Three kinds of propaganda, and what to do about them

Jonathan Stray summarizes three different strains of propaganda, analyzing why they work, and suggesting counter-tactics: in Russia, it's about flooding the channel with a mix of lies and truth, crowding out other stories; in China, it's about suffocating arguments with happy-talk distractions, and for trolls like Milo Yiannopoulos, it's weaponizing hate, outraging people so they spread your message to the small, diffused minority of broken people who welcome your message and would otherwise be uneconomical to reach. Read the rest

National Enquirer's "Special investigation" exposes the truth within the Trump White House

At last, the darkest scandals of the Trump family are revealed.

"Melania and Ivanka Trump's private lives!" promises the cover of this week's 'National Enquirer' in a "special investigation."

The standard 'Enquirer' exposé would dig up old boyfriends to dish the dirt, scour criminal records, probe Melania's murky Eastern European origins and revel in Ivanka's lap-of-luxury childhood of spoiled excess.

What scandal does the 'Enquirer' dig up?

"The pain and persecution they overcame to finally stand beside the seat of American power!" As if.

The 'Enquirer' claims that its two-month investigation "in a manner never accomplished before" concluded, in the words of an unnamed source, that Melania and Ivanka "will restore grace to the White House and guide this president in a way that likely has never been seen before!" That must have been one heck of an investigation.

Despite its headline, the 'Enquirer' can't come up with any way in which Melania was ever persecuted, though it reveals that a pre-teen Ivanka had to endure questions from reporters (most likely 'Enquirer' reporters) about her father's extra-marital affair with Marla Maples.

Shocking.

It's an astonishingly sycophantic propaganda piece, quite different from 'Us' magazine's cover this week revealing "Melania's Struggle - A Life She Never Wanted." As the story explains, "feeling isolated and unprepared, the reluctant first lady is secretly miserable."

As is anyone who felt that the tabloids once served a use as the slumdog scavengers of news others were too respectable or reluctant to research, exposing O.J. Simpson's incriminating Bruno Magli shoes, John Edwards' love child, Gary Hart pictured aboard 'Monkey Business' with model Donna Rice, and Rush Limbaugh's OxyContin addiction. Read the rest

Wikipedia policy declares the Daily Mail to be "unreliable" and not suited for citation

The notorious, Hitler-endorsing, Brexit-backing, anti-vaxx, cancer-scare-promoting, compulsively lying, photoshop failing, plagiarizing, M15-creating, hateful, lethally transphobic, Creative Commons misunderstanding, evil, teacher-demonizing, royal-wedding-lying, Melania Trump distressing, racist, grandstanding, pig-fuckery-promoting tabloid will no longer qualify as a "reliable source" for the purposes of Wikipedia citation. Read the rest

Puppet-master Obama’s plot to undermine Trump, and other tabloid stunners

There are lies, damn lies (AKA Trump statements) and tabloid news.

"Michael Jackson exhumed!" screams this week's 'Globe.' Inside, a two-page spread sits under the headline: "Jackson crypt opened for new autopsy!"

Lies, plain and simple, as the 'Globe' article itself attests, if one bothers to read it. The gloved one's daughter Paris recently told 'Rolling Stone' magazine that she thought her father may have been murdered, which supposedly prompted the 'Globe' to initiate an "exhaustive investigation." This amounts to asking a bunch of rent-a-quote "experts" if Jackson could have been murdered. Their conclusion: "Michael Jackson's body must be exhumed for a new autopsy."

In other words, there's nothing new to the story, and Jackson's body is still six feet under.

Prince Charles' wife is the target of the 'Globe' cover headline: "Alcoholic Camilla Thrown Into Rehab!" Seasoned tabloid readers will fondly remember the 'Globe' cover of November 25, 2013, with the headline: "Queen Orders Drunken Camilla Into Detox!" Both stories rely on the Royal Family's reluctance to sue for libel, and seem to be based on nothing coming close to resembling a fact. Of course, the latest 'Globe' report doesn't suggest that Camilla is in an actual rehab clinic, but "has been confined to her quarters in Highgrove House."

Which was easily disproved when Camilla was seen with Prince Charles on February 8 happily mingling with crowds as they visited an art show in the British town of Hull, and appeared earlier this week at a charity dinner in London. Read the rest

Behold the horrors of Future CNN

On Twitter, @FutureCNN provides glimpses into the grim future of Trump's america, as depicted as inane CNN roundtables and wry chyron operators.

Read the rest

Vampire corpses, Obama’s plot to steal back the White House, and other tabloid stunners

O.J. Simpson's "murder knife" has been found, Barack Obama plans to "steal back" the White House, and James Dean "didn't die" in his 1955 car crash but went into hiding.

It's yet another embarrassment of factually-challenged riches brought to us by this week's tabloids.

"O.J. Murder Knife Found!" scrams the 'National Enquirer,' which enterprisingly searched the grounds of Simpson's former Florida home with a metal detector, and claims to have dug up a blade "nearly 4 inches long" buried under two feet of earth near the perimeter of the two-acre property.

