In an era of bots and fake news, we must appreciate real people

As a political consultant, I am responsible for at least some of the political phone calls you have received in the last 20 years.

I’m proud of that. You are welcome.

Most of these calls were from real, live volunteers, who called neighbors and urged support for an issue they personally cared for.

I remember one campaign in particular: I was observing an evening call session and heard a volunteer on the phone, apologizing every 10 seconds while a voter on the receiving end provided a litany of reasons political calls are terrible — one of which was that this voter was on the National Do Not Call Registry.

I could hear the squawking and whining, like the teacher in “Peanuts,” from 10 feet away. In hindsight, here’s what I wish I said that day.

“Excuse me, ma’am. I understand that you feel outrage at having been contacted to talk about our upcoming election. I can see how you would be annoyed. You may not be aware of this, but there are countries you can move to and never again be bothered by annoying campaign volunteers. And by the way, the Do Not Call Registry is about commercial speech — selling things — not political speech. Political speech is vitally important to our democracy and is highly protected here. Have a nice day.”

To me, a little intrusion every so often seems like a small price to pay for the freedoms we seem to take for granted, ones that are sliding away more and more every day, right under our noses.

Not every campaign volunteer who calls you has a beautiful voice. And sometimes they bring up issues you don’t even care about. They are imperfect and authentic; real people reaching out to other humans, who are just as complicated and busy, to talk politics and voting. They also call at inconvenient times. And the recipients of these calls are under no obligation to answer. So much liberty!

Here’s something I have previously written about that is no longer theory: Our nation has been punked by Vladimir Putin, who perpetrated deceptions, including fake news spread by fake “people” on social media, to influence the outcome of our election. In the longer term, those actions destabilize our democracy by knocking out one of the pillars holding it up: the unfettered exchange of information and ideas.

Let’s review Cyberespionage 101:

When someone creates and manages many fake identities on social media that are not fully automated, that is “sock puppetry.” Imagine putting one of those monkey-faced sock puppets on both hands. Now, you can hide behind a piece of cardboard and manage two “voices” and send twice as much fake news, hog up the conversation and drive away actual people who might want to participate in these discussions.

Bots are even more disconnected. The extent of their humanity is the person who wrote the codes that deploy and manage them, and thousands of others like them, designed to spread fake news with the sock puppets, totally game our communications.

Fake news increasingly jams our airwaves. Not knowing who to trust, voters shrink the circle of sources they consider credible and increasingly turn toward those that simply validate what they already believe, instead of challenging them to think. That isn’t good for democracy.

Some of us are sensing that our fundamental freedoms are at risk, as we watch the press lose access to the Oval Office and reporters face legal threats and social media mobs for doing their jobs while propaganda outlets fill the void.

Now, more than ever, shouldn’t a real call from a real person be respected and even treasured? A collection of experiences, ideas and emotions surely is more relevant and meaningful than a cardboard cutout, right?

The same goes for verifiable facts, presented by a real reporter from a news organization that feels at least some obligation to adhere to certain standards and principles and, on some basic level, values the respect of their peers and their readers. These are other messy humans, making decisions and sharing information.

I’ll take messy humans calling me, knocking on my door or presenting facts to me over sock puppets and bots clogging up my feeds any day of the week.

Sock puppets and bots are flat. Profile photos with perfectly symmetrical faces or cartoon avatars can’t laugh, cry, curse, paint a picture, fix a leaking drain, change a tire, shovel snow off of a neighbors’ driveway, cook a meal or give a hug. No. these fake accounts are paid for by some person or entity whose goal is gaining political power. “They” are not there to share an experience with us. They don’t build our humanity. They actually help erase it, one hateful, lying tweet at a time.

Maureen Erwin is a Bay Area political consultant. Most recently she led Sonoma County’s Measure M, which will create the largest GMO-free growing zone in the U.S.

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