On April 1st, 2014, one of that year’s most unexpected video game hits released: Goat Simulator. “What does this have to do with writing and reading?” Just trust me.
Goat Simulator was not what was described in the title. Yes, you were a goat, but “simulation” was more a play on the janky, not-simulation nature of so many other titles around that time claiming the term but being little more than soulless, broken cash-grabs. Goat Simulator played that for comedic effect, and ended up being a hit.
Later that year, it was a added upon with an expansion: Goat Simulator: MMO Simulator, which carried the joke even further by purporting to turn the game into an MMO, or massively multiplayer online game.
Which of course, it wasn’t. It simulated all the online aspects. But for a lot of players, that was enough to fool them into thinking it was, and shortly after the expansion’s release a lot of players who hadn’t read the farcicle fine print were shocked to discover that the “people” they’d been playing with were just AIs.
At the time this was a clever joke. Some chatbots filling a “global” chat, combined with some player-like behavior. People laughed, and the world moved on.
Just … not in the direction we thought. Because as people have discovered (here’s the comic they made about this, by the way) this idea that people could be fooled by nothing more than some lines of code pretending to be the “crowd” that the audience goes along with, well … it hasn’t left.
People are, by nature, social animals. For most, as long as they hear enough voices backing it up, they’ll go check it out. One person says “Hey, you’re good at this?” That’s nice. Ten? A hundred?
1000? Well, you’re probably pretty good at it, right?
Even if 979 of those 1000 are little more than bots?
I myself hadn’t clued into this modern practice until it was brought to my attention via this video from The Jimquisition (link warning: Jimquisition is foul-mouthed and abrasive, often hostile … but he raises some good points about this practice if you’re willing to look past that). But once I’d noticed it, how easily it could slip past people’s notice, and how widespread it already was, well … I got thinking.
Most of us are familiar, at least passingly, with the wave of bots that Amazon did battle with for years to keep their reviews accurate. Companies operating thousands of fake review accounts would sell reviews, etc etc, I’ve spoken about this before.
But after Fortnite revealed that it was putting bots in its games, presumably to “help keep players engaged,” and the Jimquisition’s video on the subject, I had a very alarming thought:
How easy would it be to generate “fans” for an author that someone wanted to promote? And I realized with a sinking sensation my answer: Easier than ever. Ridiculously easy.
Say a publisher wanted to drive a book as one that “everyone was talking about.” Well, you don’t have actually get “everyone” talking about it to do that. A few thousand twitter accounts acting like real people that are all slaved to a single account gets the word … and suddenly “everyone” is talking about it.
Some of you might scoff and think “Yeah, but we’d noticed all those comments hitting all at once.” To that, I say “most wouldn’t” but worse, they won’t hit all at once. It’s not hard at all to generate bots that talk at different times or even in response to one another. Throw a few real people in there talking about it, as well as the actual humans who get pulled in by the organic looking mass, and boom, you’ve manufactured a hit.
The same could be done with comments on websites by their owners too, and there’s not much (if anything) to keep them from doing it without informing the ordinary people of such. Think about how many posts you already see from people that say little more than “Wow, I liked this!” or “Hey, thanks for the update on [insert this topic], I didn’t know about it until now.”
How easy would it be for, say, a publisher or an author to seed their own site or forums with these “fake fans” to drum up support for a product?
The more I thought about it, the more alarmed I became, because the answer is “Very easy.” So easy, in fact, that there’s no reason that many places couldn’t already be doing this. And with no disclosure, since this kind of thing isn’t regulated at all.
Now, I’m not accusing anyone of doing this. That’s one rabbit hole I didn’t (and won’t) dive down. But it’s so possible and so easy to implement, as well as instantly effective, that the only reason I can see most places haven’t done it is, well … they haven’t thought of it yet.
This is one of those times where I’m glad publishing is somewhat behind the times, because the implications here are alarming. How many people read a book because they see people and places talking about it? Sands, I followed a review site that constantly notes they read the book they were reviewing because “everyone on twitter was talking about how great it was.”
How easy would it be for a single computer somewhere to be 90% of that praise, without anyone ever knowing?
I’ve written before on how automation is already here, and replacing many jobs most people think are ‘secure’ against it. But when I wrote those articles, one “job” I hadn’t considered up for replacement was “the fan.”
But if we’re not careful, it might just be. And as technology marches on, AI replacing even complex positions of human interaction like psychologists (and even scarier if you’re a therapist, being better at it) it may become harder and harder to determine if that crowd of people swarming the web talking about how much they liked a book or a movie is real … or not.
Sands, before I wrap up, I want to point out that with how easy it is to create something like this, a creator may not even know it’s happened. There’s little stopping an extremely dedicated fan who wants the creator they admire to “go big” from building a net like that themselves to “promote” them, even today.
And honestly? That worries me a little. Especially when you think “Wait, couldn’t that go the other way?” and realize that a smear campaign against someone could be just as easily be formed with the same tools, and just as invisible.
This is one of those posts where I don’t have an answer. Just … thoughts. A bit of curious wonder. And some worry, since there don’t seem to be any real restrictions set in place yet on this new world of influencing the public sphere.
I’m sure laws will catch up with it eventually, or we’ll wise up and get used to it. We’ll find flags or markers or something to curb it. But for now, it looks like a wild west, and, well … That’s interesting enough that I wanted to talk about it.
Hope you’re all staying safe out there, folks! Later!