Ignore trolls and bots

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

I am borrowing the title of this article from a recent tweet that came from Senator Nancy Binay. It is short and sweet but meaningful enough to be adopted as sound advice. From the early campaign mode starting in late 2015 up to the May 2016 presidential elections, we all witnessed how trolls and bots suddenly established their dominance. It was not so much that their numbers were easily computed but we could all feel their impact. As a result, they achieved their aim and caused so much toxicity in most social media platforms. Even then, I felt compelled to warn netizens about the nature and ways of trolls. I knew things would even get worse beyond the campaign period and it did.

Much has been said and written about trolls and bots, not only in the Philippines but in many other countries as well. The term “fake news” has become as popular as cancer, and just as deadly. In the United States, “fake news” is the favorite refrain of President Trump himself, especially referring to what many traditional media outlets keep reporting. In return, the same traditional media outlets point to how President Trump is the prime example of a fake news source. The Cambridge Analytica and Facebook scandal imply that the Brexit Leave Vote and the electoral victory of Donald Trump were somehow influenced by manipulated and targeted messages via social media.

I think that the millions of netizens have not really risen in loud and angry protest against trolls and bots simply because most of them cannot identify who are trolls and bots. They hear the terms “trolls” and “bots” from others but themselves unable to distinguish the real from the robot or the mercenary. Thankfully, the Internet and social media platforms are bothered enough to create counter-measures, which basically mean technology to identify trolls and bots. At a later stage, if driven by a more angry netizenry, new technology will not only identify trolls and bots but will trace their roots – real people who are in charge of manipulating reality to help their hidden agenda. It is only a matter of time.

Because the people and societies are afraid of a world of falsities, in a world where truth and lies cannot be differentiated, where ordinary people, including children, do not know anymore what to believe and not believe. It is not also just a function, or malfunction, of the mind which loses its clarity of what it witnesses. It is also the disruption of feelings as trolls and bots are not orchestrated to make people feel good but the opposite – to get them upset and angry.

The unfortunate thing is that the confused become easier to manipulate while the well-informed is not. Those with hidden agenda cannot talk about their agenda, which makes whatever their agenda is suspect. They cannot openly reveal their objective nor can they appeal to their audience to support it. So they go for next best – get their audience angry at those who can expose and oppose their agenda. Making people angry at selected personalities is easier to do than convince people to support an agenda that is negative or destructive, meant to disadvantage many and benefit only a few. People, however, need a toxic atmosphere to be disturbed and angry – trolls and bots can do the job.

The advice of Senator Nancy Binay, though, is easier said than done. I believe (and I assume she does, too) that most people will ignore trolls and bots if they know who and what these are. Many netizens do not know nor make a serious effort to identify them. Most netizens simple want to do their thing in social media, read and send messages, be informed and entertained, but not research the true identity of trolls and bots. The trolls and the puppeteers of bots know this and exploit the reluctance of netizens to dig deeper into finding what is true or not, whether the news is real or fake.

Maybe, anticipating this, the good senator followed up her tweet with another one – basically exhorting her followers and netizens, in general, to avoid accommodating bashers and haters, to not allow them their negativity to dictate the mood of our lives. All of which is so timely in the Easter season, when custom and religious beliefs emphasize the need and opportunity to begin anew.

For many years, especially in New Year, I bravely commit to light a candle rather than curse the darkness. This is not only practical and healthy, it is also wise. Yet, it remains a struggle to stay positive, to speak only the positive and mute the negative. What keeps me going, or trying again when I fail, is that I see the younger generations as radically different in attitude as the ones I grew up, and grew old, with. Many point to technology as the driving force, the fact that technology is dictating lifestyle, and that the older generations are unable to keep up. Like it or not, the older ones, even if they continue to hold the purse, must allow the younger ones to run the work and businesses because technology is totally necessary. The energy of openness, the welcoming attitude, and the networking style of the young show to me that the world will change in substance and form at a dizzying speed.

The beautiful nature of humanity and evolution is that, on the macro, it is not afraid of time and death. The fear of individuals somehow does not deter collective life from emerging and becoming. There seems to be a self-cleansing mechanism that is built in existence, all existence, including mankind. Whatever my own fears and frustrations, I have, on the other hand, the more important part of me, in fact, understanding that there is a greater force with a greater plan and that all will be well after all. And all I have to do is to be faithful to my own dreams and values.

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