Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Bot and Sold

This is a cross-posting with my movie blog.

A funny thing happened on my film blog last month. No, it wasn’t something I wrote—or at least that’s not what I’m talking about anyway.

I have a page where each month I present a few statistics from the previous month. Mostly it’s to get an idea of who is looking at my blog but also to amuse myself. The page features a pie chart showing the various countries from where I am getting hits. Historically, about half the hits are from the United States with the next larger slices from places like the UK, Ireland and Canada. After that the slices get pretty fragmented into a few dozen other countries all over the world. I also list the ten weekly commentaries in my archive that have gotten the most hits. And then just for fun I list five of the most entertaining web searches that have found my site.

When I went to gather the numbers for May, I encountered something that hadn’t happened before. Ninety-seven percent of the hits were from one country, and that country was Indonesia. The U.S. came in second with two percent. Twenty-six other countries were tallied with percentages rounded off to insignificance.

Why did internet users in Indonesia suddenly take an interest in my movie reviews? The answer is that they almost certainly didn’t. Something else was going on. I think the term we’re looking for here is web bots.

While such a massive number of hits from one country is unprecedented for my humble site, this weird kind of bot activity is not. Only very belated did I realize that my site was prowled by Russian bots coming up to the 2016 election. During September, October and November of that year, 11.9 percent of my hits came from Russia (after Ireland at 34.13 percent and the U.S. at 20.45 pecent). That had never happened before. Historically, my hits from Russia had always been nil or negligible. Cluelessly, I just shrugged and thought it must have had something to do with a few movies I had reviewed that were made by an Azerbaijani filmmaker. He had contacted me through a Russian email address (Azerbaijan being a former republic in the USSR), and I figured that he must have just had a lot of friends and relatives checking out my reviews of his films.

It was an embarrassingly long time afterward that it dawned on me that it might have had something to do with the 2016 presidential election. In my defense, I was kind of oblivious to the Russian trolling thing because none of those political bot messages everyone talked about seemed to show up in my Facebook feed. Did you know that hidden in your Facebook settings is a profile page where Facebook displays all the information it think it’s found out about you—things like religion, political preference, etc.? From this I know that Facebook has never been able to figure out what political party I support, and maybe that’s why I somehow avoided all the bot propaganda that I kept hearing about in the wake of President Trump’s election.

When the 2020 election rolled around, I was more savvy, so I kept an eye out for any more bot funny business. Sure enough, the numbers went screwy again. In the period from September to November 2020, the second and third most hits (after the U.S. at 36.09 percent) were from Hong Kong (20.26 percent) and China (7.56 percent), respectively. Nothing like that had ever happened before. Does that mean Chinese bots were working mischief during the election? People who had screamed bloody hell about Russian interference four years earlier did not seem concerned about it anyway. After all, the right candidate had won.

What does it all mean? Beats me. I don’t mind all the extra hits, but it would be nice if, while the bots are at it, they’d click on some of ads and maybe buy something.

We’re definitely in a strange time when it comes to the internet. A few times lately our broadband service has been disrupted by denial-of-service attacks by malicious cyber actors. Also, the entire Irish healthcare system has been forced to go retro because of a ransomware attack (traced by the authorities to Russia) that put its online systems out of commission. That points up the risks in having systems that are overly centralized. There may be other lessons as well. More than one acquaintance who happens to be a nurse has said that they love having the system down. It means a lot less time filling out online forms and more time actually working with patients. It also means fewer statistics on Covid ‑19 cases and death and on progress with vaccinations on the nightly news—something the government may not be all that unhappy about.

Okay, I can understand all the Russian bot activity in 2016 and all the Chinese bot activity in 2020, but what the heck is the deal with Indonesia in May of 2021? That one has me completely confounded. I can only hope the bots are aimed directly at me because one of the characters in my most recent novel Searching for Cunégonde happened to have an Indonesian father.