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Monday, Jan. 29, 2018
Fake accounts, real influence

The challenges and the pervasiveness of automated “bot” and ideological troll accounts on social media have been drawn into even sharper focus.

On Thursday, the Senate Intelligence Committee released Facebook’s replies to questions from the panel about Russian activity on the platform during and after the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. Company officials acknowledged that operatives linked to the Internet Research Agency, a well-known Russian “troll farm,” had set up 13 Facebook pages for fake organizations and used them to organize 129 on-the-ground events across the U.S. Like other examples of Russian disinformation, the fake organizations and their events targeted controversial issues and existing divisions across American society. More than 338,000 people viewed these event announcements, the company said; 8 percent of those reached expressed interest in attending an event, and 18 percent said they actually planned to attend. In addition, Facebook admitted in the document that its algorithm had helped to spread Russian disinformation content generally by recommending the fake pages and posts to users who had followed similar pages.

A screengrab from a video of two ideologically opposed protests organized by Russian operatives using fake Facebook activist groups: One was organized by an imposter group named Heart of Texas to stop the alleged “Islamization of Texas”; the other was organized by the fake United Muslims of America to “Save Islamic Knowledge.” The Russian operatives scheduled them on the same day at the same time in the same location. Credit: KPRC-TV (Houston) via CNN

On Saturday, The New York Times published an expose about another source of fake and automated accounts online: “factories” that sell followers and engagement across social media platforms. Such companies operate in the open, controlling millions of fraudulent accounts whose “attention” it sells to clients seeking the appearance of greater influence, public support or a way to game the algorithms that assign value to their content. Clients include politicians, actors, athletes, models, ministers and business executives.

The fake accounts analyzed by the Times, created by Devumi, a New York City company, were cloned from the accounts of real people by scraping profile pictures, hometowns and other personal details, then creating account names that, at first glance, appeared the same — for example, by substituting just one character (a lowercase “i”) in a Twitter handle with a similar character (a lowercase “l,” as shown below).

A New York Times graphic shows how Devumi cloned an account, changing just one character in the username. Click the image to read the story.

Influence-peddlers also sell a variety of other fake engagement products, including YouTube views, SoundCloud plays and LinkedIn endorsements.

  • Note: Though Twitter and other platforms forbid creation or use of fake accounts and other artificial engagement mechanisms, these practices can boost social media platforms’ revenue by falsely inflating their audience. Twitter, for one, sells ads against its user base, and bots eat up impressions of posts that advertisers pay to promote. YouTube sells ads against viewership of videos, and “viewbots” that rack up views wind up making YouTube money. But phony engagement also carries risks for social media companies: If advertisers lose confidence in metrics’ reliability, they will demand lower prices or place their ads elsewhere. If consumers lose confidence in the authenticity of other users, they may leave as well.
  • Discuss: Should the government regulate companies selling followers and other forms of online influence? How does the number of likes, shares, views, followers and subscribers attached to pieces of content affect your information consumption habits?
  • Idea: Before introducing these concepts to students, have them keep an “engagement journal” in which they log what they read, watch, like or share on social media, along with their reasons for doing so. Encourage them to be as honest and thorough as possible, and to consider all the factors that, consciously or unconsciously, drive their decisions. Then use The New York Times’ “Follower Factory” report to introduce the issue of fake followers. Ask them to consider how engagement numbers affect their decisions and how those figures determine what counts as “popular” online.
  • Act: Have students use reverse image search to see if their images have been hijacked. For example, they might search for 10 images of themselves that they have shared, then report on their findings. They could also extend this exercise to pictures of friends and family members.
  • Act 2: Choose a sample of recent content that was popular on social media, then delve into publicly available social media analytics (for example, using BuzzSumo’s free Chrome extension) for each example. What questions does this exercise raise? How can we find answers? What other kinds of tools might we use to examine content found online?
  • Related: “New York Attorney General to Investigate Firm That Sells Fake Followers” (Nicholas Confessore, The New York Times)
How journalism exposed a serial abuser

The horrifying story of sexual abuse — and its cover-up — in the world of USA Gymnastics might never have come to light had a source not tipped off Indianapolis Star investigative reporter Marisa Kwiatkowski in April 2016 to a lawsuit filed in Effingham County, Ga., against the sport’s governing body for allegedly concealing sexual abuse complaints against a coach. The story had a strong local angle — USA Gymnastics is based in Indianapolis — so she made a quick trip to Georgia to get the court documents before they were sealed. They became the basis of the Star’s first story.

That report, published Aug. 4, 2016, sparked an outpouring of emails from women across the country with similar allegations — three of whom (in three different states) told nearly identical stories of abuse by Larry Nassar, the team doctor for USA Gymnastics. One of those athletes, Rachael Denhollander, went on the record for a story in September, prompting still more women to come forward. (Read the investigative series.)

Nassar was convicted of criminal sexual conduct and was sentenced on Wednesday to between 40 and 175 years in prison; more than 150 women made victim impact statements at his sentencing hearing. The president of USA Gymnastics stepped down last March, a month after a report on CBS’s 60 Minutes brought national attention to the scandal; after Nassar’s sentencing last week, the entire board of directors of USA Gymnastics and the president of Michigan State University, where Nassar had been on the faculty, also quit.

