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Saturday, June 25, 2011

Politi-Bots

"I don't know what to make of it," I said. "I asked our tech people to check the IPs of the suspicious postings, but they said the IPs were all over the place." I reached for a piece of chocolate chip cookie in the tub on the roundtable. Melanie, one of the local news writers, always brought cookies to the editorial meeting. They were ostensibly for all of us, but we all knew they were intended to cuddle favors with the handsome, glamorous foreign correspondence Jan, who recently returned from the middle east to enjoy a bit of R&R.

"You know, now that you've mentioned it, I think I've seen a lot of the same kind of postings like you've seen!" Tom said. He covered congressional news. "And, like you said, they sprung up only a month ago or so. I haven't picked it up until now because, well, you know, my pieces always attract the most lunatics, so I wasn't paying much attention. But yeah, there has been a surge of crap recently and, uh, like you said, there is something 'off' about them."

I nodded, glad to have someone to confirm that I was not going crazy. "Of course, you and Eddie attract the most wingnuts as a rule, but my financial column too? That's just weird."

"I'll have to ask the IT people whether I am getting more comments lately," said Eddie. "If I am, maybe there is something weird going on."

Eddie wrote editorials, so he was always an easy target for shit-dumping in the online comments. He never read them, but Tom and I did monitor the online comments posted under our own articles, mostly because we got much fewer. Sometimes I wished I didn't have the compulsion to read the postings that bashed me or spewing crap, but there was something irresistible in seeing that there were people not only read my news stories but even cared enough to leave comments, even if at least half of the commenters were a few sandwiches short of a picnic. The boss also loved comments, regardless of their degree of stupidity, because the number of comments was one of the indicators of the newspapers popularity. It mattered to our advertisers.

"Can you be more specific about what exactly is 'off' about these comments?" Rick, our chief, spoke in his soft and slow Southern drawl. Yes, he was a Texan and an editor-in-chief of a liberal-leaning newspaper, which confirmed that geographic generalization is unreliable.

I scratched my head. "It's hard to pin down, but ... Well, first of all it's just the sheer volume. The number of comments under my stories have more than tripled from the average three months ago. Second, they sound eerily similar. They don't really sound like they were written by the same person, but the tone is, I don't know, similar. There is something stiff about them, especially when you look at them together. Also, they are rarely relevant to the actual story, but rather just repeat some general partisan talking points. You know, like 'Liberals hate America' and 'Another socialist who wants to rob your hard-earned money,' even though the story might be about the interest rate or something."

"Wait a minute," said Melanie. "You've reminded me of something I read in this New Yorker. It's about a shadow army of writers who are hired by the government to put out pro-government or anti-dissident messages on the Internet."

"What?" Tom and I said simultaneously.

"Are you saying you don't read The New Yorker?" Melanie winked at us. "Go find it yourself. Basically, the government has hired a lot of people to covertly go to all the large discussion forums and 'manage public perception'."

"Like pushing propaganda?" I asked.

"Not exactly . If they just repeat the government line, other people would immediately pick up their real identity. Instead, they've developed some very sophisticated tactics to manipulate and misdirect public sentiment, especially in the online environment. Like, if a lot of people are complaining about a new policy, they would come in and twist the subject to redirect their anger toward foreign countries or the business community, or something. I don't remember all the specifics. Go read it yourself."

A chill went down my spine. "No kidding," I said, chewing my lower lips and thought about the comments I had seen. "Indeed it sounds kind of familiar ..."

"There's more," Melanie said. "I was curious and e-mailed the reporter who wrote the piece."

I glanced at Jan and saw a glint in his eyes as he looked at Melanie.

"He said he heard a rumor that the Chinese government has created a program, or maybe a number of programs, that send out a lot of Internet bots to do the same thing, which used to be done entirely by humans. But that was unconfirmed, so he could not put it in the article."

"Can they do that? Comments by bots instead of humans?" Tom was incredulous. "Do they have the technology to create comments like human chatters? That's impossible!"

"Really? Do you think the online chatters you see nowadays are so intelligent and uniquely thoughtful?" Eddie interjected with a sarcastic smile. "I'd believe it --- most of the comments left on our Web site are bots, or humans, or a machine that randomly put words together, whatever. I can't tell the difference. Can you?"

We fell silent. "If they can do it, bots are a lot better than humans," I thought out loud. "They don't require continual salaries, they absolutely follow orders, and they keep their mouths shut."

"Call me crazy. Call me a conspiracy theorist. But I just thought of something," Melanie said. "The head of the fox party is married to a Chinese woman with extensive ties to the Chinese government, and the recent flood of comments are all pro-fox party, from what you said, aren't they?"

Tom and I looked at each other and nodded. "Pro the fox party or against their 'enemies', or both," I said.

"What should we do, if all this was true?" Eddie turned to ask Rick.

"Nothing," Rick shrugged. "There is nothing we can do, even if we can prove it, which I doubt. But also there is that first amendment."

"Bots aren't people," I protested. "They have no right to claim the first ..."

"Corporations have every right humans have," Rick cut me off. "You've already lost. Besides, on the Internet, what's the difference between humans and bots anyway?"

The room sank into silence again.

"Cheer up, at least our Web traffic is up, and the comments will help us get the Viagra account. Maybe you'll all get a raise in December." Rick got up and said, "Go back to work."

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