Rise Of The Fake Audience
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In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, many analysts have worried about the pervasive presence of fake news. Although this is a serious problem, most people don’t realize that this disinformation was widely propagated by the “fake audience.”
The fake audience is composed of dishonest propagandists who control phony online identities (sockpuppets) and artificially intelligent entities (bots) who pretend to be real human beings. In both instances, those who control these entities are determined to convince other members of the online community that they are ordinary citizens.
Propagandists have deployed sockpuppets and bots in an attempt to achieve a staggering variety of objectives, including: influencing election outcomes, demoralizing, discrediting and isolating political opponents, hijacking public opinion polls, reorganizing the news agenda, and disseminating propaganda and disinformation. Any one of these things would provide sufficient grounds for concern, but the larger problem is the fact that these technologies represent a fundamental attempt to strip power away from authentic, human audiences.
We live in an era in which people are deeply skeptical of traditional media outlets. For many people, user-generated content on social media networks is viewed as trustworthy because it is supposedly untarnished by corporate influence and government manipulation. When we get our news from social media, we are actually getting our news from the social media audience. Increasingly, this audience includes insincere users and deceptive bots who are intent on tricking us for political gain.
The fake audience also threatens online community. In online discussion forums on sites like Reddit, users come together to share personal stories, fears, jokes, and theories about the world. Most participants conceal their real-world identities with fanciful user names, but people have traditionally expected a certain amount of authentic self-expression in these digital spaces.
Fake audiences have been fueled by two essential characteristics of our global computer networks. First, the fact that users can precise their identity when surfing online has made it possible for people around the world to communicate with each other about a wide range of sensitive topics. Many scholars argue that the right to be anonymous is at the heart of truly ‘free’ speech. Second, global computer networks are highly accessible. Communication tools such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Gmail, Tumblr, and Instagram are freely available to anyone who has an Internet connection.
Today’s global Internet would never have emerged if not for anonymity and accessibility. Sadly, these characteristics have been consciously exploited by deceptive entities who deploy the fake audience for financial and political reasons.
Some politicians have argued that the threat of the fake audience warrants more draconian online regulations. According to this view, we should protect the greater good by making anonymity impossible and reducing accessibility of the Internet. This would be a serious mistake.In order to counteract the rise of the fake audience, we must urge social network providers to implement sensible solutions that don’t trample on the rights of users, and we must teach global citizens how to know when they are interacting with artificial entities.
Rather can shutting down freedom and anonymity, we can learn how to tell the difference between the real and the contrived. Just as acts of physical terrorism should not stop us from gathering for parades, concerts, and public demonstrations, the existence of the fake audience should not cause us to abandon the democratic aspirations which led to the creation of the Internet in the first place.