And the Star’s team of journalists reporting this story? They say they aren’t finished. 

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Viral rumor rundown

  • YES: Many of the accounts engaging and boosting #ReleaseTheMemo on Twitter were suspected Russian trolls and bots, and hundreds of them were brand new. NO: The hashtag did not originate with, nor was it predominantly engaged and driven by, Russian accounts.
  • NO: The NFL did not admit to rigging the Jan. 21 AFC championship game in favor of the New England Patriots to maximize audience interest and profits. YES: Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety T.J. Ward tweeted "Rigged! Smh" just after the game. NO: Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Jalen Ramsey did not publish a tweet saying he had been instructed “to give the game to NE.” YES: Ramsey did use Twitter to scold those who believed it. NO: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell did not permanently ban Ramsey.
    • Note: These rumors were woven into an elaborate and misleading video published on Facebook and YouTube by Satire Daily. It combined deceptively edited clips from years-old broadcasts — including from NBC News and The Herd with Colin Cowherd on Fox Sports Radio — with a mix of fake and authentic tweets by athletes. This echoes longstanding conspiracy theories about rigging in professional sports.
  • NO: Ronny Jackson, the White House physician, did not write the president a note saying he was too sick to talk to Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III. That was satire from The New Yorker’s Andy Borowitz, whose humor is often misperceived (and shared) as actual news.
    • Discuss: Can satire be irresponsible? Should all satire be labeled? How prominently? (The New Yorker’s collection of Borowitz’s columns does include the heading “Satire from The Borowitz Report,” as does each column. Importantly, the heading is also pulled into previews on social media when links are shared.)
  • YES: Vanity Fair digitally removed actor James Franco from the cover of its March issue after several women accused him of sexual misconduct. YES: Oprah Winfrey gained a third hand when different images were combined for an image inside the magazine. NO: The magazine hasn’t confirmed that actress Reese Witherspoon’s legs were digitally altered for the cover. Some people perceive a third leg — including, jokingly, Witherspoon herself — but Vanity Fair insisted that it’s just an illusion created by her dress.
    • Discuss: Does Vanity Fair observe the same journalism standards as news organizations? Is image manipulation by publishers always wrong?
  • YES: Sean Hannity’s Twitter account was compromised and disappeared from the platform for a few hours on Saturday. NO: Contrary to a tweet from conspiracy theorist and propagandist Alex Jones’ tweet (in which he shared a video by staffer Owen Shroyer) no evidence suggests that the disruption was the work of “deep state” government agents or “the tech left.”
  • NO: The shooting in a Benton, Ky., high school last week was not the 11th “school shooting” of 2018. YES: It was the 11th time a gun was discharged on or near school property, including two suicides, an accidental discharge and a pellet gun fired at a school bus.
    • Note: That statistic was released by the gun-control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety and was cited in coverage by The New York Times, NPR and others.
  • NO: Dolly Parton did not say “Trump in one year is already better than 16 years of Bush, Obama put together.” Neither did actress Michelle Pfeiffer.
    • Misinformation pattern: Controversial quotes — whether authentic, altered or fabricated — are commonly falsely attributed to celebrities to pique curiosity and outrage.
Google's new 'citizen reporting' app

Google has begun testing an app — Bulletin — that enables users to instantly publish text, images and video directly to the web. The company is promoting it as a way of “contributing hyperlocal stories about your community, for your community, right from your phone” by making it “effortless” to tell “inspiring stories that aren’t being told.” Items posted with Bulletin will show up in Google search results and can be easily shared on social media or by email or message apps.

For now, Bulletin is available only through pilot programs in Nashville, Tenn., and Oakland, Calif., for Android users who request early access.

Bulletin could dramatically increase the documentation of public events, meet extremely specific information needs and result in an unprecedentedly broad range of stories. It also could become a vector for misinformation. What happens when users fail to verify what they publish or to provide proper context for images and video? How might Google Bulletin be deliberately misused?

  • Discuss: Have you ever published an online account of an event? When Bulletin is available to you, will you use it? How? Why or why not? What might happen if everyone in your community actively used Bulletin? What kinds of Bulletin stories do you think would be most valuable?
  • Idea: Ask students to list the ways Bulletin could be misused, then give them Bulletin’s community guidelines. How many potential misuses do the guidelines address?
  • Act: Rewrite Google’s guidelines to address more of Bulletin’s pitfalls, then share those revisions with Google or publish them on social media.
  • Act 2: Have students mock up their own Bulletin-style story by combining text, images and video about a hyperlocal event. Then share those stories anonymously with other students and ask them to rate how accurate, complete and relevant each report was.
    • Discuss: Was the experience of reporting an event harder or easier than you first expected?
  • Related:
Please share this newsletter with others who may find this information useful (subscribe here). For more examples and ideas like these, you can follow me on Twitter (@PeterD_Adams). Also follow @NewsLitProject and @MrSilva.

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