Eugene Peretz via Flickr
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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.

Artie Limmer/Texas Tech University
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Meet the evangelical Christian persuading believers that climate change is real

Katharine Hayhoe's Canadian missionary parents told her science and God were compatible. Then she moved to Texas. 

During Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, alarm rose with each mention of climate change. Denial, dismissal and repeated chants of “hoax” left no doubt as to his position.

Now President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement has been seen as a seminal moment in the fight against climate change - one which many fear could lose the battle ahead of humanity.

But one scientist has been fighting a war of her own on the ground, against those who typically doubt the facts about global warming more than most - the evangelical Christian population of America.

And to make matters even more unusual, Katharine Hayhoe herself is an evangelical Christian who lives in the indisputably "bible belt" of Lubbock, Texas.

The atmospheric scientist has been named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people and one of Politico’s 50 thinkers transforming American politics. Now she is using her considerable heft to speak to those who are hardest to convince that there is a manmade problem that threatens the Earth’s future.

I meet her at the science and music festival Starmus in Trondheim, Norway, where she is to address the attendees on Thursday in a talk entitled "Climate Change: Facts and Fictions".

Hayhoe was born in Canada, to missionary parents. Her father, a former science educator, showed her that there was no conflict between the ideas of God and science. However, it was something of a surprise to her when she discovered her pastor husband, whom she married in 2000, did not feel the same about climate change. It took her two years to convince him.

What started as a conversation became an organised project when she moved to America's South in the mid 2000s. 

“Moving to Lubbock was a culture shock," she tells me. "When I moved there I wasn’t doing much outreach, but it moved me in that direction.

“Lubbock is very conservative. It’s small and isolated.

“I would say the majority of people in Lubbock are either dismissive or doubtful about climate change. I was surrounded by people - neighbours, parents of friends, people at church, colleagues down the hall in the university - who weren’t convinced.”

So Hayhoe, who works as an associate professor and director of the Climate Science Centre at Texas Tech University, set to work. She began to collect the responses she was seeing to the climate change discussion and prepare her counter-argument.

“When I talk to people who are doubtful, I try to connect with the values they already have," she says. “The greatest myth is the myth of complacency - that ‘it doesn’t really matter to me’.

"But I would say that the second most insidious myth is that you only care about this issue if you’re a certain type of person. If you’re a green person, or a liberal person, or a granola person."

The stereotypes mean that people outside that demographic feel "I can't be that kind of person because that's not who I am", as she puts it.

Hayhoe convinced her husband using data, but rather than repeating a formula, she tries to find out what will resonate with different people: "For many groups, faith is a core value that people share.”

Whether she’s speaking to city planners, water company managers, school kids or Bible believers, Hayhoe says her hook is not the facts, but the feelings.

“I recently talked to arborists," she says. "For them, trees and plants are important, so I connect with them on that, and say ‘because we care about trees, or because we care about water or what the Bible says then let me share with you from the heart why I can about these issues because it affects something that you already care about’.

“My angle is to show people that they don’t need to be a different person at all - exactly who they already are is the kind of person who can care about climate change.”

Hayhoe came to public attention in the United States after appearing in a Showtime series on climate change. She has appeared on panels with Barack Obama and Leonardo DiCaprio, and launched a web series. As well as plaudits, this level of fame has also earned her daily threats and online abuse. 

“My critics think they’re coming from a position of religion, but they aren’t," she says. "They’re actually coming from a very specific political ideology which believes that the government should not have control over people’s lives in any way shape or form - very libertarian, free market, free economy, Tea Party."

She believes that in the United States, faith and politics has been conflated to the point "people can no longer tell the difference". 

“Now it’s conservatism that informs religion," she elaborates. "If the two are in conflict - like the Bible says God has given us responsibility over everything on this earth - then people say ‘oh, we can’t affect something as big as this Earth, God will take care of it anyway’."

Around half of those who attack her on social media identify themselves as Christians, she notes, but almost all call themselves conservatives. 

As a scientist, she’s been preparing data herself - naturally - on her online attackers, with depressingly familiar results.

“As soon as you stick your head out of the trench, you get it. There have been papers published showing that white men disproportionately form up that small group of dismissives. They’re almost all men. When I track my social media comments, I would say that 99.5 per cent of them are white men.

“Out of 1,000 negative comments, I have maybe five from women.”

After the climate change argument moved up a gear - following the Paris withdrawal - Hayhoe admits that she and her fellow scientists are concerned, although she pays tribute to the businesses, cities and states from the US that have committed to following the Paris agreement themselves.

On the subject of the chief white male denier, Trump himself, Hayhoe says she has a discussion point which she feels may convince him to think carefully about his role in the fight against global warming’s impact on humanity.

“I would attempt to connect with the values that he has and show him how acting on this would be in his best interests," she says.

“One guess would be ‘what do you want your legacy to be? What do you want to be known as, the man who destroyed the world, or the man who saved it?’”

Katharine Hayhoe is speaking at Starmus on Thursday June 22. For more details, visit Starmus.

Kirstie McCrum is a freelance journalist. Follow her @kirstiemccrum.

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