Algorithmic anti-semitism and computational propaganda

Just days before the horrific mass murder at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue, my Institute for the Future colleagues Sam Woolley and Katie Joseff published a deeply upsetting study on how social media bots and computational propaganda are being used to instigate and amplify anti-semitism online and manipulate public opinion. From the paper:

This report explores the ways in which online propaganda, harassment and political manipulation are affecting Jewish People in the runup to 2018 U.S. midterm elections. In the course of our research, members of this group have described a marked rise in the number of online attacks their community is experiencing. This is proving especially true during electoral contests and major political events. Correspondingly, our analyses suggests that tools like social media bots, and tactics including doxxing, disinformation, and politically-motivated threats, have been used online during the 2018 midterms to target Jewish Americans. According to interviewees, veiled human users—rather than automated accounts—often deliver the most worrisome and harmful anti-Semitic attacks.

As part of the wider paper series focused on “humanizing the effects of computational propaganda” this empirical work details the ways in which the Jewish socio-religious population in the U.S. is being disproportionately targeted with disinformation and abuse during this crucial political moment. We use a mixed methods approach in this research, deploying both qualitative and quantitative analysis in order to generate both a culturally deep and statistically broad understanding of how computational propaganda is being leveraged against this community...

Analysis of 7,512,594 tweets over a period from August 31, 2018 to September 17, 2018 shows the prevalence of political bots in these efforts and highlights groups within the U.S.

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Anonymous Trump official: Don't worry, America, us unelected nameless GOP hacks have quietly executed a coup

Trump is mentally incapable of functioning as president, writes one of his administration's senior officials, anonymously, in the New York Times. But not to worry, America. An administrative coup has been effected and we're making sure the GOP's agenda will be executed for as long as we can strap him to his horse.

Given the instability many witnessed, there were early whispers within the cabinet of invoking the 25th Amendment, which would start a complex process for removing the president. But no one wanted to precipitate a constitutional crisis. So we will do what we can to steer the administration in the right direction until — one way or another — it’s over.

It's so uninformative and lacking in detail that anyone could fake it and were it not for the Times' imprimatur, no-one would believe it was real. Nothing good will come of this, other than the fun of speculating who authored it and why.

What it smoothly describes is, in fact, worse than Trump: an administration run secretly by unnamed, unelected figures in the Republican Party. But that can't be the whole truth, because why would they publish an op-ed about it in the Times if they actually wanted to carry on with the plan?

This is probably just blather from some palace functionary or a cabinet member who wants to look good when it's all over, someone who knows that the editorial page of the New York Times is 2018's best place for bullshit.

Update: an unusual word in the article, "lodestar," is a favorite of Vice President Mike Pence. Read the rest

The Biology of Disinformation: Interview with Rushkoff, Pescovitz, and Dunagan

Over at Mondo 2000, our old pal RU Sirius interviewed Douglas Rushkoff, Jake Dunagan, and I about the "The Biology of Disinformation," a new research paper we wrote for Institute for the Future about how media viruses, bots and computational propaganda have redefined how information is weaponized for propaganda campaigns. While technological solutions may seem like the most practical and effective remedy, fortifying social relationships that define human communication may be the best way to combat “ideological warfare” that is designed to push us toward isolation. From Mondo 2000:

R.U. Sirius: In a sense, you’re offering a different model than the one most of us usually think in, as regards memetics. Instead of fighting bad memes with good, or their memes with ours, are you suggesting that we look at memes themselves as viruses attacking us? Is that right?

Douglas Rushkoff: Yeah, that’s the simplest way of looking at it. That’s why I called memes in media “media viruses.” Even if they end up forcing important ideas into the cultural conversation, and even if they ultimately lead to good things, they do infect us from the outside. They attack our weak code, and continue to replicate until we repair it, or until we come to recognize the “shell” of the virus itself. I think what makes our analysis unique, compared with a lot of what’s out there, is that we’re not proposing yet another technosolutionist fix. Mark Zuckerberg wants to fight fake news with artificial intelligence. Great.

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This is the "movie trailer" that Trump played for Kim Jong-Un

At yesterday's Trump-Kim summit, the White House played this fake movie trailer. I wish it began with "Imagine a world.." but the actual narration is almost as good:

“Destiny Pictures presents a story of opportunity, a new story, a new beginning, one of peace, two men, two leaders, one destiny."

Korean version below.

(Quartz)

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The future of computational propaganda

On January 17, 2017, Girl 4 Trump USA joined Twitter. She was silent for a week, but on January 24, she suddenly got busy, posting an average of 1,289 tweets a day, many of which were in support of U.S. President Donald Trump. By the time Twitter figured out that Girl 4 Trump USA was a bot, “she” had tweeted 34,800 times. Twitter deleted the account, along with a large number of other Twitter bots with “MAGA,” “deplorable,” and “trump” in the handle and avatar images of young women in bikinis or halter tops, all posting the same headlines from sources like the Kremlin broadcaster RT. But Twitter can’t stop the flood of bots on its platform, and the botmakers are getting smarter about escaping detection.

What’s going on? That’s what Sam Woolley is finding out. Woolley, who recently joined Institute for the Future as a Research Director, was the Director of Research at the Computational Propaganda Project at Oxford University. In this episode of For Future Reference, we asked Sam to share highlights of his research showing how political botnets — what he calls computational propaganda — are being used to influence public opinion.