The 'Enquirer' shouldn't need reminding that Los Angeles County chief medical examiner Dr. Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran told the trial jury that Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were killed in 1994 with a weapon believed to be "about six inches long." Not what the 'Enquirer' dug up. End of story. Put it back in the ground.

Is Obama engaged in a "Secret Plot to Steal Back White House," as the grammatically-challenged 'Enquirer' claims? An "in-depth National Enquirer investigation" has found that Obama "is working with Dems to undermine Trump." Wow, that must have taken a lot of digging. Who would have thought it?  "Obama is grooming Michelle to run for the Democratic Party nomination in 2020," claims the report. How does the 'Enquirer' know that's his aim? "The first step in Obama's plan was moving into a mansion just TWO MILES from the White House so he'd remain close to the D.C. political scene." Brilliant investigative work by the 'Enquirer.' What more proof is needed that Michelle Obama is running in 2020? Read the rest

The future of fake news is real-time video manipulation

Nick Bilton reports on the next round of fake news tools that allow users to manipulate audio and video to change what's being said, a sort of real-time Photoshop for moving images and audio. Want to make it look like a celebrity used a taboo word, or misquote a politician? No problem! Read the rest

Google has banned 200 publishers since it passed a new policy against fake news

Google recently stopped serving ads to 200 fake news sites.

From Recode:

Publishers were banned in November and December and included sites that impersonate real news organizations through shortened top-level domains, according to Google’s 2016 “bad ads” report, normally released at the beginning of each year.

So-called fake news publishers will sometimes take advantage of “.co” domains by appearing similar to legitimate news sites that would normally end in “.com.”

Google declined to provide a listing of the banned sites.

Read the rest

Forget “alternative facts.” This week’s tabloids shoot for an entire alternate universe

What does it take to be a tabloid reporter?

Bare minimum requirements demand a Harvard medical degree, five years of psychic training, and a mandatory year spent working at an "I Guess Your Weight' midway booth at Coney Island.

It's this impressive level of training that allows this week's tabloids to bring their impressive diagnostic powers to bear on the burning issues of the day: how much do Angelina Jolie and Bill Clinton weigh?

"Dying Angie" is a sylph-like "76 lbs" - way down from the 87 lbs the tabloids put her at a few weeks ago - and on "hunger strike" after "divorce pushed her to breaking point!" claims the grammatically-challenged 'National Enquirer.'

"Skeletal and near death, Angelina Jolie could survive only by having liquid food suctioned through her nose - and then stuffed down to her stomach," it reports. A mere layman might assume she could just pick up a fork and eat something, but the medically-trained experts at the 'Enquirer' know when force-feeding a liquid diet is a patient's only hope.

Apparently in years past Angie would sometimes leave food untouched outside her bedroom door, and now "if she's really skinny, she must be doing it again," says a source. Must she? Who is that informed insider? It's "a source close to Brad's longtime psychic," the 'Enquirer' reveals. That's what qualifies as an unimpeachable source: someone acquainted with Jolie's estranged husband's psychic? Perhaps that's who's been telling President Trump that attendance at his inauguration broke all crowd records? Read the rest

How the Chinese government fabricates social media posts for strategic distraction

The Chinese government "fabricates and posts about 448 million social media comments a year," according to a study conducted by researchers at Harvard, Stanford, and the University of California San Diego.

The Chinese government has long been suspected of hiring as many as 2,000,000 people to surreptitiously insert huge numbers of pseudonymous and other deceptive writings into the stream of real social media posts, as if they were the genuine opinions of ordinary people. Many academics, and most journalists and activists, claim that these so-called “50c party” posts vociferously argue for the government’s side in political and policy debates. As we show, this is also true of the vast majority of posts openly accused on social media of being 50c. Yet, almost no systematic empirical evidence exists for this claim, or, more importantly, for the Chinese regime’s strategic objective in pursuing this activity. In the first large scale empirical analysis of this operation, we show how to identify the secretive authors of these posts, the posts written by them, and their content. We estimate that the government fabricates and posts about 448 million social media comments a year. In contrast to prior claims, we show that the Chinese regime’s strategy is to avoid arguing with skeptics of the party and the government, and to not even discuss controversial issues. We infer that the goal of this massive secretive operation is instead to distract the public and change the subject, as most of the these posts involve cheerleading for China, the revolutionary history of the Communist Party, or other symbols of the regime.

Read the rest

Alien coffins, Donald Trump, and Herman Munster

What do Charles Manson and O.J. Simpson have in common? Both plan to come back from the dead, according to this week's fact-challenged tabloids.

Mass killer Manson is "using voodoo to live again and get revenge" claims the 'Globe.' Inspired by allegations that Manson has been sticking pins in voodoo dolls of his enemies, the 'Globe' alleges that "Manson's most chilling plan is to use voodoo to turn himself into a zombie, a walking dead man, after his demise, so he could continue taking revenge on the world!"

