The Robot Uprising Has Begun, and It’s Happening Online

It’s time to regulate social media and put a stop to online bot manipulation

(Kristen Frier)

The internet just ain’t what it used to be.

What was once a playground of memes, games, and impulse shopping has now become the most effective platform for political manipulation as well as social and economic disruption.

This month, CBC reported that Twitter trolls have been targeting Canadians debating over pipelines and immigration policies with the apparent aim to further entrench political divisions on these issues.

The troll accounts were discovered and deleted by Twitter, but not before they were able to retweet thousands of statements from news articles, activists, and politicians. The deleted accounts were suspected to originate in Russia, Iran, and Venezuela—countries which have a stake in making sure Canada does not become an economic competitor in the fossil fuel market.

The internet has become an essential driver for the global economy, and social media is a large part of that. In this day and age, it’s entirely possible for a person to have a career as a popular figure on Instagram or Youtube, and the online ad economy gives people a way to make money off of their viewership and online metrics. Kylie Jenner reportedly makes millions of dollars for posting on Instagram, ostensibly because she can influence her high number of followers.

How many of those followers are real, and how many are bots or people paid to click links? Introducing the potential to make millions of dollars off of posting should highlight the need to verify the authenticity of the viewership. Otherwise, what are people paying for?

Companies like Facebook have been repeatedly urged by governments to take meaningful action against the spread of fake news, yet little is done. When a brick-and-mortar business can lose substantial amounts of customers and money through a bot-driven online smear campaign that lowers their Yelp rating, the real-life economic threat online suddenly becomes very real. And when trolls can influence public health by spreading misinformation on Facebook that supports the anti-vaccination movement, the threat to public safety posed by these issues becomes clear.

Responsible government could provide the antidote for online bots, click farms, and state-sponsored manipulation by increasing verification measures like CAPTCHA, or by introducing more consequential legislation and penalties for attempting to manipulate online conversations and metrics.

The practice of spreading misleading news and information through the press is nothing new, but the magnitude and speed at which the information can spread over the internet is definitely unprecedented. I recently visited the New Westminster Museum and Archives and was surprised to find that they were putting on an exhibit about media awareness and fake news.

The exhibit displayed a particularly sobering quote from Cherian George, Professor of Media Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University: “Sustained and large-scale episodes of intolerance and hate are never the spontaneous outcome of irreconcilable tribal or civilisational differences. They are orchestrated by political opportunists for whom us-and-them identity politics is an irresistibly effective mobilisational tool.”

Unless social media companies can effectively prevent this problem from getting any worse, it seems like government oversight may be our only choice for resolving it.