Below is an archived edition of Ctrl Alt Right Delete, a weekly email newsletter. This edition was published on 09/10/2017. Members of Factual Democracy Project have access to past editions. Subscribe to Ctrl Alt Right Delete.
Americans love social media, and we consume a lot of news via our social media feeds. This week, Pew Research Center released a study showing that “[a]s of August 2017, two-thirds (67%) of Americans report that they get at least some of their news on social media – with two-in-ten doing so often.” It was a modest level of growth from 2016, the one exception being Americans over 50. “For the first time in the Center’s surveys, more than half (55%) of Americans ages 50 or older report getting news on social media sites. That is 10 percentage points higher than the 45% who said so in 2016.”
I kept thinking about this report this week as the news came in confirming that at least one Russian firm tied to Kremlin propaganda purchased ads on Facebook targeting American voters. We’ve had confirmation since December of 2016 that Russia interfered with the American election via influence operations/active measures. At this point it probably shouldn’t surprise us that Facebook ads was one of the tactics used, but the details were interesting.
In reviewing the ads buys, we have found approximately $100,000 in ad spending from June of 2015 to May of 2017 — associated with roughly 3,000 ads — that was connected to about 470 inauthentic accounts and Pages in violation of our policies. Our analysis suggests these accounts and Pages were affiliated with one another and likely operated out of Russia.
Mark Warner, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee said that the Facebook ads were merely “the tip of the iceberg.” I expect that between the various congressional investigations around Russia, not to mention Mueller’s own investigation, we’ll learn a lot more about content, targeting, and resulting data from these ads.
More broadly, this week’s news was a sobering reminder that our social media feeds have been weaponized against us. No one is immune to the effects, even though we’d all like to believe we are. One of the reasons why I think there isn’t more anger at Russia is that admitting Russian influence operations had an effect on our election is also admitting that Americans (on the left and the right) got duped. It’s a difficult pill to swallow.
But the cold, hard truth is that our social media experience is constantly being manipulated. The New York Times had an article this week outlining the just how extensive Russian active measuresin the U.S. are. It’s a sobering read:
On Twitter, as on Facebook, Russian fingerprints are on hundreds or thousands of fake accounts that regularly posted anti-Clinton messages. Many were automated Twitter accounts, called bots, that sometimes fired off identical messages seconds apart — and in the exact alphabetical order of their made-up names, according to the FireEye researchers. On Election Day, for instance, they found that one group of Twitter bots sent out the hashtag #WarAgainstDemocrats more than 1,700 times.
The Russian efforts were sometimes crude or off-key, with a trial-and-error feel, and many of the suspect posts were not widely shared. The fakery may have added only modestly to the din of genuine American voices in the pre-election melee, but it helped fuel a fire of anger and suspicion in a polarized country.
Mother Jones also has an interview with Dr. Kate Starbird, whose work I’ve covered here before. She’s been tracking conspiracy theories and disinformation online for years and has tracked how alternative narratives have gone mainstream.
Starbird mostly dismissed these kinds of alternative narratives as outliers, a conclusion she would later regret. Then came 2016, when hyper-politicized disinformation that spread in the aftermath of mass shootings and the Paris terrorist attacks was impossible to ignore. She and her team were compelled to dig deeper into the data. And as the “fake news” language of far-right and Russian media conspiracy theorists was embraced by Donald Trump and his presidential campaign, Starbird realized the phenomenon was going mainstream.
“When it’s coming out of the mouths of people in power,” she says, “it’s no longer marginal.”
For all the focus on debunking fake news stories, there hasn’t been as much emphasis on explaining the weaponization of social media to the general public. Personally, I think that’s just as important a task when countering disinformation. And the questions friends and family asked me this week upon learning the Facebook/Russia news were a reminder of just how much work there is to be done on that front.
I can say personally, that the more I learn about social media weaponization, the better equipped I feel to fight back. Twitter attacks are probably the most personal example. Last year, I had a couple of incidents where I was the target of some extensive troll/bot attacks on Twitter. The volume of abusive tweets, the violent threats in the content, and seeing my picture on 4chan and a neo-Nazi website was unsettling. As a woman on the Internet, I’ve dealt with abuse before but never had I experienced it with so much ferocity. Those experiences, and my desire to understand just what the hell had happened, were what led me to looking into all things Frog in the first place.
A year later, and the trolls are back. I’ve been attacked several times over the past few weeks. But this time, I have so much more information! There’s a tool where I can see if my attackers are probably bots/trolls. (Most of them were.) There’s information available about how to spot bots on my Twitter feed. There are case studies of trolls in action. Finally, there are folks mapping out the botnets and tracking how humans are using them as weapons. The insults and threats on my Twitter feed haven’t evolved, but my understanding of them has. As a result, the trolls have lost any emotional power they once had over me.
The Hamilton 68 dashboard is another example of how knowledge can change our experience with social media. What people on social media are saying is my least favorite news trope. But it’s become a staple of media coverage nationally and locally, both political and non. Social media weaponizers have a keen understanding of this. They know the value of a trending topic for amplifying media coverage. But once Hamilton 68 came out, I saw a slight but immediate change in political coverage. Reporters began including what Russian propagandists were pushing into some of their political coverage. Overnight, what people on social media are saying became what Russian trolls on social media are saying. The existence of the tool took away power from Kremlin operatives to manipulate the press.
When I was programming my first series of calls for Factual Democracy Project, Bots and Computational Propaganda was the obvious choice with which to launch. Whether we’re talking about the Frog Squad, Russia, Donald Trump, or white nationalists, an understanding of social media weaponization is crucial. Understanding our current political reality starts here.
The call takes place this Tuesday, September 12, at 1 PM EDT. It’s free and open to both public and the press. More than 300 people have registered so far. The panel of speakers are incredible. Details and a link to RSVP are below. You don’t want to miss this one!
Social media has been weaponized across the globe. This call will explore the various forms of computational propaganda and the ways our social media feeds are manipulated to amplify extremism and sway public opinion. Learn about the latest research as well as efforts to counter this weaponization by those on the front lines of the fight.
- Jonathon Morgan, Founder & CEO New Knowledge AI, Founder, Data for Democracy
- Renée DiResta, Author, and Expert on Computational Propaganda
- Shireen Mitchell, Serial Founder, Digital Sisters / Stop Online Violence Against Women. Speaker on diversity, tech, media & politics
- Lisa-Maria Neudert, Researcher, Oxford Internet Institute
This series is made possible in part thanks to the generous Civic Sponsorship of Ruth Ann Harnisch, an activist investor using private funds to underwrite this exchange of information so that YOU can take action to create the world you want to live in.
- ProPublica launches a “PAC” to scrutinize campaign ads on Facebook. (ProPublica)
- What to do when Nazis are obsessed with your field (Pacific Standard)
- The far-right’s favorite social network is facing its own censorship controversy (The Verge)
- Trolls are trying to hijack the German election by copying Trump supporters (Buzzfeed)
- Trump raises an army | Charles Blow (New York Times)
- Racism isn’t a bug; it’s a feature | Derek Penwell (Courier-Journal)
- In chat rooms, alt-Right organizers planned to obscure their racism (Daily Dot)
Want even more links? Be sure to like the Ctrl Alt Right Delete Facebook page. I post articles there all week. A lot of what doesn’t make it here will get posted over there.
Connecticut/NYC readers: Next week I’ll be appearing with Congressmen Jim Himes for an event with the Democratic Women of Westport. The event is open to the public.
Sunday September 17, 2:30pm
Westport Public Library
RSVP: [email protected]
That’s all for now. Thank you to the incredible Nicole Belle who copy edits this newsletter every week.