O.J. Simpson evidently plans a more exulted route to life after incarceration. "Tell them to expect me like they're expecting Jesus to come back - because I'm coming," reports the 'National Enquirer.'

One thing is certain: If both men get to walk the Earth again it won't be long before Ryan Seacrest Productions combines them for one hell of a reality TV show. Or maybe 'Lifestyles of the Undead & Famous?'

I really need to tell any tabloid Editors out there: This word "Exclusive" - You keep using that word. It does not mean what you think it means.

Just look at that blurred, fuzzy photo purporting to be Charles Manson in a hospital bed, beneath the headline "Another Enquirer Exclusive - The Photo That No Other Publication In The World Could Get!"

It's not such a singular sensation when the 'Globe' publishes the same photo on its cover, beneath the headline "World Exclusive."

Or how about the 'Globe' offering its "Exclusive Interview & Photos" of actress Shelley Duvall living in what appears to be reduced circumstances on a ranch in Texas? Read the rest

Obviously fake "paid protester" site sets right wing media aflutter

Demand Protest, a service that bills itself as providing "deliver[ing the appearance of rage] at scale while keeping your reputation intact" purportedly pays protesters $2500/month plus $50/hour for left-wing protesters to take to the streets, and claims to have run 48 campaigns, despite having only registered its domain last month (it also displays a copyright notice that spans 2015-2017). Read the rest

What happens when your political photo goes viral in 2017

Sean Bonner's posted his share of viral images over the years, but the most recent time was a little different: he tweeted a picture of an anti-Trump political sticker he spotted in Tokyo, created by street artist 281_Anti nuke. Read the rest

A potential college course on detecting and combating bullshit in all its forms

University of Washington profs Carl T. Bergstrom (Biology) and Jevin West (Information School) have proposed a course called "Calling Bullshit in the Age of Big Data" that characterizes "the majority of administrative activity" as "sophisticated exercise(s) in the combinatorial reassembly of bullshit" and aims to train students to "navigate the bullshit-rich modern environment by identifying bullshit, seeing through it, and combatting it with effective analysis and argument." Read the rest

“Crooked Hillary will die in jail!” and other tabloid stunners

You pays your money and you takes your choice with this week's tabloids.

"Crooked Hillary Will Die in Jail!" screams the 'Globe' cover, with a two-page exclusive inside predicting "Hillary's Prison Death Sentence!" You have to admire the Photoshopped picture of an ashen-faced Hillary, dark bags around her eyes, care-worn face furrowed with wrinkles, clad in an orange jumpsuit behind  grey metal prison bars. It's harder to be impressed by the "new evidence that will put her away!" which supposedly will be supplied by former president Bill Clinton when he testifies before the Eastern District of New York grand jury investigating the Clinton Foundation -- testimony which he may never give. And that "death sentence"? That's simply the 'Globe' anticipating that "Bill's testimony sends her away for 20 years," and with her "killer medical ailments, even a 10-year stretch would be a death sentence."

But if you believe the 'National Enquirer' -- and who wouldn't? -- the future looks rosy for Hillary Clinton, who it forecasts could be the next Mayor of New York City. It "Could Happen" assures the 'Enquirer,' which calls her mayoral election "easy pickings."

Singer George Michael "turned to booze and drugs" after his voice was "destroyed" by pneumonia in 2011, leading to his tragic demise, reports the 'Globe.'

Or you can believe the 'Enquirer,' which insists: "Blackmail Demands Drove George To Suicide!" Supposedly Michael was "driven to suicide by sinister blackmail threats from a train of male lovers in his life." It's a typically homophobic allegation that makes little sense for a man who was openly and proudly gay, and had little to fear from exposure. Read the rest

How to think critically about news quotes from unnamed "government sources" under trumpism

As the Trump administration continues its twin trademarks of "not having press conferences" and "being at the center of gnarly scandals involving spycraft and hacking," much of the reporting on what's actually happening in the most powerful country on Earth is based on quotes attributed to anonymous government sources -- people with something to say but who won't let their names be associated with it. Read the rest

Six essays on media, technology and politics from Data & Society

danah boyd writes, "Yesterday, a group of us at Data & Society put out six essays on 'media, technology, politics.' Taken together, these pieces address different facets of the current public conversation surrounding propaganda, hate speech, and the US election. Although we only allude to specifics, we have been witnessing mis/disinformation campaigns for quite some time as different networks seek to manipulate both old and new media, shape political discourse, and undermine trust in institutions and information intermediaries. In short, we are concerned about the rise of a new form of propaganda that is networked, decentralized, and internet-savvy. We are also concerned about the ongoing development of harassment techniques and gaslighting, the vulnerability of old and new media to propagate fear and disinformation, and the various ways in which well-intended interventions get misappropriated. We believe that we're watching a systematic attack on democracy, equality, and freedom. There is no silver bullet to address the issues we're seeing. Instead, a healthy response is going to require engagement by many different constituencies. We see our role in this as to help inform and ground the conversation. These essays are our first attempt to address the interwoven issues we're seeing. Read the rest

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