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The Bots are Evolving — Trolling and “Poisoning The Well” in the Political Space


Ryan Tanaka
YouTube version of this article here!

Hey folks, my YouTube channel and website (YIMBY Arts) has been doing fairly well so far, growing along side Andrew Yang’s popularity in his presidential campaign, which has been my main topic of focus as of the late. And according to him and his campaign staff, “we’re only getting started.” 2020 is looking like good year, for both myself, the YIMBY movement, and Andrew Yang himself.

As time goes on, though, I have noticed an increase in bot/trolling activity — both in my channel and inside the Yang campaign itself. Because of my involvement with YIMBY (Yes-In-My-Back-Yard) politics over the last several years, I’ve gotten used to having these sorts of people around (not by choice, mind you) so it did not surprise me much when they started popping up inside Andrew’s campaign as well.

Because of this, I’m registering my channel, and all sites related to the YIMBY Arts project under the FBI’s watch-list and other counter-cyberterrorism agencies for monitoring — they’ve known about this problem for a while, and it would be helpful for them to see how these things work in practice during an active political campaign. The problem with banning bots is that all they have to do is create a new account with a fake email and just go right back at it again — but perhaps if the possibility of them knocking on your door and facing jail time was there, maybe they might think twice about what they’re actually doing.

(And to the bots reading this, the longer you hang around my channel the higher the chance you will get caught, so just a friendly warning to you there — you probably already know that the people looking into these sorts of activities aren’t the nicest of people, to say the least.)

I take these sorts of issues very seriously because it has been incredibly damaging to the social fabric of American politics, and they are one of the prime reasons why we’re so politically polarized and are having trouble reaching across the aisle to actually get things done. If you consider yourself to be an American, this is not a good thing, on any level. Will explain in more detail, below.

What is a Bot?

I’m pretty sure some online trolls like to think themselves as some sort of James Bond incarnate, but the reality is pretty much the exact opposite. Trolls are disposable “bombs” that agencies use in order to “poison the well” of political conversations elsewhere.

From here on out I’ll be using the terms “bots” and “trolls” interchangeably, since in practice, there is very little difference between the two. Bots aren’t some super-advanced Artificial Intelligence system designed for political sabotage — there’s actually a real person behind the screen pulling the strings on what they do and say online. But because these folks are basically incapable of having a conversation outside of parroted talking points, they will appear to be mechanical — which is more scary, a robot that acts like a human, or a human that acts like a robot?

Personally, I find the latter a lot more disturbing than the former because a human being who has lost their humanity is capable of doing so much more damage than any AI can hope to do. Why bother making a powerful General AI system when you can get the same result from breaking a person down in order to do your bidding?

The profile of a typical bot is that they’re somewhat tech savvy (but not enough to get a good job), usually young/male, and “homegrown”. There have been attempts at online political sabotage from abroad, but a lot of agencies have given up on this tactic since foreign agents tend to have trouble blending in culturally with the local population. Most places have found it much more effective to trick disgruntled people who live locally since they know the lingo and language already — using ideology and identity politics as a platform, they can spread information and misinformation at will, without the high costs and paper trails that come with training the next James Bond.

And if a bot happens to get caught, official organizations can defame and deny connections to them since they specifically target people society considers them to be “losers”— this is the cyber-warfare version of “sending your kids off to war” — like real-life robots, the trolls are seen as a disposable resource in the battle to winning the hearts and minds of the American voters at large. I do think that most Americans have been naive about what has been going on in the background of social media platforms, but maybe it’s time that we talk about these things more openly and honestly.

The Soviet Union used to do these types of things all the time — often targeting socialist and far-left leaning groups in order to “poison the well” of political conversations people were having at home. What we have today is basically the same thing, except that the conversations are now happening online. While agencies like Cybercommand (of various military organizations), the FBI, NSA, and CIA have known this for a while, there haven’t been any evidence that the current crop of politicians in Washington DC knows how these things actually work — hence, the out of control situation that we have today.

Where Are the Bots Coming From?

This was Gabbard’s response after Hillary Clinton implied that Tulsi was “propped up by the Russians” — her polling numbers started to surge after this moment, which is an indicator of how unpopular the DNC is right now.

If you’ve been paying attention to the democratic primaries in any form, you probably have noticed that there’s been a little — tension, shall we call it — between Tulsi Gabbard and Hillary Clinton as of the late. It all started after Gabbard embarrassed Kamala Harris during the second debate when she called her out on her prosecution record over marijuana offenses. Clip below:

After this moment, Kamala Harris’ campaign started to tank sharply — dropping from 15% to the low single-digits that it is today. Gabbard has actually surpassed Harris in a few recent polls and is expected to make the Novement/December debates as well.

