The internet’s alt-right are mistakenly arguing with a bot – The Verge

For the last month, a Twitter bot named “Liz,” with the handle @arguetron, has been quietly engaging with the internet’s seediest subculture.

Well-versed in internet bigotry of all stripes, the bot makes simple statements (five or six per hour) designed to rile up 4chan commenters, Breitbart disciples, Trump supporters, anti-vaxxers, “censorship” whiners, Gamergaters, anti-feminists, transphobic Reddit boys, and the rest of the alt-right. The tweets aren’t particularly florid or aggressive, just calculated and crisp. The perfect bait.

Writer and activist Sarah Nyberg, who was subject to one of the biggest and nastiest organized harassment campaigns of Gamergate, recently took credit for the bot on Twitter. She told The Verge via Twitter DM that the bot uses a combination of generative and static statements sourced from the Javascript library Tracery. But the bot doesn’t even need to be that smart. As Nyberg pointed out, “So many arguments, especially on a place like Twitter, are almost content-neutral. You can swap one argument out for another and the context is almost irrelevant.” That’s why @arguetron’s conversations look so much like arguments a real person might have with a persistent troll.

‘so many arguments, especially on a place like twitter, are almost content-neutral’

Nyberg also cited blogger Nora Reed as the project’s inspiration. Reed is best known for their Twitter projects, including a think piece headline generator and a bot that pitches terrible consumer products for women. Nyberg notes that she took a page out of Reed’s book by following only the accounts of reallife fish bait shops from the @arguetron account.

Nyberg said she liked how Reed’s bots “managed to be a kind of social criticism.” In creating @arguetron, she took the simple concept of Reed’s honeybot projects (“honeypot” plus “bot”) and “expanded upon it significantly so people would stay engaged for much longer periods of time.”

@Arguetron isn’t the first anti-Gamergate bot: DevOps engineer and online activist Randi Harper built a Twitter bot that argued with Gamergaters on her behalf, a Reddit account called isreactionary_bot identified users who contributed to pro-Gamergate subreddit KotakuInAction, and the @ggautoblock account (among others) was set up to help bait and identify would-be harassers so they could be added to a mass-block list. However, @arguetron isn’t just about Gamergate — it’s about organized online hate of all stripes. During the 2016 election, this type of bigotry has become the subject of mainstream fascination, appearing just as often on social media as in political rallies.

‘it never confronts people, only replies’

Nyberg told The Verge that it was important to her that the bot take the high road even when dealing with more vicious online personalities, saying “it never confronts people, only replies, and doesn’t engage in any sort of bigotry or harassment as a response.”

Nyberg has highlighted some of her favorite @arguetron conversations with screencaps on her personal account. The snippets show that some people argued with the bot for hours at a time, even after the conversations became painfully cyclical. The examples get at the heart of the classic web-age aphorism “never engage a troll.” The worst conversations aren’t conversations at all, but recitations of hate.

Nyberg says the goal of the project is “to expose the hypocrisy of the sorts of people who say ‘feminists’ and ‘social justice warriors’ are hypersensitive. Even just mild statements of fact can have them absolutely freak out — and end up sending abuse, even — to a bot that responds calmly and just explains over and over again that they’re wrong.”

And to be clear, these tweets must be sought. As Nyberg notes “the bot stays in its own corner of the internet, tweeting simple things like ‘never listen to donald trump’ or ‘trans women are women,’ yet it’s enough to outrage a lot of the reactionaries that search for people to have fights with.”

Responses to the tweets have died down now that the secret is out, though some people are still having a good time tweeting “bot” and “you’re a bot” at it. The bot sometimes mistakenly starts arguments with well-wishers, too, but Nyberg says it will stay active. She’ll consider working on something down the line that appears even more human “to see if the number of people falling for it alters significantly.”

And of course, users who were fooled this time have turned their attention to Nyberg:

When asked if she had been afraid of this reaction, Nyberg told The Verge, “When harassment mobs reach a critical mass, they just follow you regardless of what you do. I hadn’t tweeted for about a month, and I still had stalkers obsessing over me, contacting me on various platforms. So really I wasn’t too scared of this bringing more attention to me. They’re there regardless.”

Ten years into Twitter’s lifespan, harassment of the ilk that follows Nyberg around is still a widespread problem. Perhaps in @arguetron there’s an appealing fantasy: an army of decoys, distracting the worst parts of the internet, giving everyone else a moment of peace.

Correction: A previous version of this article referred to Nora Reed’s honeybot projects as a single account “@honeybot,” when in fact there are multiple accounts and “honeybot” is a catch-all term.


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