Corporate Svengalis and the Coming Botpocalypse

Kirsten Hacker
Jun 24 · 20 min read

Our minds are the battleground at stake in the new, EU legislation about copyrights on the internet. The new law aims to make platforms like Twitter, Medium, Amazon, Quora, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube liable for any copyright infringing content posted and it could change how those sites operate outside of the EU.

This is important because sites like Amazon have been flooded with plagiarized material for years. Producing a modern adaptation of your mom’s collection of romance novels from the 1970s is illegal, but it is done on a regular basis. Even new works are being plagiarized in this way. My novel was plagiarized within four months after it was published.

Suppose that shortly after Harry Potter was first published, a copycat used online freelancing services to rapidly produce a similar story while claiming that he’s never heard of Harry Potter before. He says he didn’t infringe on Harry Potter’s copyright because he believes that ‘there are no new stories’ and his work is different because it is two thirds as long as Harry Potter. In addition, his protagonist is dirty, sex-obsessed, he doesn’t play Quidditch, and he doesn’t have many friends. . While such an update might bring the character in line with present-day trends, is that legal? I don’t think so. Unique plots matter.

The story of plagiarism might be an old one, but the internet has increased the speed and frequency with which the story repeats today. Just as citizen journalists and fake news have depressed the income of professional journalists, the explosion of self-published novelists has depressed the income of fiction writers. Even if you don’t care if professional writers get paid, you should be concerned that the internet has increased the production of rehashed fiction and news while drowning out illuminating, transformative work.

In the past, people would subscribe to magazines for content curated by an editor. Today, we get content tailored to us by an algorithm. This is the reason that porn in old Playboy magazines looks classy in comparison to the stuff available on the internet today. When you cut tastemakers out of the loop, humanity’s basest instincts rise to the surface. We could blame readers for bad taste or we could consider that writers respond to the demands of the algorithm by producing more sensational content more frequently.

When they can’t keep the required pace, authors outsource their work to ghostwriters and this opens up a Pandora’s box of copyright issues. What if a plagiarist used an online ghostwriting service to help finish his adaptation four months after the original book came out. Did the ghostwriter commit a crime? Did the online service commit a crime?

One ghostwriter believes that 50% of the books on Amazon KDP are ghostwritten — most often by cheap page-fillers for whom English is a second language. The numbers back up this assessment because ten years ago, there were only a quarter of a million books being published per year. Today there are a million, yet the number of authors in the US has not increased over the same time frame. This can only be explained if individual authors are increasing their output by plagiarizing or outsourcing their writing to ghostwriters from other countries.

This is a cultural crisis because fiction writers serve an important social function. They help us define ourselves and when the world is awash with technological transformation, we need that lightning strike reality check from new fiction more than ever. Instead, we are flooded with static from profit-seeking partnerships between ghostwriters and self-publishers. The signal is getting lost in the noise and this has real consequences for our minds.

Did you hate the final season of Game of Thrones? Now you know why. The job of writing has been chopped up and outsourced to myopic ghostwriters who have been trained to deliver modular, good guy — bad guy fiction with a set formula. George R. R. Martin stood out from that crowd because he created a story in which the world drove the characters instead of the other way around. Audiences responded because he told us something about how the world works on a meta-level, but when Hollywood scriptwriters took over his story for the final season of the saga, they brought it down to the formulaic, myopic micro-level. Audiences found the result cliched.

Cliches are a sign that we detect an uncanny falseness in the image we are shown and while ghostwriting delivers one form of falseness, the most extreme form of falseness in fiction is plagiarism. Who is telling the story matters both to the reader and, of course, to the original author. On the internet, falseness extends to book reviews, claims of being a best-selling author, and social media profiles loaded with fake followers.

Whereas my book got five very nice reviews from people I’ve never met, my plagiarist’s book got fifty reviews, all glowing and echoing his marketing slogans. One of the reviewers was named ‘tulip’ and appeared to have reviewed every Amazon product in existence with five stars. I also found the plagiarist’s book on an Australian site called Booktopia and saw three reviews which had the same text as some of the Amazon reviews. The reviewers on the Australian bookshop website were from the US, Kuala Lumpur, and Turkey — not a typical Australian clientele. Perhaps my plagiarist did not know that Amazon sometimes sues those who use or provide fake reviews.

My plagiarist also claimed to have many reviews on news sites. His book was given a glowing review on Medium by a man with foreign account who advertised “Essential Ecommerce Tactics to Boost Your Business.” Does buying fake reviews constitute fraud?

