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On the Internet, Nobody Knows You're a Bot

Less than 60 percent of online traffic is actually generated by humans. But is that really a problem?

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Nick Gillespie

Writing at New York magazine's Intelligencer, Max Read drops some uncomfortable statistics about online traffic:

How much of the internet is fake? Studies generally suggest that, year after year, less than 60 percent of web traffic is human; some years, according to some researchers, a healthy majority of it is bot. For a period of time in 2013, the Times reported this year, a full half of YouTube traffic was "bots masquerading as people," a portion so high that employees feared an inflection point after which YouTube's systems for detecting fraudulent traffic would begin to regard bot traffic as real and human traffic as fake. They called this hypothetical event "the Inversion."

Read makes a compelling case that the fakery is particularly strong when it comes to audiences for stuff that's being sold. You can be relatively certain that when you tweet at or email your (IRL) friends, they actually exist (although to be honest, I find myself using Gmail's automated responses more and more and nobody seems to notice…) but many businesses that are trying to reach potential consumers are being royally scammed.

These days, the Times found, you can buy 5,000 YouTube views—30 seconds of a video counts as a view—for as low as $15; oftentimes, customers are led to believe that the views they purchase come from real people. More likely, they come from bots. On some platforms, video views and app downloads can be forged in lucrative industrial counterfeiting operations. If you want a picture of what the Inversion looks like, find a video of a "click farm": hundreds of individual smartphones, arranged in rows on shelves or racks in professional-looking offices, each watching the same video or downloading the same app.

Read runs through how businesses, content, politics, and even people are "fake" in one way or another (Facebook is currently being sued by advertisers who claim the tech giant inflated watch times of videos by as much as 900 percent).

His article is a sobering and obvious revelation that much of what we browse, engage, and interact with is in some fundamental way, total bullshit running the gamut from automated accounts on Twitter to clickbait content that is never really "authored" or read by anyone, to the burgeoning world of "deep fakes" (including but not limited to slapping your favorite pol or movie star in a porn scene).

I'm not sure the solution is to seek out some pre-Inversion authenticity—to red-pill ourselves back to "reality." What's gone from the internet, after all, isn't "truth," but trust: the sense that the people and things we encounter are what they represent themselves to be. Years of metrics-driven growth, lucrative manipulative systems, and unregulated platform marketplaces, have created an environment where it makes more sense to be fake online—to be disingenuous and cynical, to lie and cheat, to misrepresent and distort—than it does to be real. Fixing that would require cultural and political reform in Silicon Valley and around the world, but it's our only choice. Otherwise we'll all end up on the bot internet of fake people, fake clicks, fake sites, and fake computers, where the only real thing is the ads.

This is a roundabout way of saying that we're living not in the disintermediated, utopian world chronicled in the early days of Louis Rossetto and Jane Metcalfe's Wired, but something closer to the endlessly creative, weird, off-kilter, semi-insane world imagined by Philip K. Dick and, later, Neal Stephenson. Which is to say, we're actually living in the world dreamed by Edgar Allan Poe in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, in which "it becomes harder and harder for [the eponymous protagonist] to trust his senses about the most basic facts, such as what side of a piece of paper has writing on it."

As Max Read suggests, the result of this needn't be nihilism or a complete rejection of reality. But he's wrong to think that there will ever be the sort of "cultural and political reform in Silicon Valley and around the world" that will banish fakeness from the web and allow us to get on with our lives in less-complicated, straightforward ways. That's partly because much of what is "fake" online—beyond the obvious automated scams and traffic and apparent lying by companies such as Facebook—is a reflection of the epistemological plenitude that is enabled and empowered by the good and glorious internet. The exact same thing happened when the printing press was invented, especially when various forms of licensing laws went out the window and any nutbar could publish and disseminate his or her version of the truth as they saw it. Finally we could worship god (or not) as we saw fit and start to live however the fuck we wanted to! When the crown and the church were replaced not by no rules but a proliferation of new, opt-in, voluntary rules about how best to live, the modern world started.

It turns out that we truly do see the world in very different ways and we can express those differences and build world views and communities and coalitions and movements based on that. Our realities do, in fact, differ in serious and significant ways that will never and should not be subjected to any sort of final adjudication or ruling. Who is going to convince Alice Walker, say, that lizard-theorist David Ickes is batshit crazy? Who needs to, ultimately, as long as nobody is forced to go along for the ride?

Certainly we know that most attempts, especially if they are done with the force of law, to designate fake news from real news, hate speech from worthy speech, etc., will be poorly applied, repressive, and ultimately arbitrary. Laws against fraud are good things and will always remain in force, even if fraud is not always obvious and sometimes a matter of opinion. If you're selling shit as 100 percent Shinola, your dupes have a right to their money back! If you're selling shit as a supplement that will fix what ails you, I'm not so sure that caveat emptor isn't the right approach.

As heirs to Enlightenment, libertarians especially should prize and honor the use of rational discourse and analysis in the public sphere. But we should also recognize the limits of knowledge and all the ways that top-down controls run toward hubris. We should cheer all the overlapping ways that people are creating different opt-in ways of authenticating the truth and reality of what we read, buy, and believe. Let a thousand Good Housekeeping Seals of Approval bloom and let them cover everything from financial transactions to software being virus-free to this author actually existing as a living, breathing human being!

But in the end, the only solution to the great explosion of everything that the internet enables is for each of us to do constant hardware, firmware, and software upgrades on our bullshit detectors. The truth is out there, but so is truthiness, and total horseshit, too. It's up to each of us to bring our A game if we're ever going to find the pony buried underneath.