Say what? Crazy Rich Asians becomes Loopy Wealthy Asians as Russian news bots’ synonym hunt goes awry
News ‘spinning’ bots automatically rewrite articles about the hit summer movie starring Michelle Yeoh, but change the title of the film to Loopy Wealthy Asians using synonym-finding software
Being a bot in 2018 requires a diverse skill set. If you’re not influencing global politics, disseminating propaganda and spreading anti-vaxxing myths, then you’re rewriting entertainment pieces to manipulate Google search rankings.
Some bots are programmed to snap up online articles from legitimate news websites, sprinkle a little linguistic trickery, and regurgitate something a little strange.
Amid the excitement around the new Crazy Rich Asians movie, the Post’s eagle-eyed Style editor, Jacqueline Tsang, spotted that her section’s stories were being lifted and rewritten by article-spinning automatons. The outcome was “Wealthy Loopy Asians” – the product of poor automatic rewriting, or “article spinning”, as it’s known.
Say what? Rather as a student on deadline would use a thesaurus to evade plagiarism software, bots will replace certain words with synonyms to appease Google’s search algorithms, which prioritise articles that are linked to a lot by other articles, but punish any sign of duplication. Article spinning can help get around this, as it doesn’t get flagged as duplicate content.
It’s a solid plan, unless the piece includes any proper nouns.
For example, one of the websites, which is dedicated to spinning pieces solely from Mail Online, went with, “Followers of Kevin Kwan’s 2013 novel Loopy Wealthy Asians are eagerly awaiting the discharge of the movie” instead of the original, “Fans of Kevin Kwan’s 2013 novel Crazy Rich Asians are eagerly awaiting the release of the film.”
“The problem with simple automatic writing is that it cannot recognise context or grammar in the use of words and phrases. Poorly done article spinning can result in unidiomatic phrasing that no human writer would choose,” notes the Wikipedia entry on “Article spinning”.
What these bots do is not far away from what some actual humans writing for celebrity gossip sites do every day, churning out rewritten updates on the Kardashian family – but sometimes the bots show their circuitry by getting it hilariously wrong.
Absolute synonymy – the idea that one word can mean exactly the same as another in all contexts – isn’t really possible, as illustrated hilariously in the murky world of article-spinning automatons.
Sometimes, reading a rewritten story feels more like a cryptic crossword challenge: try to guess which 1993 film one bot site turned into Pleasure Luck Membership (answer at the end).
There will probably come a time when most news is written by bots. In 2014, the Los Angeles Times starting using an algorithm that generates a short article whenever an earthquake occurs. In 2016, The Washington Post deployed Heliograf, its own artificial intelligence technology firstly to cover the Olympics, then for Election Day results and high school football results. Within a year, its robot reporter had produced 850 stories.
Bots are also useful to produce pieces that use data sets, such as sports or financial reports, which a human journalist might find mundane, and free up time for more complex kinds of reporting.
When an online publication relies on impression-driven advertising revenue, the speed and efficiency with which a bot can upload a story could mean the difference between getting ranked at the top of Google results or on the search engine’s rarely checked second page.
Bots can be leveraged by media companies for a wide range of purposes: transcribing interviews, engaging with readers, flagging trending subjects, and, yes, influencing SEO (search engine optimisation).
So maybe, if bots get their pixellated claws on this story containing “wealthy loopy asians”, they’ll actually swap the words to the right name this time.
The answer to our question is: Joy Luck Club