Regulars on sites like Blogcritics tend to get quite snarky about the so-called ‘Paulbots’, who manifest themselves whenever an article about Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul is posted. These commenters range from the rational and articulate to the downright wacky, but are always prepared to promote and defend their hero for as long as the thread stays alive. They pique our suspicions because they appear from nowhere (usually within minutes of publication), have not been seen on the site before, and never visit any other threads. Their modus operandi seems too efficient to be entirely human, so we conclude that these people must be using ‘bots’: automated programs which trawl the net looking for key words and phrases and alerting their masters when they appear.
Of course, it’s not only Dr Paul who triggers this behavior. The title of this piece incorporates – in a blatant and potentially suicidal attempt to get as many comments as possible and clog up the author’s e-mail – most of the other topics which tend to attract political ‘bots’. For instance, anyone rash enough to post a piece on the shooting tragedy in Nebraska over the next few days will very likely find their comments thread turned into a protracted verbal fist fight between gun control advocates and members of the pro-gun lobby, most of whom will be newcomers or one-issue visitors to the site.
But do these folks really use bots? Surprisingly, perhaps, there seems to be little evidence that they do. You have to remember that idiosyncratic figures like Paul and Venezuelan populist strongman Hugo Chavez stimulate the imagination and attract a large, highly dedicated grassroots following. And emotive topics like race, guns and 9/11 tend to polarize opinion more dramatically than most, with the opposing lobbies becoming ever more vehement in their stance. If you feel that strongly and singlemindedly about something, an obvious strategy is to go online and find other people who are talking about it. Type ‘Omaha mall shooting’ into Google, for example, and it will take you straight to all the latest news articles and opinion pieces on the subject.
Real political bots – as in computer programs – do exist, of course, but generally they are easy to spot. They leave comments that make no sense or are irrelevant to the topic under discussion, and when challenged they either don’t respond at all or do so with a non sequitur. (Of course, some would say that describes the Paulbots to a tee…)
I’ll leave it at that, and close this piece out with the obvious signoff, that dread cry familiar to any combat veteran: “Incoming!”