An Internet Full of Bad Robots

We already live in an age of robots. In the aftermath of a shooting on February 14, 2018 in Parkland, Florida, the internet sprang into action. I’m not talking about the mainstream media that filled the airwaves and papers with coverage like voracious locusts; I mean the even more parallel world of the Internet with its “fake” social media rumor mongering of malicious trolls and confirmation bias exploiting army of robotic software, known as “bots” that shape and amplify the polarity of public opinion in America.

On February 16th, Politico reported that internet trolls had successfully pranked major news outlets and their sources. Politico noted, “Following misrepresentations by a white nationalist leader and coordinated efforts by internet trolls, numerous researchers and media outlets spread a seemingly false claim that the man charged with killing more than a dozen people at a Florida high school belonged to an extremist group.” 

The echo chamber effect was instantaneous thanks to the efficiency of content propagation bots on the Internet. A spokesman for actual white supremacist group Republic of Florida the told the Anti-Defamation League it never wanted the shooting to happen. This was enough to cause ABC and the Associated Press to pick the story up and put it into the mainstream media news cycle. But none of it was true. Politico went on to report that, “a few hours later, after law enforcement agencies said they had no evidence linking Cruz to ROF, Jereb said his identification of Cruz was a “misunderstanding” and that he, too, had been the subject of a “prank.” On online forums and Twitter, trolls and white nationalists gloated at the disinformation they had sowed.”

On online forums and Twitter, trolls and white nationalists
gloated at the disinformation they had sowed.

But it didn’t stop there. The so-called “Russian” bots – they actually originate from many places, those automated click-bait programs designed to exploit rifts in opinions raising emotional activation to garner ad serves for profit also swung into action; apparently, an army of them. Enough that by February 20th, sites like Twitter and Facebook had to begin using “bot” purging utilities to attempt to cut down on the clutter plaguing the social media ecosystem. If you got asked to confirm your identity be getting an email and typing back a code into a box, that was their factor authentication utility confirming your account was not a robot. Yes, technically, that is a pain in the butt to activate. It inconveniences a lot of people and causes additional ripple effects to the social media companies as they are accused of bias in their actions. Not really. They are mostly trying to get noise out of the system to bring the server load factors levels back down to normal. They only do that when the noise density is so great it requires extraordinary measures to quell it. And no, those followers weren’t real, they were software programs named Peggy, like in that credit card commercial. Yes, thousands of them.

What exactly is a bot?

According to the entry on Wikipedia, “An Internet Bot, also known as web robot, WWW robot or simply bot, is a software application that runs automated tasks (scripts) over the Internet. Typically, bots perform tasks that are both simple and structurally repetitive, at a much higher rate than would be possible for a human alone. The largest use of bots is in web spidering (web crawler), in which an automated script fetches, analyzes and files information from web servers at many times the speed of a human. More than half of all web traffic is made up of bots.” There are also malicious bots that do everything from spreading disinformation to dangerously hacking computer databases and hardware.

Bots are getting smarter. The technology of machine learning and artificial intelligence improves daily and “chat bots” that perform automated customer services are expected to pass something called the Turin test where you cannot tell the machine from a human soon, some say by the end of 2018. Google the term “chat bot” and you’ll see a proliferation of solutions providers in the marketplace.

It’s when you combine bots with the analytical power of big data mining running on supercomputer speed class hardware the things become truly interesting. That’s when you can begin to ponder profound things.

Theory Underneath the Internet

Have no doubt this article is a policy and strategy assessment. I believe we are at a watershed moment in American society where we can either improve the lives of all our people or continue to descend into mediocrity. I intend this article to posit a somewhat bold solution to a deeply systemic societal issue. I intend to challenge people to think “outside the box”. I am deliberately taking a masculine tone here because I want to distinguish this line of thinking from the more feminine genre protective, holistic philosophy that currently dominates the landscape of mindfulness and nurturing being explored by American society. Don’t get me wrong. I like the holistic stuff. My observation in this article is that it’s our of balance with other equally important societal architecture needs.

The theory behind my proposals is what is called the deliberate engineering of the “ground” of the medium. That’s an ode to the construct of the “medium” as described by theorist Marshall McLuhan in his work that explored how technology shapes society. In his work, “figure” is the trappings of information humans emotionally react to; in today’s parlance, the mainstream media slant, the internet trolls, and the army of bots. The “ground” is the underlying infrastructure that shapes the inevitable “message of the medium”, it’s hidden rational economic wealth maximizing tendencies to put a long winded academic tint on it. The structure of the ground in McLuhan’s time was dominated by the economics of marketing and advertising to sell products by Madison Avenue. It remains largely so to this day whether one looks at the economics of commercial news bureaus or the behavior of Eastern European “bots” in US social media. The “ground” is out to make money by pulling people’s emotional strings. Emotion creates engagement. Engagement begets viewership. Views mean channel time to display commercials. Advertisements are what puts cash in the bank account. It’s a medium devoid of morality. But here’s the thing, it doesn’t have to be so.

