POSTSCRIPT / March 28, 2017 / Tuesday


Opinion Columnist

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Bots used to bloat retweets, followers

THE NUMBER of followers of Facebook and Twitter accounts can be bloated by using bots, which are Artificial Intelligence assistants that speed up social media work and multiply messages by the thousands in a flash.

The misuse of bots to make social media accounts appear bigger than they really are, and to circulate fake news, destroy reputations and massage images of public figures, was demonstrated Sunday evening over CBS News’ “60 Minutes” TV program in the United States.

In the TV magazine, CBS News anchor and managing editor Scott Pelley showed how a tame line on Twitter that a programmer fed to the waiting bots brought in an avalanche of 4,400 retweets within minutes.

To prepare for the program, Pelley bought 5,000 bots for “a few hundred dollars” from Russian website operator He noted that the resulting 9,000-percent boost in followers, although fraudulent, was impressive enough.

Programmed to simulate human activity on a grand scale, bots function automatically like a mass of humans reacting to a posting on social media such as Twitter and Facebook.

Some sellers of these instant mass followers, likers and retweeters even advertise themselves. They cater to politicians, advertising agencies, showbiz personalities and such characters who want to flaunt an impressive following, even if only computer-generated.

Pelley interviewed Mike Cernovich, a California lawyer who owns the Danger&Play website that had carried such fake news as Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton allegedly being afflicted with Parkinson’s disease.

Without presenting medical proof, Cernovich insisted that his report on Clinton’s supposed ailment was true. Written after the former State secretary slipped as she was boarding her vehicle, bots made sure his unsubstantiated story trended during the election campaign.

Another operator interviewed by Pelley was Jestin Coler, 40, a registered Democrat, who founded Disinfomedia and created fake-news sites such as Denver Guardian and National Report. On the TV show, he demonstrated how bots bloat a social media account’s following.

It is easy for a “trending” account to earn some $10,000 a month, he said, on the strength of its artificially generated followers. He said a great number of people, including those in society’s upper crust, are willing enough to swallow any story that is salacious or scandalous.

• There’s gold in them dar bots & trolls

THE PHILIPPINES is no exception. Some owners of accounts that boast of huge “trending” numbers make money by endorsing products and politicians, then parlaying their acquired influence to corner projects and good-paying sinecures.

Slick operators who spend money on bots and their army of trolls recoup their investments a thousand-fold by servicing – for a stiff fee — the publicity and propaganda needs of politicians, and by endorsing products and services.

Knowing how bots and trolls are deployed, one will not be surprised seeing exactly the same message posted by scores of supposed unrelated FB and Twitter users displaying different fake names and profile photos/avatars.

Public funds are wasted when the FB and Twitter clients are government agencies or officials misled by bots representing non-existent followers. And why should taxpayers pay for the services of trolls and ghost-writers?

The only use of the hollow but bloated figures is in helping create a bandwagon effect for popularity polls, surveys and elections.

Using Artificial Intelligence, bots speed up processes and upgrade efficiency. They take over such human tasks as manning communication networks, doubling as executive assistants, booking flights and hotels, arranging conferences and catering, and a growing number of other activities.

Sometimes bots become overly efficient. There is the story of a girl, 6, who dictated instructions to the Amazon Alexa voice-activated concierge-like device in the house. Like her Mom would, she reportedly ordered Alexa to buy her a dollhouse that cost $170 and several pounds of cookies – all of which were promptly delivered like an avalanche of Likes and Retweets.

We still see followup accounts that when the buying spree was reported on TV, some Alexas in other houses also got to work upon hearing their name and the order.

• Take-2 on Rody’s flirting with Leni

REACTING to the last part of my Sunday Postscript mentioning the public flirtatious remarks of President Duterte directed at Vice President Leni Robredo, reader Marietta Cuyegkeng repeated my question “Where will Rody’s flirting with Leni lead?”.

She said we were suggesting “something romantic may develop, since as you say, ‘there is no legal impediment to a relationship,’ then answered the question: “We say — Nowhere. His comments on her ‘Beauty, nice legs’ are always said in his usual jesting manner.”

In her email, she repeated unsavory comments on Facebook about the Vice President, then denounced as a junket a projected trip to South Africa, on invitation of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, by a delegation led by the VP and Sen. Kiko Pangilinan.

In my reply to Ms Cuyegkeng, I said among other things:

“If those rumors about the Vice President have been circulating on Facebook, I missed them since I stopped tending to my FB account a long time ago. I prefer Twitter.

“Like you, I believe that Mr. Duterte’s open flirtation will not lead to any relationship, romantic or otherwise. My hunch is that the President is doing that publicly to create the impression that he is not connected in any way to the campaign to impeach the Vice President and remove her from the line of succession.”

(First published in the Philippine STAR of March 28, 2017)

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