Bot Battling in the Age of Elon
Jason Johnson: This is a word, a podcast from Slate. I’m your host. Jason Johnson Elon Musk. Chaotic reign at Twitter is fueling worries that racist trolls and their sympathizers are feeling more powerful than ever on the platform. So what’s the best way for people to protect themselves and fight back against digital disinformation? Now.
Christopher Bouzy: Everything that you see on social media, was it something that’s trending or, you know, something that may appear to be popular that you got to delve into deeper.
Jason Johnson: Digital disinformation and how to stop it? Coming up on a word with me, Jason Johnson. Stay with us. Welcome to a World, a podcast about race and politics and everything else. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. The aftermath of Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter has shaken the worlds of business, media and politics, with trolls returning to prominence, advertisers backing out, and the already shaky discourse on the platform turning increasingly poisonous. But is there a way to keep social media honest, even when the people that run it aren’t? And what’s the best way to fight the spread of disinformation there and protect the people who are targeted by it? Joining us to discuss it is Christopher Bouzy. He’s the CEO and founder of Bot Sentinel, a company that identifies and tracks disinformation and targeted attacks on social media platforms. Christopher Bouzy, welcome to a word.
Christopher Bouzy: Thank you for having me here.
Jason Johnson: Tell me a little bit about Bot Sentinel. What led you to found Bot Sentinel? What does it do day to day? What is it? I mean, it sounds very cool. It sounds like something that should be rolling out with Autobots and Decepticons. But to us laymen out there. What does Bot Sentinel do?
Christopher Bouzy: It’s a platform for people who are primarily on Twitter to use it to be able to identify accounts that are inauthentic, problematic, disruptive. So, you know, they go to our website. They enter in a Twitter handle and it gives them a score and scores anywhere between 0 to 100 zero being an account that is normally using Twitter as intended to 100 where it’s considered problematic. They can also use one of our mobile apps, whether it’s Android, iOS or browser extension. And what that does for them is it also shows them the scores in real time as they’re engaging on Twitter. They come across an account that’s disruptive or problematic. They can block it.
Christopher Bouzy: But I founded bots sitting primarily because after 2016, everyone on social media was calling each other bots because they just didn’t agree with each other. So I said, Look, it has to be a better way for folks to be able to know if someone is either just not agreeing with them or someone that is out there to cause some type of havoc or whatever.
Jason Johnson: What has Elon Musk’s take over done in regards to the proliferation of bots and misinformation? I know that we’re going to be going into various versions of that, but just like like right off the rip, the moment that it was announced that he was going to buy five months ago, I noticed I had like a dip in followers and things got a little bit more aggressive. Then there were a couple of months where I was like, okay, he can’t afford it. And now he he does actually own it. Over the last month or so. What has that done to disinformation?
Christopher Bouzy: As soon as he announced and we had published something about this, you know, there was an influx of right wing accounts that started following right wing politicians. And at the time, you know, the previous owners of Twitter and CEO and things like that, you know, they had said that, you know, it was organic. It was not. You know, we saw tens of thousands of accounts just flooding in.
Christopher Bouzy: And then when it seemed like he wasn’t going to purchase it, when he said, you know, you know, the deal’s on hold, the deal’s off. It stopped a bit. You know, there was a lull there. And then when it became obvious that he was and then he did, we saw that influx again of these these right wing accounts that started just following all these other right wing accounts. The one thing that this doesn’t get discussed a lot is that a lot of left leaning accounts started deactivating. They you know, they got frustrated that he’s going to own the platform. And then he did end up owning the platform. And we saw an exodus of left leaning accounts.
Christopher Bouzy: Now, the reason why that’s a problem, you know, you have to have balance within the platform. We’re at the point where we have a lot of right wing MAGA accounts and also a lot of quote unquote bots and trolls that are now flooding the platform. And you have fewer legitimate folks on the platform who are there to engage, you know, in a way that the platforms intended. So it just seems like, you know, if you’re on Twitter now, it just seems a heck of a lot more chaotic. And it also seems like, you know, the trolling has increased significantly.
Jason Johnson: What was the piece of disinformation that made you say I mean, you said you had 2016, but what was the misinformation campaign that you saw that drove you to say, okay, I need to create this.