My plagiarist advertised himself as a number one best selling author, but after some research, I learned how easy it is to make it onto the Amazon bestseller list in an obscure category. One author got a “number one bestseller” ranking for a book that included nothing more than a picture of his foot. Does calling yourself a “bestseller” constitute fraud?

Fake authors and fake reviews on Amazon are, perhaps, no surprise, but how easy is it to become a fake “influencer”? I watched my plagiarist’s number of Twitter followers go from 25,000 to 90,000 over the course of a couple of weeks and when I compared this number of followers to those of a truly famous author like Anne Rice who is far more active on Twitter and who has 180,000 followers, his numbers made no sense until I saw a reporter demonstrate that after paying a service 200 Euro, he could make his Instagram account go from 1000 followers to 24,000 followers within two weeks. He was even offered 2900 Euro by several companies that wanted him to help market their products. Half of the followers came from a bot that went around following others and asking them to follow him –and who knows how many of those were bots as well?

On Twitter or Instagram, fake followers improve your image and don’t hurt the distribution of your words, but on sites like Medium or Quora, if a fake follower doesn’t interact with your content, scrolling through all of the text and liking, that counts against you and prevents your content from being distributed more widely. If you don’t like what someone is writing, you could spend 20 dollars and get their account spammed with fake followers who produce downvotes or click patterns indicative of lack of interest. This could effectively prevent their words from spreading in an automated war of ideas.

Not only is the message delivered to readers distorted, but damage is also done to writers when they are preyed upon by marketing services which use questionable methods and metrics of success. A writer might be motivated to produce more content through the illusion that people are following them or they might be seduced by an email from the freelancing and marketing site Fiverr entitled “We will make you a rockstar!” As the sales rep for online marketing tools, such companies may not know or need to know the dirty work behind the scenes, but this leads to the question: is a middleman for fraudulent or illegal activity liable in any way? It used to be that such a narcissism-enabling role was filled by a Rasputin or a Svengali. Today the character is AI and corporate. I detect an unsustainable inflation of a false economy in all of this.

If a quarter of Twitter accounts are dormant accounts of real people and half are bots, that means only a quarter of Twitter users are real, live active users. For people using Twitter for business and personal purposes, multiple accounts would be expected and that means that perhaps only 20% of accounts represent a single individual who might be influenced politically or commercially. With this estimate, ~60 million accounts represent real advertising targets and if you are only interested in accounts in English speaking countries, then your potential audience may only be 20 million people. How much money and energy are companies dumping into reaching those 20 million people? Since Twitter’s yearly revenue is between 2 and 3 billion dollars — that is as much as 50 dollars per potential customer on average and that doesn’t count what people are spending to purchase fake followers and bots. If only English speaking customers are targeted by Twitter ads, that means 150 dollars is being spent to grab the attention of each customer.

Of course, one shouldn’t discount the non-English speaking population. If military interests are trying to influence other countries, perhaps spending 50 dollars per person is a worthwhile propaganda investment. Bombs are expensive. In any case, there is a major disconnect between reality and the promises of online advertising vendors. Twitter’s official statement to Congress was that they believed only 5% of their accounts were bots.

In this new, internet economy, advertising companies pay the pirates for their content and the pirates use freelancing sites to manufacture and market more content, the online publishers distribute it to an audience of bots, and the DMCA takedown companies send their bots off in search of copyrighted material — it is only 29.99 per month to have a service scan the web for your words, but who knows how trustworthy such services really are. My guess is that the bubble in 1999 was nothing compared to this hot air balloon. How strange it was that when the rest of the economy went under in 2008, the silicon valley stayed oddly afloat. I wonder what source of money was keeping it inflated.

The disconnect between reality and the mirror provided to us by media is causing an inflated sense of expectation. Kids are looking at themselves through Snapchat image filters which make them look like supermodels. Their friends are purchasing research papers and resumes from ghostwriters. They are threatened by school shootings and their teachers are walking out because there is no funding for art and music — the sorts of tools they need to heal from the trauma caused by the fake economies of the internet.

They need help in rediscovering who they really are, but our media is not doing the job. It is fueling fantasies without putting them into perspective. In short, we live in a world in which intelligence can be found everywhere, but sanity is in short supply. That is the only explanation I can find for why the media tells me that Elon Musk wants to move to Mars and Jeff Bezos wants to move to the moon.

