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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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Banning Britain First is great, but we can’t rely on Facebook to save us from racist populism

There are darker niches on social media, and wider social pressures behind them. 

Facebook's biggest UK political party is no more. The social media site has banned Britain First, the fringe far-right political party, which, despite having no elected MPs, MEPs or even councillors, amassed more than two million Likes on its page.

The ban is the most visible move to date that social networks are keen to be seen to be taking action against extremist content among a political backlash against the tech giants from countries across Europe, and the US itself.

It follows a similar ban of the party’s leaders from Twitter earlier this year, after President Donald Trump retweeted anti-Muslim videos posted by Britain First’s deputy leader.

Facebook’s move takes out one of the most powerful distribution channels for anti-Muslim content online. The page used quite sophisticated social media strategies to spread its message, posting inoffensive patriotic imagery – support our armed forces; oppose animal cruelty – to reach a wide audience, while thrpwing more explicit anti-Muslim posts into the mix.

This blend of content was itself dangerous, serving to normalise anti-Muslim views among a huge audience of casual Facebook users, many of whom were older adults. Last year, we analysed more than one million Likes on Britain First posts – about six weeks’ worth – for BuzzFeed News, finding that, while relying on a hardcore of several hundred users, the page worked successfully to reach a large pool of casual viewers, some of whom would likely be unaware of the group’s motivations.

This made the public Britain First page a powerful tool for reaching potentially sympathetic would-be recruits, but also in generating an active core membership – a power Facebook clearly recognised with its decision to ban the group.

But we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking we can tackle the rise of populism with a scattergun technological fix. The social pressures behind the popularity of such groups won’t change, and so, without clear policies, Facebook risks political incoherence and accusations of censorship. 

Britain First and the material they post have been extensively covered in the mainstream media for the past 18 months, yet they were allowed to continue posting more. Facebook must explain why such posts were considered acceptable over this period, before suddenly becoming unacceptable now. The far right is talented at exploiting “censorship” to its own advantage, claiming it is speaking the truths that those in power do not want to hear.

That doesn’t mean the group should have been allowed to continue on Facebook, but it does mean the limitations of speech are on each social network should be set out clearly and in detail.

This is particularly important because Britain First’s Facebook presence was just the most visible part of a far-right Facebook ecosystem – the nastiest content is much harder to see, hidden away in closed groups which admit new users by invitation only.

Because such groups – which often go by names such as “NO SHARIA LAW” or similar – are hidden, it is much harder to track their activity and their membership, but they number in the hundreds and some have thousands or hundreds of thousands of members. While Britain First might be the visible portion of anti-Muslim Facebook content, its these groups that likely pose the larger challenges, especially as it is not in the open where it can be challenged.

Going further, tackling the public groups helps disrupt the feed of users who could be radicalised into becoming active members of the far-right, but could serve to further radicalise those already within the private groups. There is a delicate balancing act to be tackled, and one which serves to show how important Facebook is now in public policy debates: in practical terms, a US technology company is now more influential than government policy when it comes to online extremism.

It will be a welcome relief to many that Britain First content won’t pollute their feeds any longer – but it highlights how much power we have delegated, how much Facebook can shape our rules, and how tech is running ahead of our laws and our own social decisions.

Banning Britain First from Facebook might be a move many of us like – but we shouldn’t rely on big tech to save us from populism, and its accompanying tide of racism. These are conversations we should be having – and battles we should be fighting – as a society.

James Ball is an award-winning freelance journalist who has previously worked at the Guardian and Buzzfeed. He tweets @jamesrbuk