… deliberate engineering of the “ground” of the medium.

A good example of the economics of “ground” at work is the television news network CNN. It’s coverage of the shooting in Parkland, Florida is increasingly coming under attack for their alleged attempts to “craft a narrative” using the voices of student survivors of the shooting, “Florida Shooting Survivor Doubles Down: CNN’s Entire Townhall Was Scripted “(1)  Viewed in the light of McLuhan’s “figure and ground” paradigm, it makes perfect sense that CNN would want to construct a unique and compelling narrative in order to maintain capture of audience share; it’s the economics of the medium’s core design that selling advertising to the maximum number of eyeballs is the objective of a for profit business.

Of course, there’s also this thing in the world called “agency theory”. That’s academic speak for people are allowed to think and act for themselves. And in this case, agency theory has come to haunt CNN’s crafting of the narrative in the form of students such as Colton Haab and his revelations about CNN “Tucker Carlson Tonight” producer Carrie Stevenson scripting questions for a town hall. That’s a big no-no in the rules of journalism; perfectly fine in the world of entertainment and advertising. Oh from the mouths of babes, youthful honesty reveals the dirty laundry of the McLuhan’s “ground”.

New “Ground” for America’s Unwanted Underclass, Men

There’s nothing that says you cannot redesign the “ground” of technology to deliver constructive benefits to society. There are some rules for this that present “ground” design of the information medium does not follow. The most important of which is that “you must not pre-judge what that social outcome should be”. That’s called an artificial modeling constraint. It amplifies prejudice, always in the name of someone’s greater good, and suppresses pent up needs by the forgotten and unwanted. It almost always leads to bad societal outcomes. It opens the opportunity for malicious bots to wreak havoc with people’s “figures”. And they won’t realize they are falling victim to a lousily implemented technology architecture. We can and should do much better.

There’s nothing that says you cannot redesign the “ground” of technology to deliver constructive benefits to society.

I alluded to this in two previous articles “America’s Unwanted Young Men”(2) originally published in 2015 and updated in 2018 “Systemic Failure; America’s Continuing Inability to Deal with Unwanted Young Men”(3). These are “figures” in McLuhan parlance. The outcome of a social and technological environment that discards unwanted social segments because there’s no attractive return on investment of economic capital. I mean who wants to be around a boy who is not yet a man who lacks the suave and polished mannerisms of the perfect male model? They don’t fit the image of cool. They don’t deserve constructive “ground” infrastructure tailored to meet their needs. They are unwanted. And so general society shuns them. But, and read this sentence over again until it gets through your thick head, malicious “ground” infrastructure loves them. Dark net social media and bots compete to fill the painful void of isolation and rejection that politically correct society bullies upon the unwanted. This is how you get ISIS. This is how you get school shooters. We manufacture them … because we don’t care to learn the inconvenient truths about how not to.

But it is possible to design “ground” infrastructure that doesn’t reject, isolate and bully people for their awkward phases of life. Every male remembers what it was like to be that unsure boy wondering how to sort through the confusion about how to become a good man. Every man knows that whatever outside face we put on to carry ourselves onward in life, we still ponder the imperfection and frailty of the masks we wear. And we are expected not to say anything about it. We have become non-persons, fashion accessories expected to play our parts. We are all in whole or in part, unwanted young men. It’s a stifling isolated fate. In Japan, it’s estimated that seventy-percent (70%) of men are lonely and there’s a high suicide rate accompanying the stress disorder that comes from such an existence. In America, men quietly grumble and rarely connect with each other … for now.

Creating Next Generation Good Robots;
Constructive Men-Centric Bots

In a technological world where chat bots, machine learning and artificial intelligence can construct pathways for men’s pent up needs, one could design a support structure for the other 50% of the XY chromosome hominids walking on the surface of the third rock from the sun. For societal health reasons, I respectfully suggest that it is important that men should not have to adapt to feminine social support network paradigms. Men are from Mars. We speak Martian to each other. We support each other and find perspective in what’s good and what’s not in our own ways. There is no reason the fundamental ruled for designing technological “ground” infrastructure should not accommodate systems specifically tailored to be constructive to the needs of such a large population group. Logic is that you should ask why so little has been done.

Men need each other’s support to cope successfully

Men need each other’s support to cope successfully. Men check on each other’s welfare. “How’s it hanging?” is a very open-ended question. In terms of welfare checking, the way veterans buddy check their peers that suffer from PTSD is a classic example. You can go to therapy all you want, it’s not a substitute for a phone call from someone you’d go back-to-back with and fight to the last drop of blood for. It’s the comradeship of teamwork; something increasingly missing from the lives of a modern first world male.

