people who are also generating the fake news. We’re all in the middle of a strange game of information wars, and nobody is sure who or what to believe any more.
The tools of choice range from big newspaper groups, to media organisations that support a certain “message” or social media bots.
Bots are a great way of creating peer pressure or a “group mindset”. Take, for example, this recent tweet about a school that was following Government advice regarding Brexit preparations. It seemed innocent enough – after all, the Government themselves are telling schools to ensure there’s there’s enough food and medicine for students.
The tweet and the huge amount of the responses all seemed very aggressive towards the head of the school. Phrases like “Remainiac” and “Remoaner Fake News” were being thrown around. Meanwhile others wanted Ofsted to be notified or their kids to be removed. It was a very toxic and strange event…
This person should be sacked. Spreading false information and scaremongering. Have any parents from other schools received letters like this? pic.twitter.com/jd2zDU3F8G
— SandyxB (@SandyxB) September 26, 2019
So as a test, I replied to every single one of these replies. I even replied to the original tweet itself, stating that the official advice was indeed to do just this. I thought I’d get some sort of response from the several dozen tweets but no, not one. Not one reply, no one angry response. No blocks. Then, if you look into a lot of these accounts, it’s apparent they’re bots. However, to the casual Twitter, they just see a tweet has 1.4 thousand “Likes”, nearly a thousand retweets and lots of people agreeing with the core message.
The bots start things off – next it’s time for the media to chip in. Who knows, the media themselves may have even “planted” some of these stories on social media – just to have a juicy news item to cover. Here, papers like the Daily Mail pick up on the story, quoting the bot-driven responses as “concerned residents” and spinning the story to another level with hundreds more comments. The truth, by now, has diluted so much that it’s hard to see the wood for the trees.
Content theft is rife too – newspapers and other media companies lift each other’s work. They repackage it, re-brand it and edit it into a neatly digestible news nugget that the smartphone users of today can consume more easily. As an example, this Sky News item was used and re-published by The Guardian because it matches their output closely…
But perhaps the biggest problem is those bots. You can call them “amplification tools” or “automated intelligent non-human responsiveness systems” if you will, but they’re becoming smarter by the day. Machines can now write text automatically and they can easily be injected into tweets. As an example, if you head to TalkToTransformer.com it’ll auto-complete your text. Enter “I love chocolate, especially Dairy Milk” and it’ll come up with a stack of additional text – all written by a robot…
This, then, brings me back to those Presidents and Prime Ministers. They’re able to put out a message, which has been packaged professionally, and then have the message “amplified” by fake “Likes” and retweets from bot accounts. In addition, there’s messages of support from the same bot accounts. Just look at all the fake Facebook accounts agreeing to this slick message from UK PM, Boris Johnson….
What's going on here then? Facebook ad by Johnson, comments section in unison "Brilliant Boris 🇬🇧🇬🇧" then it changes to "Support Boris 100%" – all with similar amounts of likes giving them a boost. Call me cynical but… @mrjamesob @JimMFelton @carolecadwalla @davidschneider pic.twitter.com/TuqchcZyzZ
— Myke Grimes (@mykegrimes) October 25, 2019
From all that, as a regular Twitter or Facebook user, you’re lulled into the belief that many, many others agree with the message. There’s a belief that perhaps, if you don’t agree with the message, you should perhaps adhere to the collective support that is seemingly backing the person in question. If the majority of those messages agree but you don’t, you may feel like you’re in the minority – that you’re different in some way… perhaps you’re wrong.
It’s gangs, or groups of football yobs – perhaps just when you’re out with your mates. Together, you follow a “pack” mentality and you may do things that you’d never do if you were on your own. Groups of football yobs abroad have been known to smash up local pubs and restaurants, but take them out of that collective mindset and they’d never do it by themselves.
We’re all being lied to. Social engineering is rife and none of us have the time or the inclination to check and investigate whether that short video on Facebook is real or if the tweet we read this morning is untrue. Like our “sheep” instincts at airports, we just go where we’re told and believe what we’re shown.