Plagiarism is insanity because it invites disaster and I suspect that while many plagiarists are cynically trying to squeeze money out of the KDP platform, others are doing it as a cry for help after becoming isolated in a bubble created by social media. Misbehaving is the only way they can make something happen in their lives and if the misbehavior can give them a temporary reputation as a successful novelist, they are ready to take the risk. Being ignored, feeling unloved, and feeling like a failure hurts too much, and freelancing sites like Fiverr offer an easy solution, so common sense gets subverted.

Without such subversion, we wouldn’t have turned the publishing industry into a pay-to-play, bot-infected farce and I wouldn’t have had my novel plagiarized within four months by a person who had no qualms about purchasing reviews and twitter followers. Elizabeth Holmes would’ve never been able to convince anyone to give her 700 million dollars to deliver automated tests of microscopic amounts of blood when all of the experts said it wasn’t possible. Newspapers across the world wouldn’t have put a cute PhD student’s picture of an unimaginably distant ‘black hole’ on the front page. For those in the know, that was like telling people that this is a picture of a cat.

You don’t see a cat? You just need to apply the right cat-shaped filters.

This static depicts our present-day narrative about ourselves. It has been overwhelmed with noise and when we claim to see what the noise is saying, most of the time, we are deluding ourselves. People will only tolerate noise for so long before they turn it off and that is how many people have responded to the news and fiction available on the internet. People are reading less because what is available is noise. The reason is that professional writers are no longer getting paid and attention-hungry amateurs, fake news factories, conspiracy theorists, and ‘useful idiots’ are doing the job instead. Do you not like the quality of this article? Guess what, I’m an amateur and I won’t be paid for this. I’m only telling this story because I want people to read my books and I want to find out if my plagiarist got a hold of my manuscript before or after I put it on Amazon.

Stories like mine are enough to make any writer paranoid about a seedy world of slush-pile mining among literary agencies, beta-reading communities, and publishers. Hopeful authors send their manuscripts off and they are stolen, revamped, repackaged, and published without the original author’s knowledge. If the book is successful, it may rise above the noise and become a victim of its own success. Then the lucky, original author might notice the plagiarism, complain, and get paid to go away. But most of the time, the work and the money earned just dissolves into the noise.

Such things happen in the fast-paced world of script writing all of the time and that is why scriptwriters formed guilds to protect themselves. It has only been since the invention of the internet that these sorts of problems have become a concern of novelists. Perhaps fiction writers need a guild to identify the hacks who pay-to-play by buying Amazon advertising and flooding their KDP platform with anything they can steal and repackage.

Then again, Amazon is certainly aware of the problem. KDP authors are paid for each page read and if other online communities are a guide, the KDP platform has been infected with legions of fake ‘readers’ who direct profits to certain users. It wouldn’t be in Amazon’s interest to openly combat this problem when genuine authors are blindly playing along and customers are giving tycoons plenty of money to spend on their dreams of moving to the moon. Money for art, music, and literature is being funneled into a STEM subsidy, just as it has been across all sectors of the economy — with far-reaching consequences for our culture. It used to be that the Mad Men of Madison Avenue would tell us who we are, but in a globalized literary machine, we are being told who we are by foreign ghostwriters who feed platforms like Amazon.

The new EU copyright law which will hold platforms liable for infringing content is one proposed solution to this problem. I have some alternative ideas:

  • Writers guilds could be created to vet authors and combat plagiarism. If a writer is in a guild, Amazon would fast-track their publication.
  • All authors should be limited to publishing one book per year. More than that dramatically increases the likelihood that they are farming content.
  • Book-length should be limited to prevent “stuffing”. We want quality over quantity.
  • Authors who are not in a guild should not be able to immediately profit from their work. When they submit, their work should be placed in a review state during which a community can evaluate it for plagiarism.

Basically, my idea is to slow down the self-publication process and make sure that authors are identifiable. Amazon’s top D-Day book was recently called out for what looked like made-up historical quotes and when the newspaper tried to find out who the author was, they couldn’t. People should be able to publish anonymously, but we shouldn’t make it easy for anonymous authors to plagiarize and profit from it.

I can‘t find the person who plagiarized my novel. When I contacted him, he blocked me from his social media accounts. He might be a real person or using a pen name. He might be a she. This is all very ironic because the protagonist of my novel suffered from similar uncertainty about the identity of her tormentor. My novel is about technosocial evolution and electronic plagiarism is a perfect avatar for the story. Is this life imitating art, or am I just catching a glimpse of a game I‘ve been playing blindfolded?

