Bots and the Alt Right: A-Social, social media midgets Or don’t feed the Ultrabots

A few months ago I wrote a short piece describing recent research into the phenomena of the so-called Robot army behind the efforts of the Chinese government to manage social media in that country. I was particularly struck at the time by the strong similarities between all those people — millions of people, required to deliver social media content as unpaid labour and the army of people, including myself, producing digital social media material in the western economies.

In the meantime the activities of Russian, Indian and US originated Bots that contributed to the US presidential campaign has come to light and become more widely recognised. While working on the detection of Twitter Bots that were deployed to influence the outcome of the UK referendum on EU membership we came across a number of accounts that our statistical tools strongly suggested were automated or Twitter Bot accounts. However because they were outliers we looked more closely at their output hoping to learn more about the limitations of our methods and changes in the behaviour of the companies and organisations that sell and deploy Bots. Much to our surprise we found an army of Twitter users not-unlike that deployed by the Chinese government. They are individuals who spend many hours undertaking what we must presume to be unpaid labour producing social media material for right wing causes.

Two examples of this kind of person serve to illustrate what they look like and what it is they are doing. Our first account belonged to a retired gentleman living in the UK who was producing in excess of 300 tweets and not all of them retweets, of right wing views — all across the day and every day. This had been going on for several years before we found him. A retired gentleman with a passion for steam railways he has expended many thousands of hours on his labours in the last several years. Note — we did not find anyone with what could be called a liberal perspective whose social media history looked like this gentleman but we did find many more like him on the right.

My second example is drawn from a recent article on Buzzfeed in which a 16 year old from Minnesota is quoted as believing that people “have the right to preserve their genetic, racial, and cultural identity”. The article reports “He said that his parents are aware he spends his time helping organize troll campaigns.” He himself is quoted as saying “Oh, I’m quite open about most of my trolling,” “Most of my friends meme.” Again the article reports him as confirming that “users think it’s fun and want to disrupt society”. The handiwork of the group of Trolls ‘swarming’ around French newspaper sites and Facebook pages in an effort to speed the success of Trumpism is there for all to see.

As a result of these and many other sources of evidence it has become apparent to me that the ultra-right, I cannot call them Alt-right because their not, has (or is) a similar Robot army to that maintained by the Chinese Government. A large number of unpaid people who are exercising their democratic right (as they see it no doubt) to be boring and/or rude and stupid on Social Media. The sophistication of their efforts to spread disruption and the technologies they deploy are advancing all the time. Certainly as fast as the methods deployed by academic researchers to locate Political Bots. Yet I find this discovery to be strangely comforting during these turbulent times. I share my thoughts because I think others may feel as I do, that in understanding this modern plague of digital locusts we can get on with getting on.

I will begin by setting out the good news; the Ultraright Robot army is not a powerful caucus of angry people who, if denied the opportunity to tear apart the democracies one by one will take to the streets armed to the teeth to overwhelm those of us with whom they are forced to disagree with so often and at least on screens — so violently. No, the good news is that they will not take to the streets and march in London, Paris, or Washington as we have just seen millions of women do during the Trump inauguration. The reason is straightforward enough, Social media is there home and they are already marching, every day with ferocious application. In fact my point is this, they are ‘on’ social media because that is the platform which affords them the easiest and best place to act as they do — it is home to such people. Public spaces are not their home because they are intrinsically not social beings, not even to socialise in large numbers with another. This claim is reflected and evidenced in the what and how of their on-line activities. Academic researchers have clearly identified two distinct patterns of activity in the social media discourses of the left and right. The preferred manner of expression of the Ultrabot is best described as busy vituperation, as a form of relaxation and enjoyment. A practice unencumbered by evidence, argument and reason. Because that is not the point or the pleasure of the ultrabot protagonist. Their arguments, such as they are, are designed to offend and upset, they are built from the sand of bogus comparisons, canned memes, name calling and so forth, all laced with one or more of their preferred condiments such as racism, misogyny, bigotry and plain meanness to (some) others. It is as a source of pleasure that we will find their prime motivation, they are individuals who enjoy and are energised by upsetting and offending people who are not like themselves. By acting out in a medium where they can have contact with others but not in person, they can enjoy expressing themselves in ways that they are unwilling or unable to do in the presence of others. In large part their reward is recognition and response from those they encounter on-line. Best of all they seem to enjoy the anger of those they see as their best target. Thoughtful, caring and socially oriented people who are foolish enough to attempt to engage with another human being in order to identify problems, exchange ideas and develop dialogue. To the extent that Ultrabots can engage with and offend such a person then they have truly been rewarded for their efforts.

The second aspect of this ‘good’ news concerning Ultrabots, has its both its positive side (for the rest of us) and its downside. It is clear that people with limited interpersonal resources (by choice or not) who seek enjoyment from spending many hours a day feeding their twitter account (for example) and who display restricted empathy for their fellow human beings will not tend to be happy. They don’t sound happy, their life doesn’t always appear to be one that could produce happiness — even were everyone to follow their requirement that we all have joyless (and few) relationships in a world policed by the arcane bigotries required to prop up the social position of the lonely white male — of whatever age. And of course we would all need to stop caring for one another. In short, the good news is that by and large, even after a spate of hateful triumphalism, they will still be miserable. The downside is they will still be miserable. So they will repeat the behaviour. Again and again.