By Tony Attwood
In relation to understanding how football works, I generally find that theories about what is happening in football which draw parallels with similar things happening elsewhere in our society, tend to be the most helpful. Yes football is unique, but it exists within the context of a culture, a society, a country, a technological world, so parallels can be interesting.
Now when I say “I am inclined to believe that there is something going on under the surface,” I know there are some people who will call me a conspiracy theorist and through using that phrase dismiss any remaining credibility I might have.
But name calling is not actually an argument. My job for 30 years has been to influence how people both think and behave – that is what writing advertisements is about. Since all the UK’s newspapers and most of the news websites are politicized and commercial the same is true there.
And this is not about dark nefarious forces out there aiming to bring down UntoldArsenal because we are exposing the dark deeds of PGMO. Clearly not: we’ve been providing evidence against PGMO for 10 years, and nothing has changed, which makes me think they are not the slightest bit worried about us.
Either we are talking a load of garbage and there is nothing wrong with refereeing, or PGMO, the FA and the League have told the media that anything that undermines the credibility of refereeing in England will lose them their accreditation, or no one is interested that referees might not be as good as PGMO claim they are.
However that type of news prohibition is just one level of activity. But there is another, and it has nothing to do with the football authorities. It was devised to help sway people’s opinions about political matters and is now being used as a way of building audiences and keeping readers in all areas of the media.
This story is about bots, software that runs automated tasks on the Internet such as simplistic football stories made up of one sentence paragraphs. For example under the headline “Manager reveals new approach for Arsenal” the first sentence / paragraph might read, “Arsenal have had a difficult start to the season under Unai Emery.”
Put enough of these one line paragraph together, throw in lots of adverts and a number of pictures that will slow down scanning, and the bot will make up a story and publish it by picking up on what was said in other stories elsewhere on the internet.
These are bot-made stories that occupy the reader long enough to get a possible hit by chance on an advert that overlaps part of the text.
What has been shown in the political dramas playing out in American courts is that it is very easy to make malicious bots that can “simply make up provocative statements” (see for example, the very serious and scientifically and technologically informed article on the subject in New Scientist 15 September page 8).
Now at this point the job is done as far as the computer generated Arsenal “news” service is concerned – it has created a headline, engaged a reader, and then tripped the reader into clicking on an advert, thus earning the website a few cents or pence.
But, and this is the key, although the matter is then over for the website owner as they have got their money, it is not over for the reader.
Consider the story, “Unai Emery hints at when Bernd Leno will make Arsenal debut after another Petr Cech howler” and “Arsenal news: Unai Emery finally ready to swap Bernd Leno for Petr Cech, changes to come.”
We all know these stories are going to end with the manager saying, “Yes I will rotate players at some stage – we are in four competitions and it is important for everyone to get games” or something like that, but the headline traps readers, so although they know it is just going to be another bit of non-news, they read, just in case this time it really is news.
Read enough of these and our attitude starts to change, for we start to believe there is something going on underneath and if only we click on enough stories we will actually find it. So it is the continuing human response to the automatic stories that keeps the story alive – and in the meanwhile some of these stories get forwarded; the audience grows because the audience passes it on.
This is exactly the same with political stories. A bot sets up the story that a school shooting in America did not happen, but was set up by dangerous lefties who want gun control. It’s not true but humans retweet or repeat in on Facebook over and over. The bot reads this, and creates another story of the same ilk. The humans repeat it… it goes on and on.
Equally in football, it is the smaller blogs, that pick up on the bot created story and repeat it over and over, and readers who repeat it at the next match or the next time they get together with friends and talk football.
In football the biggest fake news agenda is of course in terms of transfers, which was why we have run the Transfer Index each summer showing how 95% to 98% of transfer stories are fake. Yet although virtually everyone knows they are mostly fake and yet people keep on repeating them.
What is happening is that make-believe football stories and non-stories with seemingly exciting headlines are being made up by the bots, but then they are using humans to repeat the story over and over, which increases the level of interest in what the bots say.
The more one picks up on any of these stories and passes them, the more one becomes immersed in a world of passing on fake news and the more one tends to believe this is the dominant form of news.
Worse what we have seen lately in the US is bots learning which of the tweets and social media comments they produce get the most hits, most retweets etc and then pumping out more and more such stories.
The more that media owner can produce stories which are re-posted and believed, the more that media owner is in control of the audience, and the more the advertisements will be clicked on, and the more money will be made.
Thus the wholesale knocking of Arsenal players that we saw at the start of this season was not a huge conspiracy, nor a reflection of the fact that the team was rubbish. It was simply a bot writing a bit of knocking copy about one player, finding it reposted a lot, and then doing it again and again, until 90% of stories were knocking Arsenal players. It only stopped when the bots ran out of players.
It was self-evident that most Arsenal players at the start of the season were not utterly rubbish, and yet each and every first team player was accused of so being. If you want reminding of that episode it is at “Arsenal suffer co-ordinated attack from pundits…”
Football, politics, it is all the same. Set up the bots, run the story, and let people repeat it. Find which ones people repeat the most and then keep running more of them. In politics do it to get your idea across or destabilise the nation. In football do it to build your audience and get more clicks.
I suspect that Untold doesn’t attract many people who go in for wholesale repeating of lines from our stories, which is why our stories don’t rise up the rankings, although it might also be because I’m a crap writer of course).
Maybe we should run simple 50 word stories headlined, “Football is fixed”. That might do it.
But there’s always one way to spot a bot written article. Bots never make jokes at their own expense.
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