Might As Well Be Bots

So, I don’t engage very often via Twitter, but once in a while, I respond to something that catches my attention and then usually regret spending time responding to the responses.  Last week, I noticed that Pirate Party MEP Julia Reda—the face, voice, and tweetdeck of anti-Article 13 activism in the EU—posted an odd tweet, and I replied … 

Because, of course, even if Tumblr’s efforts to use AI to identify pornography are a) accurately reported; and b) laughably ineffective, it is misleading for Reda to suggest that this folly is particularly instructive to the purpose or eventual function of Article 13.  What she means to imply, of course, is that any comparable technology, which may be used to identify content that allegedly infringes copyright on a large platform like YouTube, will result in the same kind of errors that are reportedly happening on Tumblr.  

I consider this tweet to be scare-mongering for many reasons, but here are three simple ones:  1) existing technologies currently in use for identifying copyrighted material is already better than whatever is being described in the Tumblr/porn example; 2) it is needlessly defeatist to say that these technologies can never be improved and/or supported by human oversight to alleviate error; and 3) if any copyright ID system is too aggressive and error-prone, the rights holders advocating Article 13 aren’t going to like it either.  All of which leads me to conclude that calming down is more rational than, once again, declaring that the internet needs to be “saved.”

So, Reda and I had a brief exchange in the service of nothing (i.e. the reason I don’t like the forum), and went our merry ways.  But I did notice that at least one of the “users” who liked and retweeted one of Reda’s responses to me looked an awful lot like a bot.  The account was a handle and an avatar, it had just a few followers, and its tweetdeck was almost exclusively about the evils of Article 13.  So, while scrolling that thread and wondering whether the account might be a bot programmed to RT anti-Article 13 stuff, I saw this tweet posted by a different account with zero followers…

And this prompted a new thought.  What difference does it make if a tweet like the above is posted by a bot or a real person?  Because if social media platforms like Twitter train real people to respond with pavlovian certainty to any given issue, they might as well be bots.  Either this individual simply doesn’t know that the platforms he says will be “destroyed” are the biggest of big corporations; or he is so well trained to respond to certain signals, that he’ll just remain blissfully unaware of his own cognitive dissonance.  Or he’s a bot.  

Either way, same result.  Some other bot, or mindless person, or ten-year-old child repeats the unfounded assertion that, for instance, the legislative language is “vague,” and boom—it’s now a fact.  Why would anyone take some anonymous tweet at face value which claims that a body of legislative language—in any area of law—is vague?  Because they want to believe it, and the desire to perpetuate that narrative is sustained by knowing diddly squat about the legislative language itself.

When the hyperventilating saga that was the anti-SOPA campaign peaked in early 2012, the internet giants still enjoyed a general benefit of the doubt that they had built platforms that were truly making global democracy work better.  (And that they had built these platforms out of the goodness of their hearts!)  So, all those anti-SOPA headlines warning people not to let anyone “break the internet” were understandably hard to counter with any kind of cool reason.

Today, though, it is curious—if not a little bit frightening—that even after the fallout from stories like Cambridge Analytica, the “Save Your Internet” battle cry is still effective in the current opposition to Article 13.  It is, after all, a reprise of the same digital dirge that was so effective seven years ago; but surely, this general call to arms cannot jibe with what we’ve learned over the past two years about major platforms and a number of paradigms not worth saving.

In 2011, I wondered how many non-constituents were marshaled to stop American legislation (SOPA/PIPA) in its tracks.  How many foreign citizens? How many children?  How many bots?  Because, as David Lowery has detailed in a multi-part post, the methods employed by Big Tech to sway public policy may be one of a handful of legitimate threats to democracies around the world.  And on this topic as to who—or what—is being rallied to action, TorrentFreak published a new post that misses, or purposely obfuscates, a very important distinction.  Andy calls hypocrisy on the IFPI for criticizing Julia Reda’s shout-out to children in this tweet:  

Andy compares Reda’s appeal to children to the fact that major copyright interests have often launched initiatives to educate kids about copyright and piracy.  “…it’s pretty ironic that IFPI has called out Reda for informing kids about copyright law to further the aims of ‘big tech companies’. As we all know, the music and movie industries have been happily doing exactly the same to further their own aims for at least ten years and probably more,” he writes.   

But the differences between Reda’s targeting kids on social media and the kind of initiatives Andy refers to are substantial and significant.  At a very basic level, educating children about how copyright works may be offensive to the pirates out there, but copyright has been part of the legal fabric of Europe and the U.S. for a couple of centuries, so it’s not exactly propagandist to explain its function in age-appropriate ways to groups of schoolchildren.  And given the fact that plagiarism can end someone’s college or university career, the foundations of copyright are in no way anathema to general education.  Outreach to schools on the subject of piracy and copyright tend to include the following lessons or discussions:

  1. education about the skilled people who make the movies, music, etc. people enjoy.
  2. a message that taking things without paying for them is both illegal and wrong.
  3. a message that respecting creators falls under the principle of the golden rule.

While these themes may be antithetical to pirate rationalizations for mass infringement, they’re not exactly outliers to the fundamentals that most people try to teach their kids. (Substitute creator for farmer, and the discussion will be very similar.)  In contrast to the implications of Reda’s tweet, major rights holders don’t generally engage children via Twitter to take direct action aimed at promoting or stopping specific legislation.

Though nobody can doubt that when organizations like movie studios fund education programs in response to piracy, the effort is industry-serving, but those types of broad initiatives do not compare to an elected official addressing teens and tweens on social medial and telling them (untruthfully) that YouTube won’t work anymore because of a policy those kids are not going to understand. And that fairly well sums up what I think about all of this—that the so-called defenders of “the internet,” who appeal to democratic principles in that effort, consistently demonstrate exactly why “the internet” isn’t worth defending.  


Photo source by davincidig

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