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Bots are hot news these days, which interests me because I’ve spent many years talking about the role of algorithms on social networks used to spread false information. The classic example I always point to is the Massachusetts Senate race of 2010 in which Scott Brown pulled a last-minute upset victory over Martha Coakley, leading researchers to discover an intricate botnet that spread disinformation about her on social media and by gaming Google results in what became known as a “Twitter bomb.”
Today it’s all about the Russian bots that helped get Donald Trump elected in part by spreading disinformation about Hillary Clinton, but a slightly different story caught my eye this week and it concerns Al Franken. If you’ll recall, last year several different women came forward with stories of Al Franken (previously of Saturday Night Live and most recently a Democratic senator from Minnesota) groping them. There was photographic evidence of at least one incident, and Franken apologized for all the incidents and eventually resigned.
This week, Mike Farb of UnHack the Vote published an article on Medium claiming that liberals were manipulated by conservative bots spreading “propaganda”, which directly led to Franken’s ousting.
Farb says that he and his cohorts discovered a network of bots who created an echo chamber that spread false information, because, “People are easily convinced that if everybody’s talking about it, it must be true.” He says that someone set up two Japanese sites with “pseudo news,” and linked to them on Twitter using the article title, “Dear Al Franken: I’ll Miss You but You Can’t Matter Anymore.” That article was originally written by Ijeoma Oluo for the website The Establishment, but the title was stolen and used to link only to the Japanese sites, which were full of ads. Bots then shared those links around Twitter, and you can tell they’re bots by the fact that they only follow one another while parroting the same news stories. There are even algorithms to identify those bots, created after the Coakley incident, and you can read more about it at the Botometer from the Observatory on Social Media at Indiana University.
Farb lays out a convincing narrative for the fact that this story was definitely amplified by bots. He also points out that a letter penned by eight former Franken staffers defending him from the allegations got very little publicity.
Here’s the problem I have with all this, though: when I talk about the use of social media to spread misinformation, it’s important to me that we are talking about, well, misinformation. Lies. And nothing in Farb’s article suggests that bots or trolls or anyone else is responsible for saying absolutely anything untrue, and that’s a serious problem.
Franken actually did grope several women. He admitted it. Bots may have helped spread this story, but it also spread because it’s part of a larger conversation society is currently having about the cancerous mistreatment of women at the hands of powerful men today, and it’s true.
Even worse, Farb’s article itself is spreading misinformation. Oluo’s article was published on December 7, just after Franken had already delivered his resignation speech to Congress. How can a botnet carry so much responsibility for Franken’s resignation, when he had already resigned by the time they started spreading around the (true) news of his sexual harassment?
Farb also seems sad that the letter from Franken’s staffers didn’t get to go viral like the story of his groping, which is a frankly disgusting thing to say. Let me make it very clear for Farb and anyone else who might not realize this: a man might sexually assault someone but not sexually assault you. Not sexually assaulting you doesn’t mean that he’s innocent of sexually assaulting someone else. Charles Manson didn’t murder me, but I’m okay that he died in prison. Get it? Great.
Over on Raw News, Sarah Burris is sad to report that “No coordinated network of bots exists on the left that is funded by Democratic donors” as though it’s a simple fact, when she has absolutely no way to verify that at all.
Yes, bots exist and can be used to spread misinformation and lies. This is not one of those cases, and it makes liberals look insane that they grasp at straws like this. Accept this fact: a politician we all loved turned out to be a prick in one specific way. He resigned. Move on. Elect people who don’t grope other people against their consent. Then we can complain when a botnet spreads lies — not when they spread the truth. Otherwise you’re just telling me, a woman, that Russian and Japanese bots care more about women than liberal humans.