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Six purple octopuses and a reminder to make the bed: inside the idyllic internet

Since the United States presidential election, calming bots are providing peace for Twitter users. Who’s behind them and what do they hope to achieve? 

Six purple octopuses stare unblinkingly into your eyes. Around them, three bright blue fish are steadily making their way from the right to the left side of their tank. Rising up from the ground are some lush green aquatic plants, their leaves almost tickling the fins of a passing fish. You are inside the emoji aquarium, admission: free, location: everywhere.

The emoji aquarium is a Twitter account powered by a bot – that is, a piece of software that automatically tweets out messages on the platform. Every few hours, the bot posts a self-described “tiny aquarium full of interesting fishies”. Although these fishies aren’t made of fleshies, there is something beautiful about them nonetheless. Their little emoji bodies swim resiliently through the swamp that, more often than not, makes up the rest of the social network.

Most stories about social media are unendingly negative. With the rise of Trumpian Twitter trolls, barely a day goes by where we are not informed about something terrible happening on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, or Twitter. Largely maligned in these stories are bots – which, among other things, have recently been accused of unfairly boosting Labour’s election campaign. But alongside these dark and democratically dangerous bots is another, gentler breed.

Over the eight months since the United States presidential election – with a notable surge after the inauguration of Donald Trump – there has been a rise in peaceful Twitter bots. Focused on either directly or obliquely improving our mental health, they include the emoji aquarium (created February 2017), the @aloebud community garden (January 2017), the @tinycarebot which tweets healthy reminders (November 2016), and the emoji meadow (February 2017). Many such accounts are part of #botALLY, a collective of internet bot creators who support each other on the site.

“It felt a bit odd to start a tranquillity art technology project during the most tumultuous time in decades,” says Joe Sondow, the creator of the emoji aquarium and meadow, “but I figured it would be nice to try to give people something pleasant to break up the noise of bad news that our Twitter feeds have become this year.” For the last few years, Sondow has run manual Twitter accounts such as @PicardTips and @WorfEmail on the site, but he recently taught himself how to create bots.

“I was hoping they’d provide a bit of peace and amusement,” he says of his meadow and aquarium accounts, which multiple followers have described as “calming” and “soothing”. Sondow intended his bots to provide “a little peace and a breath”, as well as help lower our blood pressure and allow us to “remember the enjoyment of life that we’re fighting for”.

But just why is a random array of emoji fish so calming anyway? Sondow theorises that Twitter is so far removed from nature that tweets of animals and plants can help us relax. Dr Grainne Kirwan, an expert in cyberpsychology and computer mediated communication, explains that emoji aquariums can have the same effect on us as their real life counterparts.

“I'm not so sure that it's specifically to do with the emoji,” she says, “we may find these accounts calming online because we are used to their offline equivalents also being relaxing. We associate these views with relaxation or fun, and when we see them again, even in static online versions, they subconsciously evoke the same feelings.” Kirwan’s own favourite “calming” account is @EmrgencyKittens.

Sondow is gratified by the positive reaction to his accounts and finds pleasure in the “delight they bring people”. Other similar bots have even more concrete aims. @Everydaycarebot is a bot which tweets out practical reminders for self-care, including “change your sheets” and “open a window”. Its creator is Emily Reynolds, author of A Beginner's Guide to Losing Your Mind, a non-fiction book about coping with mental illness.

“When I was writing my book and talking to people about their experiences with mental health, one thing really stood out for me – how powerless people often ended up feeling,” she explains. “I think that's something we've all experienced to some extent - whether it's because of mental illness, because of a personal circumstance or because of a wider political lanscape. @everydaycarebot was basically my attempt to combat that.”

Reynolds found that other self-care bots (which have been created in great numbers over the past few months) weren’t practical enough. She wanted to empower people to take action. “Things like opening a window or picking up dirty clothes from the floor isn't going to change somebody’s life, but it is going to make it very slightly better, and I think having an active reminder of those things can really make a difference.”

It doesn’t seem coincidental that these bots have arisen at a time when politics and social media have become inexorably entwined. Emoji fish and reminders to make your bed might not change the world, but they can certainly change a day. By providing a moment of peace in our often chaotic social media timelines, these accounts could help counter the negativity often found online. At the very least, in a world where the social media news cycle is so often dominated by trolls, these bots are a different kettle of fish. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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Marcus Hutchins: What we know so far about the arrest of the hero hacker

The 23-year old who stopped the WannaCry malware which attacked the NHS has been arrested in the US. 

In May, Marcus Hutchins - who goes by the online name Malware Tech - became a national hero after "accidentally" discovering a way to stop the WannaCry virus that had paralysed parts of the NHS.

Now, the 23-year-old darling of cyber security is facing charges of cyber crime following a bizarre turn of events that have left many baffled. So what do we know about his indictment?

Arrest

Hutchins, from Ilfracombe in Devon, was reportedly arrested by the FBI in Las Vegas on Wednesday before travelling back from cyber security conferences Black Hat and Def Con.

He is now due to appear in court in Las Vegas later today after being accused of involvement with a piece of malware used to access people's bank accounts.

"Marcus Hutchins... a citizen and resident of the United Kingdom, was arrested in the United States on 2 August, 2017, in Las Vegas, Nevada, after a grand jury in the Eastern District of Wisconsin returned a six-count indictment against Hutchins for his role in creating and distributing the Kronos banking Trojan," said the US Department of Justice.

"The charges against Hutchins, and for which he was arrested, relate to alleged conduct that occurred between in or around July 2014 and July 2015."

His court appearance comes after he was arraigned in Las Vegas yesterday. He made no statement beyond a series of one-word answers to basic questions from the judge, the Guardian reports. A public defender said Hutchins had no criminal history and had previously cooperated with federal authorities. 

The malware

Kronos, a so-called Trojan, is a kind of malware that disguises itself as legitimate software while harvesting unsuspecting victims' online banking login details and other financial data.

It emerged in July 2014 on a Russian underground forum, where it was advertised for $7,000 (£5,330), a relatively high figure at the time, according to the BBC.

Shortly after it made the news, a video demonstrating the malware was posted to YouTube allegedly by Hutchins' co-defendant, who has not been named. Hutchins later tweeted: "Anyone got a kronos sample."

His mum, Janet Hutchins, told the Press Association it is "hugely unlikely" he was involved because he spent "enormous amounts of time" fighting attacks.

Research?

Meanwhile Ryan Kalember, a security researcher from Proofpoint, told the Guardian that the actions of researchers investigating malware may sometimes look criminal.

“This could very easily be the FBI mistaking legitimate research activity with being in control of Kronos infrastructure," said Kalember. "Lots of researchers like to log in to crimeware tools and interfaces and play around.”

The indictment alleges that Hutchins created and sold Kronos on internet forums including the AlphaBay dark web market, which was shut down last month.

"Sometimes you have to at least pretend to be selling something interesting to get people to trust you,” added Kalember. “It’s not an uncommon thing for researchers to do and I don’t know if the FBI could tell the difference.”

It's a sentiment echoed by US cyber-attorney Tor Ekeland, who told Radio 4's Today Programme: "I can think of a number of examples of legitimate software that would potentially be a felony under this theory of prosecution."

Hutchins could face 40 years in jail if found guilty, Ekelend said, but he added that no victims had been named.

This article also appears on NS Tech, a new division of the New Statesman focusing on the intersection of technology and politics.

Oscar Williams is editor of the NewStatesman's sister site NSTech.