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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?

Nick GillespieNick GillespieWriting 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.

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  • Dillinger||

    >>> I find myself using Gmail's automated responses more and more and nobody seems to notice.

    people notice and curse you.

  • Don't look at me!||

    Or maybe he is just stiff and boring IRL.

  • Eddy||

    Sounds great!

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Now I wonder how many of those Reason posts from Gillespie which I enjoyed so much were actually authored by Google.

  • $park¥ The Misanthrope||

    The squiggly lines in the accompanying picture lets you know that it's a Gillespie original.

  • Dillinger||

    looks in mirror, "likes an image".

  • Westmiller||

    It's really no more sinister than the old telephone answering machines.
    Automating responses *is* a human activity. That's why you smile at strangers in public.

    The "bot farms" don't really affect average users; they simply defraud advertisers. That's what the 60% of clicks is intended to do: induce payment for something of zero commercial value.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    I knew Gillespie's jacket was a bot.

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    Gillespie's the bot. The Jacket is sentient.

  • Eddy||

    I make $340 an hour sending my bots into the Internet to click on clients' pages. It massively inflates their page count because...

    I like big bots and I love to lie

  • John||

    It matters in that it shows internet advertising to be a complete sham. Companies are paying for internet advertising based on the number of views their ads are getting but a large portion or maybe even a majority of views are by bots and not actual customers. A huge part of the internet economy is driven by advertising dollars. It doesn't look to me like these dollars are being very well spent at all. If they are not, then it is only a matter of time before companies figure this out and stop spending their advertising budgets on internet ads. When that happens, the internet is going to become a whole lot less profitable.

  • James Pollock||

    I think you're exaggerating.
    Mass advertising doesn't always produce sales; in fact, the majority of ad impressions don't produce immediate results.

    Advertisers know approximately how many conversions they get from X number of impressions. It just turns out that some of those impressions aren't real... but they're making ad buy decisions based on conversions, not impressions.

    Another problem is repetition. If I bought 10,000 impressions, did I get 10,000 people once each, or one person 10,000 times?

    I suspect that fraudulent impressions are just being misinterpreted as duplicate impressions.

  • JFree||

    A lot of advertising us yes brand advertising rather than direct sale. But bots give even less of a damn about your brand than they are likely to click thru and clog up your shop with what looks like an attempted sale. And the internet has proven to be a crappy environment for building brand for humans too.

    John is right. The entire ad-based model on the Internet is not only a scam; it is dangerous for any notion of society. The human is not evolved to deal with everyone else anonymously and locationless behind a screen. And we will never evolve there since that in that environment we will all kill each other long before that happens.

    Unfortunately Silicon Valley and the entire VC world that was built up by tech has zero chance of ever breaking that model or even really challenging it. Nor does the brick/mortar world that depends on that ad model actually working have a chance of challenging it with competition because the current tech environment is more nihilist than anything. And since tech now taps into our uncontrollable lizard brain, we ain't gonna be able to just turn it off either.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    ...something closer to the endlessly creative, weird, off-kilter, semi-insane world imagined by Philip K. Dick and, later, Neal Stephenson.

    So that's why I've been shuttling these viral videos between this timeline and one in which Hillary won.

  • The Last American Hero||

    Question - if 40% of the bandwidth consumed is crap, is that cost being borne by the owners of the bot armies or is it being paid for by the legitimate users?

  • James Pollock||

    I think you know the answer. If they had to pay their own way, it wouldn't be profitable.

  • $park¥ The Misanthrope||

    How much of the internet is fake?

    All of it.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    ^Just what a bot would say.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    ...the result of this needn't be nihilism or a complete rejection of reality.

    In this era of alternative facts and fake news, how can we not? Am I right, people? (Or, should I say, bots and NPC's?)

  • $park¥ The Misanthrope||

    When your right, ur write.

  • Qsl||

    Someone (even here I believe) made the comment to the effect that any society that can not accurately gauge its effectiveness is hopelessly corrupt.

    While this post-modern "what is truth anyway" makes for nice party conversation, it is the death knell of any society. When truth and lies are interchangeable, we are no better than schizophrenics groping around.

  • You're Kidding||

    Sort of depends on what you're groping.

  • VOTE MILES||

    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.

    .

    I'm pretty certain that progs haven't gotten the message yet.

  • $park¥ The Misanthrope||

    the Times reported this year, a full half of YouTube traffic was "bots masquerading as people,"

    When people create technology to replace human labor, why do they get so concerned that it does?

