Beware the Bots: Our Inevitable Media Crisis

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Just as extremely dry weather, drought, and heavy winds are ingredients for devastating wildfires, there are conditions developing in media that could lead to the decline of one of democracy’s core institutions — an independent press. What’s disturbing is that all the individual pieces for the undermining of the press — media illiteracy, social media bots, and politicians in the media market — are already present; they’re just not working together in concert. However, once someone successfully puts the puzzle together, media will never be the same.

Rep. Devin Nunes’ The California Republican

Earlier this month, POLITICO broke a story about how Rep. Devin Nunes’ created his own “news site” called The California Republican.

The lead of the article read, “House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, a relentless critic of the media, has found a way around the often unflattering coverage of his role in the Trump-Russia investigation — by operating his own partisan news outlet.”

Nunes’ site is almost indistinguishable from a professional media outlet, except for the very small disclaimer at the bottom that reads, “Paid for by the Devin Nunes Campaign Committee.”

Nunes has used the democratization of media to his benefit. Setting up his website was probably an easy endeavor, with little or no need for coding.

While the reach of the The California Republican doesn’t come close to the Wall Street Journal or the LA Times, Nunes, and others like him, could compete one day if he is able to utilize other forces that are now available. And instead of an editor concerned with public dialogue or competing with other websites, Nunes will be the helm, making sure everything followers read supports his political agenda.

Social media bots and lack of media literacy

With special counsel Robert S. Mueller III accusing 13 Russian nationals of using social media and other activities to influence voters in the 2016 election, a great deal of attention has been focused on Russia’s use of social media bots.

Bots are automated programs that can repeat a task at a rapid rate. For example, a bot’s actions on Twitter are not being controlled by a human. Rather, a person can program the bot to do something, like retweet a particular type of tweet or tweets using a certain hashtag, and the bot will continue to do that on its own.

As a result, with enough bots doing this at the same time, certain topics can seem more popular than they are, and narratives can work their way into the mainstream media conscious.

So let’s revisit Nunes’ news site. What if the The California Republican implemented an army of bots to push the site’s stories? Those stories would become artificially popular and work their way into mainstream TV, radio, and newspapers. With open internet and bot popularity, a site like Nunes’ can potentially compete with the big players.

Our lack of media literacy only heightens the risk these bots and politican-controlled media pose. A Stanford study evaluated middle and high school students' ability to assess information sources. The researchers described the results as "dismaying," "bleak" and "[a] threat to democracy."

It’s not too late, but it’s pretty close

I look at this moment as the scene in the sci-fi movie where the viewer is aware of the apocalyptic future coming, but they also know there is still a chance for the main characters to prevent it.

We can do that by, for one, being more aware that information we consume online might be coming from a bot. This means when something seems suspect, we should take the extra step to investigate who is sharing it before believing it or sharing it ourselves. This may take a little more time, but the more we normalize these bots, the more human they become.

People can also still make the choice to pay for quality news. Even if we can get it for “free” online, investing in news outlets that are doing real reporting will drive the marketplace towards even better journalism and less propaganda.

If we allow misinformaiton to become as widespread as the truth, then facts really won’t matter. Just think of how confusing and misleading politcal ads are on TV and radio. Now imagine that most of the news you consume is contaminated with that same level of spin. And imagine it’s all coming from a politician who’s only objective is their own agenda?

A media wildfire is coming, and I sure hope there are still firefighters left to put out the spreading wildfire.

Adam Chiara is an assistant professor of communication at the University of Hartford. He has worked as a legislative aide in the Connecticut General Assembly, as a journalist, and in PR. He's on Twitter at @AdamChiara.