A few years ago a lot of people were sharing some articles about the rapidly declining ratings of Fox News and either a) cheering that at last real news was overtaking propaganda, or b) urging people like me to stop ragging on Fox News because if we just ignore it it will finally die. I argued at the time that is was the wrong way to look at it: ignoring bullies didn’t make them go away when we were kids (because getting other people to laugh at what the bully did to us was all the positive feedback they needed), and because the dwindling number of people watching Fox News were more than eager to share the misinformation to their friends via social media, et cetera. I was right, but also just a little bit naive. I got a new perspective recently when I changed my primary email reader on my laptop.
The reasons I switched from the program I’ve been using for years isn’t important. The interesting bit was what I learned after setting up one specific account in the new reader. It’s an email account that is on a domain I own. The sole purpose of this account is to be the home account of one of my side Twitter accounts. I have an twitter account in the name of one of the fictional characters in my novel series. At the time I set it up I had vague plans to promote the books through it. Anyway, the mail services for that domain are outsourced, and for various reasons when I set up my new email reader to pull that account, the junk mail filters at the outsourced place are being ignored. So ever single bit of spam coming to that account gets downloaded to my laptop. This account has never been shared with anyone other than Twitter. The email account doesn’t appear on any contact anywhere, I don’t believe that I have ever sent an email message from it. But still, it gets hundreds of spam messages every day — and at most one legitimate piece of email, because once a day Twitter sends a message to the account with “hightlights” from the people that the twitter account follows, or to tell me someone replied to a tweet, or whatever, right?
So this account is just getting flooded with spam, and you would expect that most of said spam would be Nigerian-Prince-style scams, right? Nope. Don’t get me wrong–there are some messages about “Get in on this 10 Million Dollar deal!” or “Regarding your credit account” or “We tried to deliver your package” that try to get you to click on a link and enter your password for a service they can hijack or get you to confirm credit card information. And there are the ads for Viagra or quack remedies for various illnesses, yes. But that’s less than half. The other half are emails with subject lines: “Obama treason confirmed!” or “Birth Control Makes Women Violent” or “Planned Parenthood Still Selling Infant Organs” “You Won’t Believe What the Gay Agenda is Pushing Now” or “Hilary Crimes Finally Proven” or “You Won’t Believe this Obama Outrage!”
That’s right, a half year since Obama left office and the sexual-predator-in-chief was sworn in, there are bots out there cranking out anti-Obama and anti-Hilary propaganda, and mailing it to millions of people. And clearly, someone must be clicking on some of these mails.
I already knew about the literally millions of twitter-bot accounts that retweat Donald’s nonsense or hate speech and propaganda from alt-right news sites. I knew about the millions of twitter-bot accounts pretending to be Bernie Bros tweeting out slightly more dog-whistling hate speech and anti-Hilary disinformation. I’ve included in recent Friday Links posts some stories about the role of algorithms and those bots in skewing the way the people see and understand the news: The Threat From Artiﬁcial Intelligence May Already Be Here and Maybe the AI dystopia is already here.
I had thought I understood what was happening. But it took seeing thousands of these spam messages from several months worth of spam to one account to finally connect a couple of dots I hadn’t been thinking about it. The various alt-right faux news sites, plus Fox, the millions of twitter-bots, and so forth function like spam in more ways than one. One avenue of success similar to spam is that only a fraction of a percent of any message needs to be seen by the targertted person for it to hit. Most of them aren’t seen by any individual because some are caught in various filters such as junk folders. But as long as some get through, the person is still exposed to the misinformation.
But another aspect of spam’s effectiveness we don’t think about is this: the less tech-savvy someone is, the more likely they are to see the misinformation. And studies have shown that the more educated a person is, or the more knowledgeable they are in a variety of subjects, the more likely they are to be liberal. Conversely, the less knowledgeable, the more likely they are to be conservative. So there’s an asymmetrical distribution of the misinformation, with more of the people who see it being likely to view those ridiculous headlines and subject lines as confirmation of their current beliefs, rather than react with skepticism.
The other aspect is contagion. Certain types of malware and scams depend on people forwarding them on to other people. We all had that one relative who always, without fail, used to click on every single chain email and so forth forwarded to them by anyone they knew, and who in turn would forward it to all of their friends and family (no matter how many times we tried to explain to grandpa that he was forwarding viruses half the time, right?).
The person who sees the false headline and believes it may share the false news link to all their friends by posting it on Facebook or forwarding the message or whatever. And many of the people they know are sharing similar bits of misinformation, creating the impression that everyone they know agrees with their worldview and/or validates the misinformation.
It’s not just that they live in an information bubble, or that they inhabit an echo chamber, its that they are surrounded my scores of overlapping misinformation bubbles that invade and reinforce each other.
And the fourth area comes back to that bit I said about not being able to convince my one grandparent to stop forwarding the bad stuff. After awhile I just had to give up and quarantine all of his emails. Similarly, it’s not just that the misinformation drowns out the good information, but we’re socially conditioned not to argue with some of the vectors of misinformation. And because we get tired of having arguments with all those racist cousins, so we simply mute them or whatever. Then they assume that because we’ve stopped arguing, that we now agree with them.
I wish I had a solution to this. It would be so much easier if the enemy were an army of Cylons coming at us. Instead, twitter-bots and the like are turning our neighbors and relatives into the army that is trying to take away our rights, take away healthcare, and so much more.