The 2016 election and weird patterns on Twitter.

Dec 18 2016

You've already read my opinion of the 2016 election's outcome so I'll not subject you to it again. However, I would like to talk about some weird stuff I (we, really) kept noticing on Twitter in the days and weeks leading up to Election Day.

As I've often spoken of in the past, a nontrivial portion of my Exocortex is tasked with monitoring global activity on Twitter by hooking into the back-end API service and pulling raw data out to analyze. Those agents fire on a stagged schedule, anywhere from every 30 minutes to every two hours; a couple of dozen follow specific accounts while others use the public streaming API and grab large samples of every tweet that hits Twitter around the world.

If you want to look at a simplified version of that agent network to see how it works I've made it available on Github. As you can see, the output of that particular agent network is batched into e-mails of arbitrary size using the Email Digest Agent and is sent to one of my e-mail addresses as a single batch. The reason for this is twofold; it's easier to scan through a large e-mail and look for patterns visually than it is to scan through several dozen to several hundred separate messages in sequence, and it uses fewer system resources on my e-mail provider to store and present to me that output.

Six or seven weeks before Election Day, Lifeline (the recognition code for the agent network which carries out these sorts of tasks for me) started sending me gigantic e-mail digests every hour or so, containing something like several hundred tweets at a time (the biggest was nearly a thousand, as I recall). Scanning through those e-mails showed that most of the tweets were largely identical, save for the @username that sent them. Tweets about CNN and the Washington Post being GRU and SVR disinformation projects or on-the-ground reporting tagged with #fakenews. Links pointing to Infowars articles (the tweets consisted of the titles of posts, links, and the same sets of hashtags; if you ran the Twitter-compressed URLs through a URL unshortener they all pointed to the same posts). Anti-Bernie and anti-Hillary tweets that all had the same content and the same hashtags. Trump as the second coming messages and calls to action. Rivers of bile directed at political comentators and reporters. Links to fake Wikileaks Podesta e-mails that went to Pastebin or other post-and-forget sites (there wasn't even enough data in the fakes to attempt to validate them (by the bye, the method linked to is really easy to automate)). I saw the same phenomenon with #pizzagate tweets, only the posts came in shorter bursts more irregularly. It went on and on, day and night for weeks, hundreds upon hundreds of unique copies of the same text from hundreds of different accounts. I had to throw more CPUs at Exocortex to keep up with the flood.

All of these posts, when taken together as groups or families consisted of exactly the same text each and every time, though the t.co URLs were different (a brief digression: Twitter's URL shortening service seems to generate different outputs for the same input URL to implement statistics gathering and user tracking as part of its business strategy). Additionally, all of those posts went up more or less within the same minute. The Twitter API doesn't let you pull the IP addresses tweets were sent from but the timestamps are available to the second. If you looked at the source field of each tweet (you'll need to scroll down a bit), they were all largely the same, usually empty (""), with a few minor exceptions here and there. The activity pattern strongly suggests that bots were used to strafe circles of human-controlled accounts on Twitter that roughly correspond to memetic communities. Figuring that somebody had already done some kind of visualization analysis (which I suck at), I had Argus (one of my web search bots) do some digging and he found a bunch of pages like this study, which seem to back up my observations.

The sort of horsepower needed to create such an army of bots would be very easy to assemble: Buy a bunch of virtual machines on Amazon's EC2. Write a couple of bots using Ruby or Python. Sign up for a bunch of Twitter accounts or just buy them in bulk. Make a Docker image that'll effectively turn one EC2 instance into as many as you can reasonably run without crashing the VM. Deploy lots and lots of copies of your bots into those Docker containers. Use an orchestration mechanism like Ansible to configure the bots with API keys and command them en masse; if you're in a time crunch you could even use something like pssh to fire them all up with a single command. Turn them loose. If you've been in IT for a year, this is a Saturday afternoon project that won't cost you a whole lot, but could make you a lot of money.

"Well, yeah, there was an army of bots advertising on Twitter. What else is new?" you're probably saying.

What I am saying is simply this: This post describes a little bit about how this sort of media strategy works, what the patterns look like at the 50000 foot view, and my/our observations. I don't think I did anything really ground-breaking here, only in the sense that I used a bunch of AI systems that stumbled across what was going on by accident. It was the hardcore data scientists who did the real academic work on it (though that work is a bit inaccessible unless you're a computer geek).

Memetic warfare is here, and our social networks at the battlegrounds. Armor up.

The 2016 election was not rigged.

Nov 27 2016

There, I said it.

I don't think that votes were messed with, I don't think that any (horribly insecure) voting machines were tampered with, and while jerrymandering is totally a thing I don't think it had anything to do with the election. I think that appealing to people's most deeply held beliefs, the ones that few are willing to talk about openly had everything to do with it.

Donald Trump is everything that USians want to be, deep down inside. Let's be honest: Whether or not Donald Trump is really as rich as he says doesn't matter. What matters is that many people believe he is rich. In the United States cultural mindscape that equates to power. As he's bragged about on television repeatedly, he's done some pretty heinous and ignorant things and gotten away with all of them. That show of power demonstrates that he's effectively above the law. He's on television a lot, which to the USian cultural mindset equates to fame. Fame is a form of power all its own, because to be on television you have to have access to the media somehow, and having access to the media means that he can reach everyone watching a television, listening to a radio, and haunting every social network without even trying. If you follow his Twitter feed you can observe his antics first-hand.

USians love money. USians love power. USians love getting away with things. USians love fame. He's everything every USian wants to be - he's the American dream.

And who doesn't want to be like him? Who doesn't want to be Bruce Wayne, who's stupidly rich, gets away with the craziest shit during the day, and still has time to himself to practice being a badass after dark? Who doesn't want to be Tony Stark ("Genius, billionaire, playboy, philantropist."), hook up with Playboy centerfolds, and kick asses around the world while getting away with it (mostly)? Who doesn't dream of being Lex Luthor, an amazingly wealthy industrialist who just happens to want to kill Superman, the all-American do-gooder?

Donald Trump is all of those fictional characters brought to life (modulo being a hero, though I'll get to that in a second), every badass example of the American Dream that people think they have. Throughout the entire election he showed off all of those qualities writ so large you could see them from orbit, and people ate it up. The hero bit I mentioned? He promised a nebulous effort to "make America great again," which just about everybody who's worried about their lot in life ate up and went back for seconds. Afraid that the middle class is vanishing like spilled water in the desert? Hate "them other folks" but either won't admit it out loud or don't even realize you're racist? Openly racist and hold demonstrations calling for ethnic cleansing in the United States? Want reassurance that anything sketchy you might be up to might get a pass because Trump's promised to make it go away? Just want to watch it all burn? Trump not only validated those feelings but openly embraced them among his constituency and campaign staff. He promised to make the boogiemen under the bed go away. Everybody on the fringe, from the folks who took somebody's attempt at trolling seriously to genuinely scary people sat up and howled when the dog whistle blew.

You don't have to rig an election when you work to be the person that everybody identifies with. When the people of the United States voted for Donald Trump, they actually voted for the kind of people they themselves most want to be.

The bed's made, and bedtime's near. Nightmares are coming.

Election 2016.

Nov 08 2016

My attorney has advised me to not to make a post consisting of the word 'FUCK' 1000 times.