According to John Markoff’s New York Times article,

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during the presidential campaign, there was an invisible war of the Twitter bots that Trump won by overwhelming Clinton’s with inflammatory and often untruthful comments. Bots are fake twitter posts that appear to be those of real people. They are deployed to bring attention and legitimacy to a person or product. In addition, Facebook appears to have transmitted  virulently anti-Clinton “fake news” from as far away as Macedonia through a contagion of “likes.” How did a few teens in Macedonia come up with this specific topic for making money?

Algorithms at Google, Facebook, etc. are designed to promote sites that give you more of what you already have, thus leading to a cocooning effect without your tacit knowledge or participation. And there’s nothing you can do to ask for an algorithm that offers a variety of viewpoints.  Nothing. On TV, you can flick through the channels, comparing Fox News to PBS Newshour, for example. You can do the same on the radio, but most of us live through our phones, where those algorithms sort us. (We are the products, in the end.)

This is gossip run amok. There’s something that is missing in the nature of online community and that is desperately needed.

As an anthropologist, I am reminded of the way that gossip has worked throughout human existence–from what are called small-scale societies (hunter-gatherer, subsistence agriculture, pastoral) to complex state societies.

Just look at how gossip functions in small-scale societies, which tend to be more egalitarian than large-scale state societies. Why? In small-scale societies, everyone’s work is essential for survival. In general, the greatest good is generosity; the greatest evil is selfishness. In these small face-to-face groups, gossip and the fear of gossip serve to enforce this essential norm. Face-to-face is the key characteristic for gossip to work correctly: people know who is more reliable; folks chat around and can determine the factual nature of any claim.

If someone is behaving selfishly, there are consequences. Because he or she needs the group to survive, the group has a great deal of power to either scold or punish. However, since everyone is needed in a group, punishment may take the form of healing rituals–expensive social gatherings that heal the social fabric.

Gossip still regulates face-to-face groups in complex societies–ask any teen counting Likes on Facebook!  Teen obsession with Likes demonstrates the competitive nature of complex society, even as cooperation is necessary.  Cooperation/competition require new forms of social control in large, impersonal settings: laws, regulations, as well as formal rewards (Nobel, anyone?). Standards of formal news dissemination, at least in a free press, regulate “gossip” that is at this larger, societal level.

Enter Bots and Fake news.

Face-to-face groups know how to react to gossip from individuals whom its members know well. We tend to trust what comes to us online, especially through Shares. My students, in discussing this topic, report the intimacy of online communication.  Interactions feel disarmingly similar to a trusted face-to-face circle, yet this is a setting that is barren of social resources to evaluate the reliability of the massive information flows that come across a personal site.    We know that those rags at the grocery store are funny distractions; we don’t easily recognize online “fake news,” especially when it speaks to our own biases.  Bots intensify this problem of creating a false social world.

Seemingly one thing, a Bot is actually something quite other.  The average Twitter reader has little idea how to identify Bots.  There is no gossip trail to discover who is behind them and what motivations may exist.  Similar statements may be said about incendiary fake news that is more appealing than the drier real stuff.

What has been created through electronic media is a sense of community that does not actually function as one. This is because the apps and programs in use today do not provide us the capability for those fully human, social responses to evaluate information and act upon our social world effectively —responses that have been part of human society since we began organizing in small bands tens of thousands of years ago. These responses have contributed to our success over time, in our travels across vast distances, and in confrontation of the crises.

This is not only troubling.  It’s very harmful to us.  Through technology, we need to create online community that provides us the same abilities to regulate knowledge and action that we have had since we became a species.  Otherwise, we not only may continue to separate according to”silos” but we may not be able to function as an integrated society. Many of us now live and act as a result of fantasy worlds that are created in response to our biases, fears, and anger. Scary brave new world.


2 thoughts on “Bots, Likes, and Rumors: Gossip’s Longstanding Role in Human Societies

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