Mindless retweeting is the target for artist's fib-producing 'Factbot'

Eric Drass' Factbot cooks up bogus "facts," attaches pix to create "nice meme-type image-and-text" combos, then Tweets them to see how they spread. Drass wants us to question our "reality tunnels."

Bonnie Burton
Journalist Bonnie Burton writes about movies, TV shows, comics, science and robots. She is the author of the books Live or Die: Survival Hacks, Wizarding World: Movie Magic Amazing Artifacts, The Star Wars Craft Book, Girls Against Girls, Draw Star Wars, Planets in Peril and more! E-mail Bonnie.
Bonnie Burton
3 min read

FactBot counts on the idea that not everyone will double check lemur facts before retweeting this image. Eric Drass

Don't believe everything you read, especially if it's on the Internet. Misinformation spreads faster than ever thanks to social media, and most of us retweet a science or celebrity post without a second thought about fact-checking. Artist Eric Drass, aka Shardcore, turns this latest trend of gullibility into an interactive art experiment with Factbot -- a Twitter and Tumblr blog that posts untrue "facts," with corresponding images.

"The Internet is full of lies. It always has been. But it feels like there's been a cultural shift in our ability to discern a lie from a truth, since the advent of things like Twitter," Drass told Crave. "We are now constantly bombarded by little bits of information -- headlines and 140 character bon mots -- which we tend to read [and] mentally file away [before we] move on. Because everything is bite-sized, we rarely question the authenticity of a statement -- particularly when it has a nice image attached to it."

"I created Factbot as a way of playing with this problem," Drass added. "I wanted to make something totally made up, but dress it in the clothes of the Web (i.e., as a nice meme-type image-and-text combo). I have no control over the facts it creates, and I too sometimes find myself thinking long and hard about the more plausible ones."

With Twitter factoid accounts like UberFacts, Hidden Facts, and OMG Facts growing in popularity -- some having over 2 million followers -- many people tweet and retweet these facts without checking to see if the posts are indeed true. Drass' Factbot questions such thoughtless retweeting.

"People like bite-sized things, they like pictures, they like learning little factoids but are less keen on really learning anything, in depth," Drass told Crave. "In particular, people like to share facts which line up with their own world view -- or their 'reality tunnel,' as Robert Anton Wilson would call it -- this can be a very dangerous thing, and lead to the propagation of misinformation and the re-enforcement of the filter bubble."

This isn't the first time Drass has experimented with the truth and Twitter. He's also created Twitterbots to explore celebrity gossip and religious mashups. Drass, who also holds a Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology, created a Twitterbot of himself to discover what a bot would create based on three years worth of data gleaned from his personal Twitter account.

"But they are all text-based," Drass told Crave. "I'd noticed that once Twitter started presenting images in-line, that a whole new opportunity existed for algo-authenticity. Factbot was written specifically to conform to the visual format of the shareable fact, so I'm pleased it's getting some attention. I also think people like the absurdity of its output. I've noticed [that] the facts mentioning celebrities have the most chance of spreading outside the network of those 'in the know.'"

None of this caption is true, but it sure would be fun to retweet. Eric Drass

Factbot tweets about celebrities are popular, but it's the more obscure tweets about foreign countries and their histories that seem to appear the most credible.

"The real interesting ones are when it makes up a fact which is almost believable -- generally by mentioning a country we know little about," Drass told Crave.

Factbot's tweets are so convincing that Drass's social-media experiment has succeeded in being listed in Wikipedia's entry under "Dangers of Twitterbots." Whether social experiments such as Factbot will cause us to think twice before blindly retweeting has yet to be determined, but it does make for an interesting Twitter feed.

"Never underestimate the stupidity of your audience," Drass concluded in his lecture " You Give Me Data, I Give You Art," about turning Big Data into art, at the PyData 2014 conference in London. Here's a video of the talk: