Fans, Rogues, and Bots

As long as there have been public forums for discussing music, it has been clear that a small fraction of “fans” were not fans at all. Though they identified themselves as fans, they would be critical of almost anything any musician did, but most critical of the bands they followed. When the subject of these bands came up, these “fans’” ratio of criticism to praise was about ten to one. Talking to them or reading their rants, I would hear that their favorite band had done only one good album, and they had been disappointed by every subsequent effort from the band — for 10, 20, or even 40 years.

You can hardly imagine a more stark contrast between such a person and someone who properly fits the definition of a fan. When I think of my favorite bands, I hear what is good about the band in every song they do. For me, even the worst song from Cheap Trick, Heart, or the Bee Gees is music to my ears. To my mind, someone who claims to like Cheap Trick but cannot stand to hear the songs “Ghost Town,” “When I Wake Up Tomorrow,” or “Dream Police” is not a fan at all. Since people like this use the word fan for themselves, perhaps they can be identified as rogue fans.

The problem with rogue fans is not limited to music, but can be found in many other categories of artistic work, including video games, movies, and fashion.

It was hard enough to steer clear of rogue fans while navigating music discussions online, but now security researchers have found that a significant fraction of rogue fans online are not real people at all, but bots. Following the money, it appears that the purpose of the bots is to undermine a country’s popular culture as a step toward undermining its political culture. The rogue fan bots are a political attack on a specific country, although in some cases the attack may come from the country’s own totalitarian government.

Sociologists have measured the impact of bots on the U.S. political discussion and found it to be substantial. Bots can move the political needle by as much as 10 percentage points, but that also means bots have at least a 10 percent influence share in the conversation. In terms of raw message count, bots are much bigger than this. Known bots contributed more than 30 percent of political sniping on Twitter in the United States in 2016. Adding in bots that escaped detection, the share of talk that came from bots was probably closer to 40 percent.

To my knowledge, no one has studied the degree to which bots influence the pop music charts, but it is surely smaller than that of the more corrupt political process. Nevertheless, it is a problem that art and culture are under attack by anonymous forces with deep pockets. It means you can’t fully credit your own friends’ opinions about what music to listen to, if they are forming their opinions in part based on what they read online. The process by which mass opinions are formed has always been manipulated by entertainment companies, but now it is literally under attack by unknown forces wanting to discredit large parts of a country’s culture.

The only sure protection from this is to form your own opinions from your own experiences of art and culture, but that is probably too much to ask most fans to do. As a shortcut, you might form your opinions by relying in part on advice from people who you can trust to come by their opinions honestly. This also implies lending less credence to anonymous opinions and disregarding rants almost entirely when it comes to music and similar art forms.

Fish Nation Information Station | Rick Aster’s World | Rick Aster