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Trolls, bots, bushfires and climate change

By Charles Essery - posted Wednesday, 22 January 2020


As the anthropogenic global warming (AWG) troops blame the bushfires on carbon emissions and farting cows, they righteously believe this is Gaia's divine retribution on deniers. Social media is their media. For the older among us, social media is something we try to understand and think we are "dank (cool)" by making the odd tweet, posting on Facebook/Instagram and even using WhatsApp for video phone calls!

We may be "un-woke", but we can read, count and think. Well balanced individuals can thrive without 24/7/365 contact with the world and talk coherently without prompts from a smart phone. Social media is a major channel for ideas, news and advertising and I would suggest that it is today's version of George Orwell's 1984 "Newspeak". AGW believers are equivalent to Orwell's loyal party members, endlessly spruiking "doublethink".

So how does this relate to bushfires? A UK friend sent me local BBC media on our devasting bushfires but, while I pride myself on keeping in touch with a range of international news channels, this local BBC news was different. They did cover the fires and not surprisingly blamed it all on climate change. No mention of fuel loads and lack of hazard reduction. But one aspect surprised me. The local BBC was claiming some fake social media pushed arson as the major factor and that this was a misinformation campaign by anti-global warming bots. Australians know arsonists are out there and may have started some fires. But we accept this season's fires were going to happen. So, are bots 'infecting' the bushfire issue?

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Will 'oldies' finally have to engage with social media news and any misinformation it spreads? The local BBC opinion piece had spotted some 'hashtags' relating to bushfires demonstrated characteristics similar to Russian bots/trolls that had 'infected' the US 2016 elections. Bots may have fed tweets that the Greens were lighting the fires to highlight the impacts of global warming. The BBC said malevolent forces were spruiking misinformation using bots/trolls. They suggested Russian and Murdoch links to these troll/bot attacks, inferring they are behind this smear on the innocent Greens. As it turns out, The Guardian picked this up and the preliminary analysis was provided to them by a Queensland digital media lecturer's examination of 300 tweets.

The technologies behind bots are complex, impressive and slick, while their malevolent intrusion in our global internet is omnipresent. Simply put, bots are automated, while trolls tend to be driven by humans. Both bots and trolls endeavour to mimic genuine opinions and to all intents and purposes look like genuine comments. They aim to deceive, influence and stir things up with the intent of achieving their paymaster's outcomes.

Whether we shop, communicate, work or play, the internet is our Orwellian "Big Brother". Evaluating the information, we receive via social media is our responsibility. If we choose to accept all that is put up under hashtags and their commercial $trillion advertising, then that's our choice. In my opinion, we shouldn't trust one source of traditional news for our insights of the world, nor should the younger generation accept Facebook/Twitter as their primary news source.

Social media is the hunting ground for bot/troll swarms, so society needs to promote a wariness among impressionable consumers of all ages. Facebook et al are now part of the classroom and, I doubt any senior school (or university) essay/assignment has been completed without the assistance of Google. But do we teach students about how to evaluate what these platforms deliver?

Those of us familiar with online media news, know that MSN's stories will have a distinct slant and that Bing search results bear little resemblance to Google's results. Equally so, left-wing views are expected from The Guardian or ABC/BBC/CNN, while The Australian or Fox will be more to the right side of the political spectrum. Some choose to get all their news from the ABC. In the case of social media, there is no choice and Facebook etc steers members to stories/links/sites that their paymasters want you to see. A big difference.

There are many global issues: poverty; environmental change; climate change (natural or AGW driven); pollution; international tension; terrorism; population growth; religious conflicts; to name but a few. Bots may be operating on the issue of natural versus fuel load versus AGW driven bushfires, particularly during future inquiries such as the Royal Commission. How will bots/trolls influence the dissemination of those findings? Will they infect a generation who increasingly rely on social media for their news?

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The Obama election campaign was one of the first to utilise the power of social media. Some believe the Russians tried to buy Trump the 2016 election. The true value of that election was global. It finally uncovered the real story, namely that every country and vested interest in the world (commercial, political, ideological, terrorist or criminal) runs swarms of bots/trolls, while companies like Cambridge Analytics mine the data to 'inform' campaigns on where to target their messages.

The internet has opened Pandora's box and blown it apart. Bots/trolls have invaded our lives, even if we don't use social media. Like any bacteria/virus, they can be deadly, or we can immunise ourselves against them. Professionals have access to expensive, sophistated software. What do you have?

In 2018 a study analysed the top 3000 websites - 66% of Twitter links to News websites were automated bots. The example of anti-Green bots for suggesting they lit fires to provide evidence of climate change impacts is to be slammed and ignored. But what if the AGW activists are running bot/troll campaigns themselves to promote their beliefs and causes? Surely Greta's puppeteers or Extinction Rebellion etc wouldn't do that…would they?

One of the earliest bots (circa 2008) regarding AGW was produced to scan AGW denier tweets and then attack them. @AI-AWG's Australian author claimed it was a benign bot aimed at "de-polluting" the Twittersphere and saving the world from deniers' "stupidity". The problem with his @AI-AGW bot was that it couldn't detect sarcasm and he eventually pulled the bot as it went "a bit out of control".

Have you developed your analytical skills enough to know which news is infected by bots/trolls and do you have the antibiotic skills to defend you mind? Have bots and trolls influenced your views on the causes of these bushfires? Is on-line commentary real or bot/troll driven and how do we ascertain dubious commentary? Personally, I strive to develop an immunity to bots/trolls through a diversity of sources, remain sceptical and avoid becoming 'woke' by social media, as it 'dumbs down' our human communication channels enough. Let's hope the younger generation has a vaccination strategy.

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About the Author

Charles Essery is an independent water consultant, who has been an Australia resident since 1990.

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