Civic discourse has skidded into what we might politely term a “rough spot.” So much as mention the election or trans bathrooms or Black Lives Matter and you’re in for an argument. But next time you’re watching your cousin’s Facebook wall devolve into a flame war, or bravely facing the constant cable news onslaught, please remember that matters could always get worse: On Twitter there are people arguing with bots.
Those bots — slyly named @good_opinions and @opinions_good — are the work of Nora Reed, an Albuquerque-based activist and artist. For the past three months, both have been tweeting bland, vaguely liberal opinions like “feminism is good” or “I think Donald Trump is awful,” and then firing off one of 18 canned responses to anyone who questions them. (Reed, needless to say, is a progressive activist — but one imagines the results would be much the same if someone on the other side deployed bots to troll progressives.)
Those responses include “wow,” “your [sic] wrong” and “Google it” — otherwise known as the holy trinity of Internet rhetoric. And while they’re not particularly sophisticated or provocative arguments, a lot of people are … arguing back at them.
“The project was inspired largely by the responses to my other bots and my experiences with Twitter in general,” Reed said. “What I’ve noticed about these people — both the ones who talk to my bots and the ones who talk to me — is that none of them are really interested in conversation. They have preconceptions about people who mention the topics that they’re searching for and canned arguments that they want to use, and they’re just looking for an opportunity to spew those at strangers.”
Since June, Reed has logged dozens of instances of such spewage — some of them more vitriolic than others. The female bot, @good_opinions, has been called a fascist, a “c–t,” an “a–hole” and a “f—ing evil piece of s—,” and has been ordered to perform a variety of sex acts and/or to “go back to the kitchen.” The male bot, @opinions_good, still gets his fair share of 140-character missives.
“You are a very clear case of neurosis,” one user insisted, after several exchanges. “The patterns the reactions is all textbook neurosis.”
“Your inability to respond politely is telling,” said another — who went on to correct the bot’s spelling.
Truth be told, neither the caliber of these responses nor the obliviousness of responders is particularly surprising — even the concept of a Twitter “honeypot” bot has been tried several times before. At the height of Gamergate, for instance, kindly Twitter bot @ElizaRBarr repeatedly urged gaters to “tell her more,” thereby baiting untold dozens into explaining the movement to a bit of code. More recently, the profanely named @assbot has instructed Donald Trump to delete his account at every opportunity — thereby earning the fury of some of Trump’s more oblivious Twitter followers.
But what’s incredible about @opinions_good and @good_opinions is that they illustrate just how desperate some people are to get into online fights. The bot doesn’t use any hashtags or handles and it has only 82 followers — which means that the majority of the haters who come across it are just sitting idly on the Twitter “search” tab, typing controversial terms.
Recently, @opinions_good got into a prolonged back-and-forth over rape culture with a user handled @VoluntaryismBro, who — judging by his @-replies to other Twitter users — makes a regular habit of calling out strangers who mention rape culture, socialism or Texas politics. The same day he chatted with @opinions_good, he told another tweeter, unsolicited, that “rape culture doesn’t exist.” To a third, he said her tweet “gave [him] cancer.” (In an email to the Intersect, he explained that “there is just something that gets under my skin about people who are not educated on a topic that come out and speak loudly about those topics as if they are knowledgeable on it.”)
It should be noted that this sort of cross-cutting “engagement,” even when it’s sincere, doesn’t change hearts or minds. After analyzing three separate conflicts on Twitter, a 2014 study concluded it was “not an ideal public sphere for democratic conversations” online. After looking at Democrats and Republicans, FC Barcelona fans and fans of Real Madrid, and Israelis and Palestinians, they found that 40 percent of the tweets between opposing groups were overtly negative. Precious few were “highly rational,” either — a failing the researchers seem to blame, in part, for the lack of space to cite evidence. (Give someone 140 characters, it seems, and they’ll inevitably bluster and bash with them.)
Reed knows this quite well: A prolific and provocative tweeter on issues related to gender and social justice, the activist has personally landed in the mob’s crosshairs several times. That hasn’t changed Reed’s opinion, however, that meaningful discourse and dialogue are possible online.
“I see a lot of really good conversation happen on Twitter, but I think for it to work it really has to happen between people who can assume good faith,” Reed said. In the current environment, on the other hand, “people have to stop talking about certain topics on Twitter for fear of [harassment].”