Friday 04 April 2014

Shardcore: Factbot, creator of the unbelievable truth

Factbot is a machine that makes up lies. These lies take the form of an algorithmically generated 'fact' combined with a related image, all dressed up in a familiar 'meme' form and propagated through social media. It's an artwork in the field of what I like to call 'guerilla epistemology'. 

Our relationship with knowledge has been redefined by use of the internet. Facts are a quick search away, answers at our fingertips 24/7. We have effectively augmented ourselves with the web. We are cyborgs, hooked up to Wikipedia and Perez Hilton in equal measure.

Increasingly, we are replacing our active searching with social media, where information is 'pushed' at us in a constant stream. This is very compelling. Humans are novelty seeking primates, we get a brief narcotic hit each time we assimilate a new fact. This hit is highly addictive, and we like to think we have a great relationship with our 'dealers'.

There's a certain smugness we feel about our carefully curated sources. They're smart, they make the same jokes as us, and we usually agree with them. Our own gang of cool kids.

But our dealers form a 'filter bubble' both covertly (in the case of Google) and of our own construction (in the case of who we follow on social media). We think this bubble helps us sort the wheat from the chaff, feeding us carefully curated tidbits, often in the form of facts and opinions which fit our world view (or reality tunnel).

The combination of the narcotic hit with the camaraderie we share with our gang of dealers is a heady mix. How often have you retweeted a headline and link that totally nails your opinion? How often have you done that without even reading the article? Twitter is ripe with services offering facts and images, almost exclusively without citation or explanation. While some dedicate themselves to actively debunking these untruths, they're rarely as popular.

The internet is rife with misinformation, some propagated by ignorance, but increasingly as carefully crafted campaigns of deceit. The problem is that we think we're smart enough to spot the lies, and we're not. Factbot was built to play in this space. The facts themselves are based on 'real facts' I've harvested from the web. A fact is picked at random, the entities, numbers and dates are algorithmically manipulated, and lo, a new fact is born.

Whilst most of the facts are patently absurd, I find it most interesting when it skirts the fringes of authenticity. The code which runs Factbot is dumb, it has no knowledge of the world, nor any notion of when it stumbles into the realm of plausibility - it is *our* reaction to the fact which defines its possible veracity, not the actual relationship to 'real' truth. In some ways, the more it's tweeted, the truer it gets.


In the words of Mark Twain: "A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes."

Consider that next time you check your Twitter feed.


Factbot is available on Twitter at @factbot1.
Further information on Shardcore is available in our profile from 2013.


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