Christopher Bouzy: Before the 2016 election? During the process of selecting the candidates. We saw that there was a lot of folks that were going after Hillary Clinton even then. But when? She became the nominee. We saw a lot of missing disinformation. Many of us in tech just didn’t think that it would cause any harm, to be quite frank. I know I didn’t I didn’t think that it would be able to us wait in the election in the way that a lot of folks now believe it did. So after the 2016 election and still seeing this happening, I said, look, there has to be something out there for folks to be able to use it and look and know that, hey, this is missing disinformation. So that’s what started it.
Christopher Bouzy: However, going through this and doing the research and releasing these apps and things like that, I also realized like, look, there has to be a bit more. We also have to educate the media because the media also just don’t understand, or at least at that time didn’t understand what was happening. And that’s how, you know, the reporting side of what certainly came about.
Jason Johnson: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, more on the rise of digital disinformation. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned.
Jason Johnson: This is Jason Johnson, host of A Word, Slate’s podcast about race and politics and everything else. I wanted to take a moment to welcome our new listeners. If you’ve discovered a word and like what you hear, please subscribe, rate and review. Wherever you listen to podcasts and let us know what you think by writing us at a word at Slate.com.
Jason Johnson: Thank you. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson. Today, we’re talking about disinformation and the digital age with Christopher Bouzy about signal. We all know that digital disinformation could have serious consequences on politics. But what disinformation campaigns could you see heading into the midterms a couple of weeks ago? And are there still sort of lingering bots or disinformation that you see now heading into the runoff with Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker in the state of Georgia?
Christopher Bouzy: So yeah, we definitely saw, you know, accounts trying to dissuade people from voting. So you would see stuff like, hey, you know, I’m not going to vote because why should I even vote? Cause my vote is not going to matter. You know, the Republicans are going to win anyway. Or, you know that the whole system is rigged. So I’m going to take part in this. I can’t say that. Let’s say black folks were targeted more than, you know, Caucasian folks or whatever. But we definitely saw an increase in these type of accounts just targeting anyone that was talking about voting and, you know, being exciting and enthusiastic about voting. You will see a number of accounts that will come in and consistently say this.
Christopher Bouzy: Luckily, this time around, we don’t think it affected turnout or, you know, just as the overall election as it did in the past. And that’s good news. But it does not mean that we should just let our guard down and say everything is fine, just time. It did not work as well as it has in the past. But, you know, the bad guys, they learn how to adapt and we have to be prepared for 2020 for now going into the runoff. We’re not seeing as much of it. And to be quite frank right now, especially on Twitter, there’s just so much happening on Twitter right now. But we’re not seeing that level of folks trying to put out this and disinformation about the runoff.
Jason Johnson: One of the things that I also sort of noticed online, and it’s been a big conversation, especially because of Musk going to take over, is that misinformation can be neutral. But it seems like or at least as an outsider, it seems like a lot of misinformation is targeted specifically at black folk. Right. Whether it’s political season, whether it’s about Kamala Harris or something else like that. Is there a sort of racial focus of a lot of disinformation or is it just seem like because African-Americans play such a critical role in activism and in left wing politics in America, that that’s why it’s happening?
Christopher Bouzy: Well, it depends on what we’re talking about, if we’re talking about elections. Absolutely. We saw that in 2016. We saw it in 2018. I mean, we’ve pretty much seen it in every election. The reason behind that is if you’re into politics, you know, right away that, look, the Democrats depend on the black vote. I mean, that’s just that’s just a fact. So if you can keep black folks or, you know, reduce the number of black folks that are voting by putting out myths and disinformation, you know, you can sway elections in maybe certain congressional districts or even a general presidential election. The fact that we didn’t have turnout that we expected in 2016 in terms of black people voting did play sort of a role in Hillary losing.
Christopher Bouzy: So people figure, you know, if we’re going to get one candidate out or whatever it may be, the best way to do it is to target black people. But when it comes to COVID and things like that, we do see it being a bit lopsided. But to be quite frank, you know, we’ve seen COVID, you know, disinformation being targeted at pretty much everyone, you know, whether it be suburban, you know, white mothers or black men or women, you know, in urban areas, it’s across the board when it comes to the COVID stuff. So I just think it depends on what we’re talking about.
Christopher Bouzy: But, you know, with Democrats, I believe in the future what they would need to do to protect voters from this stuff is to make them more aware that, hey, you are you are a target, that you are being targeted online with misinformation. And just be more proactive in educating voters about what’s happening on these platforms.
