As real as you and me

On May 23, hundreds of thousands of public comments poured into the U.S. Federal Communications Commission in a matter of hours. A week and a half later, on June 3, hundreds of thousands more followed. Over these two days alone, the FCC would receive a historic number of comments; both for, and against, the rollback of net neutrality. Only it wasn’t voters they were hearing from. More than 1 million of these comments were left by bots. The New York Attorney General’s office is currently investigating their sources.

On the internet, questions like this, about what’s real, and who’s real, can feel disorienting. Because our experience of the web is deeply personal, and profoundly human; it’s as real as you and me. We live here. We lol here. We love, and argue, and share out here. It’s not just about bots impersonating angry voters. (But also: who are they?) It’s the whole online experience. When we transform ourselves into avatars, when we express ourselves with emojis or star ratings, our identities also shift. It’s 2018, and we’ve changed.

You can close this tab, and shut down your phone, but there’s no off switch for the internet. This year, one of the most important questions we can ask is what it’s doing to us. In this season of IRL podcast, we’ll investigate how the internet is rewiring our brains, and reshaping our identities.

We’ll meet Jack Hirsch, an AI developer whose profile was stolen by a political bot. We’ll talk to SoSadToday about what making memes can teach us about self care. We’ll spend time with Joseph Atick, one of the forefathers of facial recognition technology, as he grapples with its impact. Along the way, we’ll hear from many others; whose experiences, real, regular, and extraordinary, have been impacted by what happens online. Throughout all these stories are signs of the larger forces shaping culture, both good and bad. The issues changing the internet are changing the world.

In this season’s first episode, we explore the rise of bot politics in social media, with Tim Hwang, Lauren Kunze, Ben Nimmo, Jack Hirsch, and Lisa Maria Neudert. What happens when bots outnumber people on the internet? How are automated accounts shaping the public debate? And what can we do to help stop the spread of misinformation online? These questions and more, in this week’s edition of IRL podcast.