Males need mutual support systems tailored to their needs just like any other human. Men are complex creatures. Men are more than the one-dimensional imagery of their sexual utility, or inappropriateness thereof, in the eyes of women. The reality is that boys lean on each other for mutual support in the face of it. The activities of men bely the fact that they create forums for interaction where more important conversations about manhood can take place. Most men, the ones that lead normal healthy lives, are not the “ballers” seeking fame on the internet. That’s a form of porn, the over 50% of traffic on the internet that feeds and distorts libidos; a circus show.

The most common sidebar conversations at a gun range between men are exchanging information about how marriage and fatherhood is coming along; sharing tips and learning from each other. Men talk about husbanding their teenagers though their rites of passage. Men share thoughts on their marriages wondering if theirs will survive; fearful that they won’t, hoping for tips that might help them find the girlfriend they fell in love with so long ago; coping strategies to survive the grief when they don’t. The chats are interspersed with exchanges about work; the how men go about finding ways to the thing most expected of them, to provide. They are conversations of support, advice, ethics, hope, success, loss, and thankfulness.

Now shift your focus to the 19-to-25 year-olds. The rite of passage boy still learning to be a man. The one done with video games, experiencing his first stresses of figuring out how to provide for himself – let along others, and having awful, imperfect ideas about how to deal healthily with women. Now thrust that young man into a judgmental world intent on telling him his fate is to be a second-class citizen on a new more matriarchal planet that despises everything he ever dreamed of as a boy. It’s confusing message for sure. The reality though is that it’s rhetoric. The world and its women still expect him to learn the ways of a man and live up to it’s implied expectations; just muffle mentioning it in mixed company. Really? WTF? No! I submit to you that for the good of the entirety of society, it’s ok, indeed essential, to teach young men to become great men. This is a time for mentors, when more experienced men pass on the knowledge about what good manhood is all about. The real-world support systems for this are sorely lacking these days. And the internet provides mostly bad ideas aimed at their balls instead of their brains.

But what if you had internet bots tailored to have these kinds of sidebar conversations. What if machine learning, artificial intelligence, and big data mining helped these bots deliver knowledge and pride to men that today’s educational systems presently does not? What if the internet disintermediated the social engineering turning men into second class citizens? Would that help restore balance in the force?

To be fair, a number of sites attempt to discuss such issues, but they are not open ended interactive systems. They are prescriptive. Uh oh! Men don’t like being “told” things. Men also don’t like excessive noise factors in their discussion so raucous social media, the medium of self-promoting narcissism, doesn’t really address such needs very well either. God forbid one tweet one’s honest feelings. The avalanche of internet shaming that would result isn’t worth it. Better to go insular and suffer in silence. No. That’s wrong too. This makes the future of such conversations supporting men far more suitable to robotic assisted environments capable of creating controlled connectivity dynamically customized to the comfort zone of each man. It creates a connection to a greater whole; a new form of safe space, to adopt a term from the mindful community.

There’s a need to reconfigure at least a portion of the “ground” of the internet medium to create the infrastructural incentives to give good men a better place on the internet. Once the groundwork is in place, everything will “figure” itself out. These new bots, if implemented properly, can create constructive change. There should be bots that check up on people to make sure they’re alright at every stage of manhood, every state of mind, good and bad. Bots that have open-ended algorithms to provide awareness of norms and expectations that evolve as the community of men adapt to the world around them. Community connector bots that seek out and identify mentors of substance, as well as call false god figures to account. For efficiency, the bots should speak the universal grunt filled language of men. Trust me on that specification, it’s a very thought end-user ergonomics statement.

Epilogue Thoughts

The internet began with boys playing with toys. It’s about time the toys paid them forward.

If American bot makers don’t take the lead in this, you can bet Macedonian ones will. Just saying.

  1. “Florida Shooting Survivor Doubles Down: CNN’s Entire Townhall Was Scripted”, February 23, 2018, Tyler Durden, ZeroHedge, https://www.zerohedge.com/news/2018-02-23/they-rewrote-all-my-questions-student-says-cnns-gun-control-town-hall-was-entirely
  2. “America’s Unwanted Young Men”, Dennis Santiago, June 19, 2015, Huffington Post, (original) https://www.huffingtonpost.com/dennis-santiago/americas-unwanted-young-m_b_7623966.html, (reprint) http://www.pickingnits.com/2018/02/americas-unwanted-young-men.html
  3. “Systemic Failure; America’s Continuing Inability to Deal with Unwanted Young Men”, Dennis Santiago, February 17, 2018, AmericaOutLoud.com, https://americaoutloud.com/systemic-failure-americas-continuing-inability-deal-unwanted-young-men/