After this moment in the debate, the rumor that Gabbard’s campaign was “propped up” by “Russian Assets” started to emerge — Harris was basically accusing Gabbard, a currently serving and decorated war veteran that served two tours — of basically being a traitor, a crime punishable by death if found guilty. It was mind blowing to a lot of people that a candidate of her stature would throw these accusations around so lightly, and without evidence. To make things worse, evidence has surfaced that the data behind the “Russian Plant” narrative itself may have been fabricated by an agency with less than noble intentions themselves. There is lots of money to be made in telling people what they want to hear, after all.

As mentioned above, most “bots” are actually “homegrown” agents, but where is their support really coming from? Is it Russia, or something more malicious? But the reality is that after having faced an embarrassing loss against Donald Trump in 2016, the DNC looked into the reasons why, and started to adapt these bot practices within their own campaigns themselves. (Article from the New York Times linked.) This is part of the reason why the recent primary debates have basically been a circus show of nonsense — the entire party is in disarray right now, affecting every candidate currently running for office on every level.

When the dust settles after the primaries are over, I expect that we will find some dirt on some of the candidates that have engaged in these sorts of practices on their own end. (Many of these “reveals” will come as a shock to some, though I do think that the majority of them will be due to ignorance, not malice, filed under “campaign expenses”.) While the establishment continues to parrot the old Cold War narratives, Americans are now using the political weapons of the 21st century against ourselves, for the petty ambitions of politicians who are largely doing it for themselves, not for the American people.

The bots in my channel started emerging when I got involved with YIMBY housing politics — I’m suspecting that they are getting support from NIMBY-sympathetic groups who are trying to preserve the status quo of the housing and zoning practices that we currently have now. When Andrew Yang says that “the Russians are laughing at us”, this is what he really means — we are fighting among ourselves, to our own detriment, because we don’t know how to keep our emotions under control and actually listen to each other.

To be clear, I don’t think that Hillary Clinton is evil — I think that most of the “corrupt” practices that occur under her watch is a result of her really just not having the knowledge of how this stuff actually works. But if you’re running for the President of the United States, the most powerful political position in the world, I think it’s reasonable to expect that the candidate should have some awareness of what is actually happening under their watch. Yang is the only candidate running right now that is taking this problem seriously so I find myself having no choice but to support his bid for the presidency in 2020.

What Does a Bot Look Like?

Example of a bot misinformation campaign — they tend to come out when you post things that could lead to real political outcomes, like signing up for a qualifying poll. The first one is ambiguous (but clearly misinformed), but can be thwarted by responding with an earnest reply, which is what I usually do.

There’s a lot of different ways to disrupt a conversation so there is no rule of thumb when it comes to bots, but generally the first thing most bots do is to start a conversation with an extremely hostile, provocative comment. (For the Democrats, it’s “Trump 2020!”, something racist, something derogatory about their candidate of choice. For the Republicans, it’s accusations of racism/sexism, incels, “you’re a Nazi”, etc.)

Because of its strong emphasis on positivity, the #YangGang is naturally resistant to these types of attacks since they often try to dismantle hostility in favor of helping the said person on the offensive. When the bot poses as a Trump supporter, the Yang Gang sees it as an opportunity, when they say something racist to get a rile out of you, they respond with “Humanity First”, when they say something incoherent like “F*ck YANG and everything he believes in”, the Yang Gang usually responds with “Are you OK?”, and so on. “Humanity First” is not only a campaign slogan, but a method of strategy of keeping the bots at bay.

The bots generally are taken aback by this, since 99% of the time, especially in other campaigns, people immediately take the bait and get into long, pointless arguments about issues that don’t really matter. Mission accomplished, as far as they’re concerned. I do think that around January/February we will start to see these attacks intensify, and campaigns that are ill-prepared will start to collapse due to infighting and self-sabotage — among other reasons, this is why I think Yang will end up winning the primary in the end, much to the surprise of everyone else.

But in recent weeks, they have recently tried all sorts of things — posing as a “cute girl” giving complements about how attractive I was (why thank you, but as an Asian I’ve been raised on criticism, not praise, the jokes on you!), posing as Trump supporters “interested” in Yang but shows no evidence that he knows any of Trumps’ policies, posing as Yang supporters attacking other supporters for things like using his likeness for personal gain (like my project), even though Yang himself has given permission to the content creators for doing so, etc.

The list goes on and on, and there’s likely to be more as time goes on. But the point of this is that the only reason why I’m able to spot these things and aren’t concerned about being on someone’s “list” is because I’ve actually spent the time talking to these people — I know what the concerns are for folks both on the far-left and far-right, I know what the concerns are for police/military authorities, the concerns for the average American out there just trying to get by. If we really want to get out of the political dystopia that we have now, we need to put our guards down and start listening to each other as a whole. The only way we win together, is to work together.

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