I have a problem with Twitter rabbit holes. I spot a controversial tweet, and then spend half an hour or more wading through the trolls in the replies, trying to find out which ones are real and which are fake.
It’s a thankless task I do just to satisfy my own curiosity: is this person really that horrible, or are they just a sockpuppet designed to make it look like people can be that horrible?
That’s how this morning I found myself exploring a subculture I’ll call ‘pro-Brexit football hooligan Twitter.’ Someone had left a rather rude pro-Brext reply to a tweet, and I clicked through to see who he was. I discovered a network of accounts all very similar – they all talk almost exclusively about liking Brexit, beating up foreigners, and drinking Carling lager. And nearly all of them had appalling spelling.
Surely these were fake, I thought. Surely they were set up to show the 'metropolitan elite’ just how many down-to-earth. but also kind of scary, people wanted the UK to leave the EU at all costs?
Some of them certainly seemed to be fake – they used photos to illustrate their lives that showed up in Google image searches to be from somewhere else. But the more I read, the more I became convinced that many of these accounts are real, and I’d simply discovered part of Twitter I’d never seen before.
We’ve read a lot in recent years about 'bot farms’ set up to manipulate public opinion. One goal of these farms is increasing division in society – pitting tribe against tribe as we struggle to tell what’s real and fake.
But a side effect of knowing about these bots, is assuming that people who live in a totally different bubble to you must be fake, just because you don’t understand them or agree with them.
Those bot farms are the winners here, even if they weren’t involved. And I’m sure they’d love the fact they reduced UK productivity by a fraction of a percent today, too, through all the time I wasted. I really should get back to work…