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Robot Trolls on Amazon: How Fake Reviews Could Undermine Progressive Politics

Photograph Source: MIKI Yoshihito – CC BY 2.0

Every big personality or corporation uses algorithmic robots (“bots”) to boost themselves and their products. Until recently, US President Donald Trump had a Twitter following of around 59 million. But nearly half of those “followers” were fake, spam, and/or dormant accounts. Twitter’s purge of “Trump supporters” was actually a purge of fake accounts. (The real story is that the President used his position to try to influence the CEO of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, by holding a private meeting in the Oval Office. That’s the “free market.”) But it’s not just politicians.

THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT

It is fitting that an entertainment industry that makes its money by selling fantasy is itself built on fantasy. According to the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance, 48% of Ellen DeGeneres’s Instagram and Twitter followers are fake. The percentage of Kourtney Kardashian’s, Taylor Swift’s, and Ariana Grande’s was 46 each, with Deepika Padukone and Miley Cyrus at 45%, and so on. It has been calculated that, with sponsored advertising micro-targeting her 7.5 million real followers, a single tweet from Kim Kardashian, for instance, could “earn” the star up to $10,000. Companies like ineedmorefollowers.com specialize in boosting user profiles, and thus money, by creating fake accounts and followers. In totalitarian China, conformity is guaranteed, in part, by a planned all-pervasive surveillance culture that not only issues social credits for “good” behavior, but allows others to see those credits (peer pressure). In the corporate totalitarian free West, apps like Klout pressured social media users to conform to certain trends in order to boost their social media “influence.”

GETTING POLITICAL

But fake accounts can have political consequences. In 2014, researchers published the findings of a massive experiment involving more than half a million Facebook users without their knowledge or consent. The aim was to evaluate “emotional contagion.” “In total, over 3 million posts were analyzed, containing over 122 million words, 4 million of which were positive (3.6%) and 1.8 million negative (1.6%).” The level of contagion was statistically small: d=0.001. That tiny percentage has the potential to translate into thousands of extra votes if used during political campaigns. In the UK, the Vote Leave mastermind, Dominic Cummings, acknowledged that when it came to Britain’s membership of the European Union, a third of the population wanted to leave, a third wanted to stay, and a third didn’t care; the usual story in politics. Using the kind of tactics employed by the Facebook-using researchers, Cummings targeted a fifth of the latter third in the hope of swaying them to vote leave in the referendum. Companies like SCL (Cambridge Analytica’s parent), working on behalf of ultra-“free market” financial managers, used psychological warfare tactics on Facebook to target pro-Brexit propaganda at many, gullible working-class users swayed by slogans like “sovereignty” and “take back control.”

In October 2018, Facebook removed 43 accounts and 68 pages linked to the Brazilian marketing company, Raposo Fernandes Associados, which was reportedly retained by far-right politicians to sway the general election in their favor. Keeping the former President and popular leftist, Lula da Silva, locked up was a less subtle method of throwing the election.

Thanks to America’s uses of Israel as a hi-tech investment hub under the cover of annual “aid,” the Israeli state is now a world leader in militarized innovation. It is not surprising that it pursues its Zionist project (by now the total annexation and destruction of the erstwhile Palestinian state), in small part by hiring armies of social media manipulators. Act.IL is one such operation. Its operators–funded to the tune of $1.1m–search the internet for pro-Palestinian activists and use their public information to build profiles which can then be used to ruin their reputations at college or work; for example, by plastering their social media accounts with accusations that they are anti-Semites. Of particular interest to them is Boycott Divestment (sometimes Disinvestment) and Sanctions (BDS), an international grassroots movement designed to isolate Israel financially and make it comply with international law. But Act.IL or similar also appear to use bots to spread disinformation. Journalist Asa Winstanley covers the influence of the Israeli lobby. Anti-BDS Twitter user “Daniel Elek” replied to a tweet to Winstanley about Act.IL, writing: “It is a legit company. There i says it fix’s polls (sic).” Umm.

DOWN THE AMAZON

Bots appear to be actively reviewing books sold through Amazon, too. Sellers depend on positive customer reviews in order to successfully hawk their products. But reviewer trolls periodically pop up and ruin sellers’ chances by trashing their products with one-star reviews. When it comes to books (i.e., sources of information, i.e., potential tools of resistance), Amazon lets people review books without even purchasing them. Amazon even allows purchased items to be trolled with one-word reviews. Until recently, companies would hire positive review trolls, but Amazon found them out. This led to a June 2018 purge of reviews, including real ones; Amazon blamed “technical issues.” Earlier this year, a spokesperson told Forbes: “We use a combination of teams of investigators and automated technology to prevent and detect inauthentic reviews at scale, and to take action against the bad actors behind the abuse. We estimate more than 90% of inauthentic reviews are computer generated, and we use machine learning technology to analyze all incoming and existing reviews 24/7 and block or remove inauthentic reviews.”

But bots are targeting lefty books, too. Recently my Britain’s Secret Wars was given one star along with this bizarre review, entitled “Kinda stupid”:

“I thought this book would be about unicorns at a tea party but instead it is grim and about the war. My daughter, aged just 5, was really exicted to get the book, and when I got it out it looked fine. It was called ‘Unicorns and tea’ with a cover showing a unicorn at a tea party with some teddies. It was perfect. So, at bedtime, I started reading it. What the… I thought as I realized this was the opposite of what I truly expected. My child was crying and I looked at my corner, and peeled off the fake news, discovering what really was the book.

But, me being me, I didn’t want it to go to waste. Yes my poor child cried the night, and wet the bed because she had nightmares, but the bext day I begin to read it in my head. It was terrible. Couldn’t say it was terrible, so I said it was outrageous. Husband read it. Didn’t like it. Wasn’t his ‘cup of tea’. It certainly wasnt mine!!

All I want to say is,

I want a refund. (Sic)”

The “reviewer,” listed as Amazon Customer, tends to review children’s books, giving them either very high or very low scores. One can only assume that it is a bot employed by a publisher programmed to undermine a rival. (It appears to have reviewed my book by mistake.) Conclusive proof of it being a bot comes from another of its “reviews” (of a book entitled, Shine: Stepping into the Role You Were Made For, by Allison Allen). The review is entitled, “dfygdsf.” The entire “review” is as follows: “gftrhvdf hfgfc v urtf ftrxrse ijj drgg ugcvv? “6” “”‘ @:7’ ‘7 –887 :7’7, ,+… ,;……, ;…-, ,, ?;,, ;:4) /965( @ ·>[]^§.” These bots ain’t so clever, after all.

CONCLUSION

In the pursuit of profit, corporations appear to be using bots to undermine competitors on Amazon, as they do on Twitter and Facebook. But this could have detrimental effects on progressive authors and filmmakers who, in the absence of major corporate backing, need the support of reviewers–at least on Amazon–in order to boost their marketability. Without it, the sales of their books and films suffer and their message goes unheard. The use of bots is another example of how corporate greed has knock-on political consequences.

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T. J. Coles is director of the Plymouth Institute for Peace Research and the author of several books, including Voices for Peace (with Noam Chomsky and others) and  Fire and Fury: How the US Isolates North Korea, Encircles China and Risks Nuclear War in Asia (both Clairview Books).

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