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Fake News and Weaponized Bots: How Algorithms Inflate Profiles, Spread Disinfo and Disrupt Democracy

Fake News and Weaponized Bots: How Algorithms Inflate Profiles, Spread Disinfo and Disrupt Democracy

Photo Source Mike Corbett | CC BY 2.0

Algorithms are getting so sophisticated that it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell which online comments are real and which are generated by “bots”; which sites are genuinely popular and which are generating fake hits. In my new book Real Fake News (Red Pill Press), I argue that fake news can be traced back to ancient Babylon (at least) and that today’s hi-tech fakery is merely a continuation of policies designed to reinforce elite domination, be the given elite “right-wing” or “left-wing.”

DO BOTS AFFECT PERCEPTIONS?

Online fake news has become a phenomenon. By the time President Trump came to power, few Americans had heard of the “alt-right,” the ideological grouping partly responsible for Trump’s electoral success. Trump lost the popular vote by 2.6 million, but he won the Electoral College vote. In other words, “alt-right” voters were numerous enough to give Trump a plurality in the overall vote and thus the Electoral College. How do we explain this discrepancy, that online fake news is a phenomenon, yet its main champions remain obscure to most Americans?

It turns out that bots are pushing fake news s to make stories go “viral” by sharing them among fake bot accounts (“sock puppets”) on social media. In 2011, a team at Texas A&M University  created gibberish-spewing Twitter accounts. Their nonsense could not have possibly interested anyone, yet soon they had thousands of followers. They found that their Twitter “followers” were, in fact, bots.

In 2017 under a Pentagon grant, Shao et al. analysed 14 million Tweets spreading 4,000 political messages during the 2016 US Presidential campaign. They found that “[a]ccounts that actively spread misinformation are significantly more likely to be bots.” Fake news, they say, includes “hoaxes, rumors, conspiracy theories, fabricated reports, click-bait headlines, and even satire.”

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