  • John||

    Isn't the whole thing a giant ponzi scheme? I create bots to advertise my site which go out and give your site hits which in turn causes bots from your site and others to come and give my site hits. So we both claim some absurd number of hits and collect ad revenue accordingly when in truth most of what is going on is our various bots going to each other's sites. Am I missing something?

  • $park¥ The Misanthrope||

    The best part is that actual people visiting a site use ad blockers so the advertisements are only ever being hit by bots.

  • John||

    That is a good point. I honestly can't see how anyone trusts these numbers and makes any money advertising on the net.

  • You're Kidding||

    Everyone here must be young.

    The lack of advertising conversion to sales has long been known. Be it radio, television or newspapers. But, advertising companies are great at convincing everyone else that their sales will jump if only the have the right advertising.

    Think of this: What happens when you hear a TV ad coming? You tune it out of course. You trained yourself to do that long ago.

    No different online. We just tune it out.

    And yet, it continues. ;-(

  • Dillinger||

    >>>"cultural and political reform in Silicon Valley and around the world"

    is a hope? neither *ever* goes well.

  • Ken Shultz||

    The kind of trust we're talking about falling apart probably isn't especially problematic when we're talking about advertising. Ultimately, advertising budgets are adjusted on the basis of how they translate into sales, and sales aren't fake. Bots writing news is strange, but the news has always been fake. It's just that nowadays people can fact check things easily, where, in the old days, you'd need to take a trip to the library (or be knowledgeable).

    Where bots really become problematic is in things like markets. If bots can buy and sell things faster than the people participating in the market, that's a disincentive to participate. That's bad for society in lots of ways--because markets make people behave as if they were smarter than they are.

    Bots are just a big downside--efficiency has a downside for certain participants. If you can't take advantage of bargains or premiums because a bot always beats you to them, then the whole buy low, sell high strategy is taking a beating for every participant who isn't a bot. The difference between your purchase prices and sale prices will be lower if bots can always spot and execute each side of a transaction faster than human traders.

    In the old days, you could tell when a market maker was using your bid as a backstop. You could call your brokerage, complain about the market maker, and watch your order suddenly execute because you complained. Now the bots are treating us all like that and there's no one to call.

  • Ken Shultz||

    Taking the trust level down further in the stock market is bad enough. What does it do to fledgling markets like cryptocurrency? Even if you don't worry about currency being stolen out of your account, you have to compete with bots for trades? If we don't see a bounce in Etherium, Monero, or some other cryptocurrencies with an especially legitimate use, that will be part of the reason why. If the primary purpose of those currencies to users is still their value in a trading market, and the market treats us all like second-class citizens because we're human, then why are we participating?

  • Colossal Douchebag||

    We'll start to see certificate authorities for authentication as an actual human being. Just a matter of time. That's how trust is achieved on the web.

  • A Lady of Reason||

    Just ignore the bots online... They want to provoke you!
    https://aladyofreason.wordpress.com/

  • lafe.long||

    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.

    lol.
    Sounds like another whippersnapper who wasn't around at the beginning.

    "that the people and things we encounter weren't what they represented themselves to be", was a given back in the goodle days.

  • You're Kidding||

    Online dating being the epitome of this.

    "Me? I'm a wealthy lifelong bachelor with a seven figure bank account looking for a genuine, wholesome, girl-next-door type"

    https://bit.ly/2rZ23Zu

  • Deconstructed Potato||

    During my brief yet not uneventful foray into Tinder, I got more responses to profile openings like "This man has no penis", or "I just need someone to change my diapers". I predict that I would have also done quite well with "Noorrrmmaan!"

    90% of girls' profiles in the big shitty would open with something humorless, overtly political, and confrontational such as "lefty and feminist and if u have a problem with that SWIPE LEFT" so I figured it had just turned into the rest of the internet and become digital flypaper for social retards.

    Back in them woods I ain't even got cell service for them sorts of new fangled "apps".

  • CE||

    More concerning is how much of the stock market daily transactional volume is from algorithmic trading.

  • Email Help Desk||

    A huge part of the internet economy is driven by advertising dollars. It doesn't look to me like these dollars are being very well spent at all. The entire ad-based model on the Internet is not only a scam; it is dangerous for any notion of society. The human is not evolved to deal with everyone else anonymously and locations behind a screen. Internet usages raising lots of problems with internet users, if anyone faces technical email issues or problems contact us for live email support at your doorstep.

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