The US Election race has now settled on it’s two candidates.
On one side we have the first ever female candidate for the US Presidency (the year of this election is 2016 btw), a strong lady hindered mainly by the amount of political baggage she has accumulated since being married to that nice nineties POTUS. The one who claimed he “did not have sexual relations with that woman”, not knowing “that woman” liked to preserve semen stains found on her work attire.
On the other we have Agent Orange, an odd, megalomaniac, overfed oompa-loompa who appears to have something against Mexicans. And women. And the poor. And, well, everyone. He’s best known for his reality TV show and for being an arsehole. His chief qualification for leading a superpower is that he has demonstrated the self-restraint not to piss away all the money he inherited, which in a country like the US is actually quite a skill.
One notable commonality these two very different candidates share is their unpopularity. No two presidential hopefuls have started a race with lower ratings, serving as an example of how sophisticated lowest common denominator democracy has become.
But while both may have a long job ahead convincing their fellow humans they’re the least bad option for the White House, what they lack in sapient popularity they may be winning in other areas.
One doesn’t need to win the hearts and minds of bots, they don’t have any. To engage a bot in your campaign you simply throw $5 at some entrepreneurial coder from the developing world, who will happily ship them by the thousand. You can buys bots to do pretty much anything you like, as long as it’s ascii based and just about passes the Turing test. Something which many of the real, breathing meat-based authors of Twitter fail to do routinely.
To a campaign manager this is a dream electorate. The only problem being that bots don’t have the vote. Not yet anyway. (the year of this election is 2016). But bots do have influence, particularly on social media, that channel of high frequency info-sludge where facts go to die. The number of likes/retweets under a tweet is an endorsement figure, and few who might see that tweet speed by would ever take the time to check the validity of that endorsement. Also, the multiplier effect is considerable. Bots can be employed to push past the initial endorsement tipping point, then human automatons will happily take the baton and do the rest. This is modern marketing. And it works.
Trump has clearly been employing a bot army to bump his numbers. Bot activity can be quite ephemeral and difficult to point a finger at sometimes, but you only have to click into a Trump tweet – any Trump tweet – and look for retweeters/likers with egg avatars, or generic descriptions, a timeline entirely composed of retweets, a porno headshot, etc… I guarantee you will find a bot with very little poking. I also guarantee you will find yourself looking hard at a lot of accounts unable to determine whether they are authored by a human or a machine. Try it. It’s a fun game.
A political analyst called Paul Ruffini noticed one pattern and compiled a spreadsheet of 500 accounts, all with zero followers, who tweeted an identical anti-Ted-Cruz message. Most of these accounts have now been suspended, which is what tends to happen with obviously spammy bots – twitter are pretty hot on this – although another 500 can be easily queued up within the hour. It’s an arms race taking place at non-human speeds.
It’s worth noting that big voices attracting a large bot following is not unusual. Shakira has millions of them. Even I have 179 non-human readers. I just checked. I didn’t invite them, but they’re probably not bothering anyone. Trump and his people may, conceivably, not even be aware of his army of pseudo-followers endorsing every thought he farts into ideaspace. Although were this the case he’d actually drop in my estimation.
This is simply the nature of social networks; they are riddled with bots. Twitter is, as I’ve written before, the land of the dead. Of 1.3 billion registered accounts, only 350 million are active users, the other three-quarters of the platform being dormant. And around 14% (Twitter’s own 2014 figure) of the active accounts are non-human.
But does it matter? Does anyone care? The Hillary camp may not want to throw stones from their glasshouse, as some have already noted a different kind of peculiarity in Clinton’s online presence. Google’s search results and auto-complete suggestions have appeared to show a rather rose-tinted view of what people may have searching for. It’s difficult to believe more people searched for “Hillary India” than they did “Hillary indictment”, which has been one of the biggest stories of her campaign to date. But this is what Google suggests.
The example is from this video (but test it yourself, it stands up) which makes a cautious but compelling case, and also traces a business connection between the Clinton campaign and Google. To quote the top commenter, “this is some next level Hooli shit!“.
None of this is illegal of course, it’s just a thing that happens. It just is. Although, as her first gentleman might remind us, this may still depend upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is. Google will always argue that this auto-suggestion is correct. Maybe it was a million bots who searched for “Hillary Clinton India”. There’s some plausible deniability for you.
Trump’s followers may not care, or (to be cruelly frank) understand, his algo-following, so it is unlikely to ever come back to bite him. But for Clinton, who has been criticised for being in the pockets of big business, a little corporate truth manipulation could be severely embarrassing for her. The disadvantage of appealing to more educated voters maybe.
Tread carefully Hillary. Don’t blow it. As Monica might advise.