Opinion: Anonymous bots control what we read

What I’m about to write should worry you. It worries me.

Information is now dominated by the Internet. But everything you read is subtly manipulated by anonymous “bots” from unknown and mysterious sources.

These robots control what appears on your computer screen and on your smartphones. You are what you read. It’s controlling your mind. It is to control your way of thinking. It’s controlling who you are.

Bots also manipulate reads and page views, turning the global trillion-dollar digital advertising industry into something akin to a massive scam. Big Tech might be able to do something about bots, but these bots are extremely profitable for Big Tech, increasing ad impressions and creating billions in profits for Google, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the entire industry of online advertising.

How can I know? Because for three years my company has been developing its own digital platform. During this process, I have been at the forefront of the dirty underbelly of digital platforms. It’s almost unbelievable what is happening.

A little background information: I watched for years Google and Facebook grow into huge powerful monopolies, becoming the richest companies in history. My little newspaper company couldn’t do much. The digital development costs were well beyond our reach.

But the same phenomenal technological advancement that created the Internet has also brought down costs in an equally phenomenal way. Think about the hard drive storage of the past 15 years.

Part of this technological advancement was the rise of open-source content management systems (CMS) that were powerful and global, using millions of programmers who contributed advanced coding modules that they freely shared.

Imagine trying to build a 50 story tower from scratch. But with our CMS, called Drupal, the skyscraper was already built for free. All we had to do was buy office furniture. Little Emmerich Newspapers was off to the digital platform races, well late but maybe not too late.

Using a host of cheap offshore Indian developers coordinated with daily 8am Zoom conferences, I found they could do anything I asked. The only limit was my imagination and my creativity. It was exhilarating.

I hired a young man who was the editor of the Mississippi State online newspaper. He was sitting in the front row of a seminar I gave on the new era of media. He was the only one in the room with a coat and tie. Next, Brandon Grisham was Emmerich’s online development guru. He is brilliant.

Realizing that we had to accept the existing digital ecosystem, we first integrated our platform with Facebook, Twitter and Mailchimp. Everything we did was instantly connected to these mainstream platforms. Within a year, we had tens of thousands of followers on Facebook and Twitter and 70,000 subscribers to our email newsletters. Our web statistics were increasing every month. Engagement was off the charts.

Realizing that Google Ad Manager controlled the world, we found the perfect digital ad management software, founded by a super smart young entrepreneur. Broadstreet Ad Manager had just won the first prize from the LION (Local Independent Online News) association.

Broadstreet, unlike Google, has allowed us to have hundreds of cutting-edge, high-resolution digital ad formats. We were freed from the tyranny of Google and its online ad auctions (99 for Google, one for us).

While our weekly newspaper subscriptions were down or flat, our web statistics were booming – doubling every year, attracting millions of new readers. Emmerich News, with its 23 linked websites, quickly became the largest news network in the state. Cross-posting has allowed us to share state news and burning local stories, dramatically increasing the number of fresh articles each day.

Using APIs (Application Protocol Interfaces), we integrated national, national and international news from The Associated Press into our platform, where we controlled the ad feed. We added dozens of cartoons and comics.

We then added the social networks: Friends, which work like Facebook. Neighbors, which works like Nextdoor. And Groups which allows anyone to create a private or public group to share posts.

We created Buy/Sell for a simple online local marketplace. We’ve integrated micropayments so local posters can get paid for posting. We have developed applications on Android.

We have developed a reporting system so that we can remove vicious and slanderous posts before they spread, using our existing staff, embedded in the real community our websites serve. Our website lag was one second.

Our goal is to bring the “local” back in line with community standards and accountability. Our local towns will no longer have their local advertisers sucked in by Google and Facebook while any crazy case can publish fake news slandering innocent victims.

We’re almost done and ready to really promote our micropayments with great local contests and promotions. We are waiting for the last piece of the puzzle: entering the Apple Store. We just received our first Apple app approval last week. All our applications should be approved in the next few months. (Dealing with Apple’s Walled Garden is like dealing with the Kremlin!)

So imagine my joy when our web statistics tripled year over year in the last four or five months. I felt like it was a vindication of my Don Quixote strategy.

But as my mentor Kelley Williams warned me, “When it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.”

It turns out that our digital platform has now arrived. We are now botworthy. Every internet messy bot now has our digital platform on their radar. Hundreds of bots. Thousands of robots. A huge percentage of our growth was unrelated to people. They were robots.

This puzzled us. We use Google Analytics for our web statistics, the gold standard. Google Analytics has a setting to filter bots. Only problem, it doesn’t work.

We noticed some articles going viral, pushed by bots. Then we noticed a trend. The bots automatically clicked on negative articles, like the water crisis in Jackson. These bots increase the number of reads, which leads to “trending” of articles. Once trending, these articles start showing up on the “most read” and “trending” lists, driving even more traffic. The bots, probably Russian, determined our headlines on websites across our country.

By trending super negative articles, these anonymous bots are creating dissension and discord across our country. That’s why Jackson’s water crisis went viral so quickly. It was deliberate sabotage by bots to promote negative news. It lasts day after day.

Being what appears to be the only honest web platform, we decided to take action. We manually filtered out any web session that didn’t last at least two seconds. Bot sessions last one microsecond. This turned our 300% annual growth into 40% growth. Never mind.

The whole process gave me a front row seat to understanding how bots manipulate us. It’s frightening. It will get worse. Something has to be done about this.

About Ricardo Schulte

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