Recently, I was reading a newsletter I enjoy – a newsletter that I find thought-provoking.
It happened to quote the writer of another newsletter that I enjoy and find thought-provoking:
“Our current social media platforms, especially Twitter and Facebook, are best understood as madhouses in which we have incarcerated ourselves.”
- Alan Jacobs
I was inclined to agree.
But I’ve invested time and energy into social media, and I’m not sure I’m willing to leave it. There’s a general consensus among people in my line of work that you “have to” be on social media.
Jacobs himself is on Twitter, though I note with admiration that he follows just one account (the mascot of Arsenal Football Club).
On Twitter myself this morning, shortly after Boris Johnson had won a vote of confidence among fellow Tory MPs, I saw this tweet (below) by Caroline Loncq.
[ NOTE: This post was written early in June 2022 ]
She was retweeting something that had been tweeted the day before by Coffee Films – a photograph containing text, too small to read:
I clicked to see more closely the screengrab Coffee Films had shared. I’ve saved it, so you can see it. It shows many identical (or nearly identical) tweets expressing support for Johnson.
Click on this picture to see more closely:
Eighteen twitter accounts tweeting: “As a British citizen I’m disgusted by all these comments towards Boris…”
It was a bit odd, this. Why would all these people write exactly the same thing? Were they on the ministerial payroll, following orders from the Conservative whips? Or were they, as Coffee Films suggested, #BotsForBoris?
Was it really possible that Johnson’s government would stoop to this?
I confess that the question mark is entirely decorative, and I’m not really asking a question: history shows that Boris Johnson will stoop very low indeed.
But still… I felt obliged to investigate further. For all I knew, Coffee Films might itself be some kind of sinister propagandist, out to discredit a prime minister who, on this occasion anyway, was spotlessly innocent.
Coffee Films had posted several similar screengrabs, each one featuring similar pro-Johnson sentiments reproduced almost verbatim by several different people – or if not people then twitter accounts, which is not quite the same.
There’s not a lot of difference between the sentiments expressed in the three pictures below. Each tweet reads, more or less identically, as follows:
“In all my time as a proud UK citizen I have never seen such a great prime minister as you, Boris”
“I speak for the entire UK 🇬🇧 when I say we love you Boris!”
“Honest UK citizen here, I don’t get it why many people hate Boris”
The wording seemed strange: “In all my time as a proud UK citizen”. Proud or not, do people really say that? To me, it has the sulphurous odour of bad copywriting, by marketing people seeking to address a particular demographic.
Still, they could I suppose be real people, tweeting a scripted message.
I clicked on a few of the accounts.
For no reason in particular, I started with one of the accounts that claimed to be an “Honest UK citizen” in the third picture immediately above, but whose account name was Pionel Pessi, a distortion of the name of the footballer Lionel Messi:
I scrolled through the account.
These more or less random screenshots are typical of the tweets: strangely unfunny jokes about Messi – strangely, in the sense that they seemed to have been generated by a computer rather than a human being.
The jokes were slightly different, but followed a formula: make fun of the real-life Messi by joking about footballer-specific deficiencies. For instance: tapping a ball into the goal becomes a joke about plumbing, in the second of the pictures immediately above:
“I was filling the kettle when suddenly the tap exploded off the pipe! It was a mess, water everywhere. I rang the plumber to ask if they can put a tap in for me and they sent my idol Pionel Pessi, the best in the world at putting taps in! Thank you Pessi, you fixed my tap! 🚰😇”
I copied a few of the words, and searched Twitter for other accounts using the same joke. There were several.
The account also “engaged” with Uber’s twitter account, and – seemingly out of the blue – expressed contempt for Sue Gray, the civil servant charged with investigating Boris Johnson for breaking lockdown rules.
Twelve accounts had liked Pionel Pessi’s “Honest UK citizen” tweet, above. I clicked to see who they were.
“Julia”, aka @RudeMiss0, had joined Twitter just a year ago, and already tweeted 44,000 times. That’s approximately once every eight minutes, every waking hour, for a year.
I may be reading too much into this, but I wondered if “her” bio was a little too obviously contemptuous: “This City… | We’re Not Really Here”.
Here are some of the others who liked Pionel Pessi’s “Honest UK citizen” tweet:
Can I be sure these are fake accounts? No.
One thing that persuades me is the assertion within some of the Twitter bios that they have “never been ratio’d”. “Pionel Pessi” is one account that makes the claim.
Essentially, this amounts to a promise that money spent on this bot will not be wasted.
If you’re not familiar with the term “ratio’d”, as it applies to Twitter, here’s some background:
To be ratio’d, on Twitter, is to lack credibility. For an account to boast that it has not been ratio’d is like saying, “You can trust your black-arts advertising to us.”
Going back to the original question: could Boris Johnson stoop so low? Is #BotsForBoris really a thing?
I suppose that I should ask somebody – phone the Number 10 press office for a formal response.
But – and this is the worst thing about it all, truly a sign of rottenness in government – I don’t believe I would get an honest answer.
So why bother?
Because I don’t want to become as jaded as the people who created and paid for these bots.
So, while I don’t think I’ll bother to phone Number 10, I’m going to print off these tweets and send them to my (Conservative) MP, who backed Johnson in the recent vote of confidence.
I’ll ask him what he thinks.
If I get a response, I’ll update this page. In the meantime, I leave you with another quote from Alan Jacobs, whom I quoted above: