Thanks to the 2016 election, online manipulation is something we have typically ascribed to the Russians, but the truth of the matter is that every country and every special interest has set up an online network of bots and trolls designed to push their agenda. Because so many people still don’t quite understand the nature of the internet (this is how the QAnon conspiracy went from a 4chan fever dream to being represented at all of Trump’s rallies), these bots and trolls are able to make immensely manipulative arguments, but are able to pass them off under the guise of just another person on the web with an opinion. Jonathon Morgan of New Knowledge AI laid out what kind of manipulation his business is monitoring on the web.
Not everyone who disagrees with you on the web is a bot or a troll, but the odds of them being one are fairly high. The anonymous nature of our social networks has allowed immensely wealthy folks with an agenda to create a literal army spreading their gospel. The same kinds of folks you see paying for Super PACs with absurd names like “Americans for American Freedom and Low Taxes for Oil Companies” can take the spare change they found under their couch to mimic the kinds of efforts we’ve all become familiar with thanks to the Kremlin’s army of bots and trolls.
The bottom line is that anyone with serious money and motivation can affect the online conversation. The simple nature of hashtags enables these networks to amplify certain ones by having their litany of bots and trolls tweet it out. The problem is when real journalists see those topics becoming popular on Twitter’s platform, and they assume that means there is some level of organic enthusiasm around whatever is being promoted—when in reality, it’s a bunch of machines working overtime to push out the same message. New Knowledge AI has built an entire business around highlighting this kind of manipulation, and they found that 270 million Facebook accounts are fake as well as 70 million Twitter accounts. Here’s the real kicker: it is 70% more likely for false news to be shared than true.
So if you see some online account posting a lot of incredibly hyperbolic stuff around the Kavanaugh confirmation—or really any divisive political issue for that matter—take a step back and ask yourself who this account is what they potentially stand to gain. If you can’t ascertain the veracity of the former, then the latter may answer itself. Our oligarchs have figured out how to weaponize the web against us, and it’s not just the Russians we need to be vigilant in looking out for. It’s everyone with money and an agenda. Welcome to the Web 2.0.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.