Not only is there no transparency in ebook authorship, there is no transparency in billing. If you are an author of a print-on-demand book, and you ask a vendor like Amazon for a purchase ID number with which you could audit their system and check that the purchases of your books are actually being recorded or that the books which are being re-sold through their used-books system are not coming directly from a counterfeit, print-on-demand producer, you can’t get one. Amazon says purchase ID numbers are proprietary information. You have to trust the system. After my experience with self-publishing, I don’t trust the system at all.

Then again, I represent just one out of a million books being published per year in the US alone. From a larger perspective, my book is one out of 130 million books in existence in the world. For my voice to break through that amount of noise would take a lightning strike of historic proportions.

Worldwide, at any given moment, one in every thousand people is writing a book that will be published. If you exclude all people who are living on less than ten dollars a day, then using an estimate of one book per person, one in every hundred people is going to publish a book. Even if you are better than 99% of the other authors you see in the slush pile, you still only have one chance in ten thousand to be read widely and one chance in a hundred to experience a reasonable amount of success. On top of this, the internet increasingly tilts the literary battleground for our thoughts towards those who are willing to engage in theft and fraud.

The book I wrote starts with a video job interview in a big, bad, brave new world. The protagonist’s work is pointless and she spends all of her time talking with AIs or with herself until she is fired. She then becomes destitute and is paid to destroy plutocrats’ property. When she leaves the city, she sees another version of herself attacked and eaten by beasts. Unable to communicate, she literally and figuratively eats fruit from the tree of knowledge and gazes into a new sort of mirror which is responsible for the deaths of most of the people in the city. Because she survives her look into the mirror, she is turned into a messiah and finds out what happened to her absent father. The mysterious person who had been guiding her life tells her that he is obsessed with her because he learns from her struggles, she runs away from him etc…

In my book, the girl was named Alix and in the book my plagiarist published only four months later, the girl was named Renee. The main difference between the characters is that I gave Alix dignity despite adversity whereas the author of Renee delighted in her degradation. He depicts her getting ridden by an “alpha male” at the end of his book. We used to have a publishing industry that had dignity despite adversity. With editors replaced by algorithms, this is no longer the case. Clickbait, fraud, plagiarism, and noise rule the day with impacts on our culture that only become clear in hindsight.

Noise drowns out voices that need to be heard.

Noise lulls us to sleep while children are being stolen from their parents and collected in internment camps.

In a way, the history of music explains our present day noise. It is a sort of zooming in process, starting back at the dawn of the enlightenment when music was about everything. It was epic and depicted the world as a whole. Then the romantic era began and the music sang the songs of the individual soul. The joy, the despair, the currents of mood flowed in sweeping melodies. Then the world wars started and the music became focused even further with syncopated klinks of the keys depicting the zips and zaps of the currents within our minds described by scientists. The meaning could not be deciphered, but it depicted an aspect of our selves. After the world wars, the music got louder. If you take the words away, you have the banging and booming sounds, the rock and the roll of abstraction which has evolved into the pulsing heartbeat of electronica and a cacophony of white noise. This is the song of our dark age, but there are hints of a new enlightenment dawning. We are emerging from an intellectual bottleneck which will select new epic songs to describe the world as a whole.

When the world gets noisy, we seek out a refuge, a sort of ark for the mind.

Tolkien made the ark that helped minds survive the birth of nuclear power. It preserved our absolute sense of good and evil and there was an anti-technology message: no unified field theory allowed — compartmentalize and scatter the knowledge far and wide. People are not ready for that sort of power.

Star Trek was the ark that helped minds survive the birth of the computer. It preserved our hope that technology would give our lives meaning. To boldly go where no man has gone before.. let’s ignore the fact that this boldness caused us to poison ourselves with neurotoxic triclosan and over-exposure to cheap-thrills entertainment for years and years.

Marvel Comics is the ark of today, yet what is it preserving? It tells us that there are real bad guys out there who need to be defeated and heroes are required. Thanos and others provide anti-science storylines in which science is only good as long as it is not connected to power, but the overall message is — billionaire heroes, government-created heroes, etc.. are fighting for YOU!

What would you put into your mental ark? What would you preserve from a flood of noise?

