Social media has brought the entire world to our fingertips. It’s easier than ever to find like-minded individuals. Most of us trust that there is a human on the other end of that Tweet or Facebook post we see on our feed. However, some people believe that the internet actually “died” in 2016 or early 2017 and it is entirely devoid of people such that the content we see is actually created by bots. This “dead-internet theory” suggests it is increasingly more difficult to recognize bot-created content as inauthentic. Although social media platforms have pumped up their protection against bot-created content, “bot farmers” continue to outpace them with sophisticated algorithms. Therefore, individuals have no way of knowing how much of what we see on the internet is real.

It is hard to point fingers when we struggle to differentiate between what is real and what is generated by a bot. We are familiar with “fake news,” but we don’t know how much of it we have already seen and how it impacts our current beliefs. Bot farmers can post over 200,000 Facebooks posts per month. According to the theory of memetics, ideas spread through pervasive repetition and imitation of digestible units called memes. Yes, memes. Not just a funny cat graphic, but a potential tool for artificially shaping societies through widespread publication. Memetics analogizes the creation of culture to Darwinism whereby only the most prolific memes survive to become long-lasting ideas. That means bot farmers may be responsible for over 200,000 memes, shaping our community without our knowledge.

In 2016, Russia used Facebook to influence the American presidential election. Five years later, our own citizens stormed the capitol, throwing our country into a state of disarray. Evidence shows that discussion of violence and voter fraud conspiracies can be traced to a microblogging platform called Parler. Facebook just suspended their “Instagram for kids” project after a scathing profile by The Wall Street Journal revealed leaked internal studies concerning the negative effects of the photo-sharing app on young users. Most notably, Instagram impacts teenage girls “more so than other social media platforms”, driving them to body dysmorphia, depression, or even suicide. If we are at the mercy of bot memes and our platform providers cannot successfully filter them out, then it’s hard to imagine what comes after an insurrectionist riot. 

Bot farmers are the reincarnation of Plato’s Cave, better known for its appearance in The Matrix as a choice between a red pill and a blue pill. Ideally, our government should create safeguards against manipulation and misinformation keeping us in the shadows. However, Congress and governments across the country have struggled to keep up with threats arising from technological advancements. Only recently have state legislatures started considering legislation to protect consumer data from being sold by social media platforms. While this is an important step in the right direction, it is not enough. In fact, we have yet to see information privacy legislation enforced. Furthermore, such legislation does nothing to combat bot-farmed content poisoning our society. The uncertainty of not knowing what is real and what was generated on the internet is destabilizing. Until Congress steps up, it is up to us to be aware that the internet is not what it seems.

Author Biography: Samantha Carswell is a second-year student at The George Washington University Law School.