Jason Johnson: One of the other things that I hear a lot is. We have black Twitter. Right. So black Twitter is this place where black folks have, you know, certain kinds of conversations, etc., etc.. And and some people believe that black Twitter is sort of a force for good. Right. It blunts disinformation, but it can also be co-opted and manipulated. How have you seen black Twitter affected by misinformation and especially the takeover of Elon Musk over the last month? Has it been more people dropping off? Has it been more subject to disinformation? Has it been a wailing and gnashing of teeth? What’s happened to Black Twitter, in your view, since Elon’s take over?
Christopher Bouzy: Before Elon was a problem, we call it something, you know, blackface, where you would have accounts created by folks who are not black to cause chaos and disruption and things like that. Because anyone can create an account and anyone can use any type of photo. When it was Black Lives Matter, for example, we would see hundreds, sometimes thousands of fake accounts that would insert themselves into the conversation just to cause chaos. But as we looked further, we would see that these accounts were not operated by black folks.
Christopher Bouzy: Now, in terms of one across the board, whether it’s black Twitter, political Twitter, you know, cat and dog Twitter, you know, we’re seeing people say enough is enough. Like I don’t want to be part of this. But specifically to your question, we haven’t really seen like, let’s say, an increase in disinformation after Elon taking over with black Twitter. But what we have noticed is folks are scared. They’re feeling like it was bad before you took over Twitter. And black folks felt like sometimes that Twitter just was not taking their concerns seriously. And now that illness there, people feel like, okay, where are we going to go? Like, there’s no place for us to go to. It’s more disinformation, but there’s just clearly something there that you can feel in terms of folks being scared, black folks being scared.
Jason Johnson: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, more about the growth of digital disinformation with Christopher Bouzy. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today. We’re talking about the dangers of disinformation with Christopher Bouzy, a bot sentinel. So can you give us some examples of how you’ve seen mainstream or legacy newspapers, television networks and everything else like that, amplifying disinformation and then going forward? What are some of the things that they should do so that they’re not being fooled by the banana and the tailpipe again? Because I’ve seen it happen, and it’s frustrating when you’re sort of trying to combat and telling people vote editorially, you realize that’s fake, right? Like, there aren’t that many people excited about this. It’s being amplified. But you’re still running a story on.
Christopher Bouzy: Well, okay, so the first thing, it’s really easy to manipulate trends on Twitter. And that’s why Twitter is the go to platform for missing disinformation because the bad guys know, look, you have all your journalists, you have people who are extremely influential on Twitter. So if you can get something trending, more than likely you’re going to have at least one journalist that’s going to write something about it.
Christopher Bouzy: I guess the recent example would be the whole red wave stuff. You know, folks believing that this huge red wave was coming, that in the interior lies and that was being amplified a lot on Twitter and also by folks in the media. I think that’s a great recent example of this happening. I just think journalists need to be aware that everything that you see on social media, whether it’s something that’s trending or, you know, something that may appear to be popular, that you got to delve a bit deeper. I understand the way the news works now, and sometimes it just things move so quickly that it’s just like, hey, we’ve got to get the story out. But I just think journalists need to take a step back and do a bit more research, especially when it comes to reporting on things that are happening on social media.
Jason Johnson: Can you think of some examples either in the people who you cover, people who you work for, even your own life, where misinformation was actually dangerous, where it could have been kind of a life or death issue for you or other people, you know?
Christopher Bouzy: Right. So I would just start off by saying, you know, the folks who think this and this information is not that serious. Really don’t have a clue. Here’s the reason why. If we can’t agree on basic facts, as you society and humans and things like that, you know, we’re we’re headed down a slippery slope. So when you have, for example, missing just information about COVID, there are folks who believe that we could have got a handle on this a lot quicker and we had a better response if we all had agreed. This disease is dangerous and here’s the way that we could prevent things. But because we had this and this information out there saying that it was just like the flu, you don’t need to mask up or vaccines are dangerous. It just took us getting a handle and we still in honestly, really still don’t really have a handle on it yet.
Christopher Bouzy: Same thing with climate change. You know, we have folks out there who believe that what we’re witnessing, what we all witnessing, is just natural and it is not. And scientists are telling us like, look, we have a problem. Like we or we may be headed to something that we cannot recover from. And yet and still you see the missing disinformation about climate change, that it’s a hoax that, you know, don’t believe it. You know, everything’s going to be fine.
Christopher Bouzy: So when we have this in our daily lives and now we’re seeing this with elections across, you know, across the globe where folks are not believing the results of elections, it becomes a thing where it’s just like it’s like, what do I believe now? Like, what am I believing? Look at the news. The news is telling me one thing. I go online, I see something else. It’s not a big deal. It is a big deal to make a mark.