My novels don’t have a fight the bad guys message. The protagonist submits and escapes. She doesn’t chase the bad guy, she only tries to rescue the things she loves. Eventually, the bad guy calms down and stops causing so much destruction. His destructive impulses were driven by loveless, unsatisfied curiosity. The good in my world is the opposite of “to boldly go where no man has gone before”. In my story, eating from the tree of knowledge either caused a person to kill himself or it made him evil because he hated what he saw in the mirror, but the protagonist survived her look at herself because she didn’t have such ridiculous expectations. She served as an example for the bad guy and he became good.

I think this message can help people and that is why I wrote the books, so I shouldn´t be bothered if the message is stolen and copied. I have a roof over my head and I´m not starving. The important thing is to help people rise above the noise. But even here on Medium, I cannot get this article distributed. The stupidest stuff that I write is what gets distributed and something about this article must be too hard to grasp or, perhaps it is too offensive.

Orwell envisioned the thought police as an officially sanctioned group of people, like moderators, but today we know that the thought police live within all of us. We are our own worst enemies. We all want to be accepted and so we try to like and dislike the things that will make us acceptable. Fear is at the heart of this behavior and we are all cowards, as much as we’d like to believe otherwise. When people are mean or when they turn a blind eye to meanness, the cause is usually fear and it is easy to have compassion for fear. Certain occupations are, however, not right for cowards.

As writers, we should be fearless and show the cowards the scary things that need to be said. They may sometimes hate us for it, but in time, they may thank us. When we write to appease the cowards, we do them a disservice and we drown important messages with our noise. We tell cowards it is okay to turn a blind eye to injustice and reality. We tell them it is okay to live in a fantasy world when people are suffering right before their eyes. This is not okay. There is a moral aspect to the choice to become a writer.

When I look at the virtue signaling reactions of online communities, I see cowardice. People reward the cowardly stories that avoid controversy but don’t tell us anything new. They know that will make them look like good, non-offensive people. Innocuous. Non-threatening. This is why mindless click bait has become the song and scourge of our age. Editors, curators, and tastemakers who were selected for their courage and good sense have been taken out of the loop and replaced by majority rule algorithms that feed the fear and vanity of the lowest common denominators. By flattening the hierarchy, we flattened our knowledge base and put experts on equal footing with know-nothings.

As much as I hate the inefficiencies and injustices that arise in a hierarchy, the structure does serve a useful filtering purpose so that group thinking idiots don’t end up making critical decisions. The miniseries Chernobyl illustrates this when a physicist goes to the mayor to insist that everyone get iodine tablets and evacuate and he refuses because it isn’t what the party (group) decided.

This article is a wake-up call and people like the mayor of Pripyat hate that sort of thing. They would rather keep living as though everything is the way it has always been. They would rather not know about poison raining down from the sky.

When I use hard language, I know it will offend cowards, those who deliberately misinterpret meanings in order to make someone else look bad, or those who derive a sense of power from finding fault, but it will inspire the brave. It is natural to be afraid of people who don’t show fear. They are dangerous to themselves and others, but they are the only people who have any chance against the noise produced by the thought police. I sincerely believe that if you aren’t going to be fearless, you shouldn’t be writing. You are just making noise and drowning out the signal that will help reduce suffering. That statement will be offensive to some writers, but I don’t think there is anything wrong with that.

To be offensive is to attack and a writer should attack the page with a passionate message that must be heard. I think we should take that word back from the thought police and use it with pride. I am offensive!

Perhaps that is the reason that no one will ever read my books. Perhaps the only message that will ever be heard will be that of my plagiarist and maybe that is okay with many readers.

Other readers may object because they believe audiences have a right to the truth. Fiction is produced through a uniquely organic process which is tied to the experiences of the original author and when a plagiarist poses as the original author, the audience has been fed a lie.

Although the new EU copyright law is designed to prevent plagiarism and to reduce the noise produced on the internet, many people do not like this development. Then again, many people enjoy being surrounded by noise, but that does not mean it is good for them.

There are books that will help kids make sense of their world and give them the courage to do what needs to be done to keep the peace when the noise gets too loud. This is why I started writing and plagiarism does not change that at all, it just makes it harder to be heard.

https://kirstenhacker.wordpress.com/

Kirsten Hacker

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Looking for a funny, satirical novel about technosocial evolution? Look no further. https://www.amazon.com/s?i=digital-text&rh=p_27%3AKirsten+Hacker&s=relevance

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