Christopher Bouzy: Good stuff is there’s another example where folks who are putting out disinformation about her and her husband know the kids, for example, not being real, that there were fake in that, you know, she’s not really black, just a bunch of crazy stuff. And we just learned there were real threats against her, that there were individuals that were targeting her. And this is something that we have put out in the report. Having that type of missing disinformation out there dehumanizes the target. You know, it makes people feel like and it’s the same thing that happened with Hillary Clinton. And, you know, it makes people feel like, oh, this is not a real person, this is not a human being. And that’s dangerous because once again, you have folks now in the real world who who target individuals. So I just want your listeners to know, like missing disinformation is a serious problem and it’s something that we need to get a handle on.
Jason Johnson: As somebody who’s an expert in this field, what’s your theory about why Elon Musk bought Twitter and what his actual plans are? Because charging $8 for verification didn’t work. So what do you think his idea was and what’s his goal?
Christopher Bouzy: There is a lot of conspiracy theories out there. And I’m like you, you know, it’s the simplest answers is usually the correct one. But even the simplest answer doesn’t make much sense when he spent $44 billion on a platform. So if he spent $44 billion on the platform, direct the platform, other platforms are going to spring up. And we see that now. I mean, we’re we’re even working on something. So that’s not going to work. And eventually there will just be another Twitter.
Christopher Bouzy: So the next conspiracy theory is that he’s just not that bright. Doesn’t make much sense to me why someone would buy a platform and then like fire half the people within a week or two and not understanding the platform itself and like who should staying, who should go? You just like willy nilly firing people. You know something else that you stated about the $8 thing? Once again, it just doesn’t make any sense. Like why would you give a bunch of people blue checkmarks? And we saw like the chaos that cause where people were making these fake accounts, getting verified, you know, just spinning eight bucks on it and making, for example, Eli Lilly making, you know, the stock price not crash, but go down significantly. I don’t know, like I wish I did, but I just don’t know what’s going on with that.
Jason Johnson: I always try to in the podcast with something like super optimistic or at least give people hope. What are some of the alternatives that may pop up to Twitter? Because if you had asked me 20 years ago, was MySpace ever going to be replace, I would have said no, of course not. MySpace in some form will be around forever. No, my success is gone. So what may come in and take over for Twitter and how long might that process take?
Christopher Bouzy: So I’m going to be a little biased here. You know, the platform that we’re working on, sociable, I think is going to be the replacement. And the reason why I say that, I’m going to explain why you have other stuff out there. You have Mastodon. You have a lot of folks that are amping up Post News and Hive. None of those have the filling of Twitter. You know, one of the problems with these platforms is the same folks building them. So I believe. In something that’s different. And that’s the reason why, you know, we’re throwing our hat into this whole thing, because as I saw, people were trying to go look to see, let’s say, Mastodon, they go there and they’re just like, it’s so confusing and it just doesn’t have the same feel with with Post News. Although I haven’t tried it.
Christopher Bouzy: A few journalists and people that I know have issues with it. And one of the issues so when we do the other day, he he said he’s a journalist. He said it’s it’s too white. It is This is a white man saying the platform is too white. I do believe whether it’s something that we’re working once or something that someone else is working on, I do believe there will be a replacement. And that’s why I don’t believe the conspiracy theory that must, you know, purchase Twitter to destroy it, because people will find another platform.
Christopher Bouzy: And as you stated, look, everyone was on MySpace before and then they wasn’t. And then, you know, everyone was on Facebook. And now, like you said, I don’t use Facebook and I don’t know anyone else who really uses Facebook. Twitter probably will not be as influential as it is now a year from now. And I’m sure there’s going to be a couple of forms that are going to replace it. And then eventually everyone will decide on, you know, what’s going to be the main platform.
Jason Johnson: Christopher Bouzy is the founder and CEO of Bossa Nova. Thank you so much for joining me today on work.
Christopher Bouzy: Thank you for having me. It was a pleasure to be here.
Jason Johnson: And that’s a word for this week.
Jason Johnson: The show’s email is a word at slate.com. This episode was produced by Kristie Taiwo-Makanjuola.. Ben Richmond is Slate’s senior director of operations for podcasts. Alicia montgomery is the vice president of Audio. Our theme music was produced by Don Will. I’m Jason Johnson. Tune in next week Forward.