Listen to the podcast interview with Sam Woolley here. Subscribe to the IFTF podcast on iTunes | RSS | Download MP3 Read the rest

Research report explains how adtech supercharges political deceit, allowing even bumblers to be master propagandists

A new report from the New America Foundation uses the current fear that Russian government elements manipulated the 2016 US election to explore the relationship between advertising technology, surveillance capitalism, and "precision propaganda," showing how the toolsuite developed for the advertising industry is readily repurposable by even modestly competent actors to spread disinformation campaigns. Read the rest

Anti-propaganda classic 'PsyWar' is available to watch online for free

In these spin-filled times, the documentary PsyWar feels as relevant as when it was released. Metanoia Films has made it available for free to all, so check it out.

Via a review on PR Watch:

The new documentary "Psywar," featuring CMD founder John Stauber, explores corporate and government use of propaganda and public relations to manipulate American people. The movie explores how the U.S. government staged events to manipulate public opinion about the Iraq war, like the rescue of Private Jessica Lynch, the supposedly spontaneous mob that pulled over the larger-than-life statue of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. It also discusses the Pentagon pundit scandal, and the hidden activities of the Rendon Group, a PR firm specializing in spinning war. The film exposes government and corporate activities to blur the lines between real news and fake news, as well as the development over time of public relations misinformation campaigns, strategic corporate campaigns to generate goodwill and the perception of good works, the use of staged photo-ops, and other manipulative PR tools that have turned the land of the free and the home of the brave into a place where citizens are now manipulated with great efficiency, and on a massive scale.

Bonus: Their film Counter-Intelligence is on their Vimeo channel:

PsyWar (via S DN Vimeo channel) Read the rest

Facebook: 126 million Americans may have seen Russian pro-Trump propaganda

Facebook is reported to soon reveal it exposed an estimated 126 million Americans, many of whom voted, to what was effectively Russian state propaganda (served from Russian webservers in Russia) during the runup to the U.S. 2016 presidential election. All of that content favored Trump, who is now President of the United States. Read the rest

Watch: Bizarre 'news' show launched by Trump is hosted by daughter-in-law Lara

To combat what Trump perceives as "fake news" in the mainstream media, he's launched his own propaganda, er, I mean "news" show on his Facebook page. Lara Trump, his daughter-in-law who is married to his son Eric, plays the part of news anchor.

"This is a president who is putting America before himself," she says in her first "newscast."

"I bet you haven't heard about all the accomplishments the president had this week because there's so much fake news out there," she said. "The economy is booming, ladies and gentlemen."

According to Buzzfeed:

A Google search shows mainstream media outlets did cover the stories she recounted, such as Trump donating his salary, a new Foxconn manufacturing plant in Wisconsin, and economic growth. But they also reported on the turmoil within the White House, the failure of his party to repeal and replace Obamacare, and the president's tweets saying that he wanted to ban transgender people from serving in the military.

Trump's abrupt reversal of Department of Defense policy was a dominant news story in the mainstream media last week. BuzzFeed News reported that the White House did not have a plan for its implementation, how the news seemed to stun military leaders, and how the news was received by trans veterans.

Those stories were not included in Lara Trump's news update...

She first promoted what will apparently be a series two weeks ago, encouraging the president's 23 million followers on Facebook to tune in every week.

"We're going to bring you nothing but the facts — stay tuned," she said.

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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

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

Dr. Seuss, Chuck Jones, and Mel Blanc's US Army cartoon warning against loose lips (1943)

Private Snafu was the US Army's series of instructional cartoons from World War II, written and/or directed by the likes of Theodor "Dr. Seuss" Geisel, Chuck Jones, and PD Eastman. The voice of Private Snafu is performed by Mel Blanc (Buggs Bunny, Daffy Duck, etc.). In this episode, written by Dr. Seuss and titled "Spies," Private Snafu learns a military secret but he can't seem to keep his lips sealed. Note the grossly racist depiction of an Asian man, sadly typical of the era.

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Trump Spokesmonster Scottie Nell Hughes: 'There's No Such Thing as Facts'

We have officially entered the post-fact American era. Donald J. Trump presidential surrogate Scottie Nell Hughes, known for being one of the most wack in Trump's pack, explicitly said on public radio's “The Diane Rehm Show” yesterday that lying is official Trump strategy. Read the rest

NPR tracks down "fake news" entrepreneur claiming up to $30,000 a month from ads: "I have a beautiful life"

The Denver Guardian looked enough like a real news site to convince legions of Facebookers that its fake news about Hillary Clinton was worth sharing. The anonymous creator reused an old handle in an early posting there, though, allowing NPR to track him down to the LA suburbs.

Jestin Coler, 40, weasels at first, claiming it's all an attempt to "highlight the extremism" and show "how easily fake news spreads." But he's soon boasting of a business operation that brings in five figures a month from ads.

Coler's company, Disinfomedia, owns many faux news sites — he won't say how many. But he says his is one of the biggest fake-news businesses out there, which makes him a sort of godfather of the industry.

At any given time, Coler says, he has between 20 and 25 writers. And it was one of them who wrote the story in the Denver Guardian that an FBI agent who leaked Clinton emails was killed. Coler says that over 10 days the site got 1.6 million views. He says stories like this work because they fit into existing right-wing conspiracy theories.

"The people wanted to hear this," he says. "So all it took was to write that story. Everything about it was fictional: the town, the people, the sheriff, the FBI guy. And then ... our social media guys kind of go out and do a little dropping it throughout Trump groups and Trump forums and boy it spread like wildfire."

As with other fake news hucksters, Coler says he also targeted liberals and lefties too, but found that they didn't fall for it the way others do. Read the rest

Governments see social media as "a new front in warfare"

Propaganda, psychological warfare, and real-time surveillance were all on the agenda at the Sixth Annual Conference on Social Media Within the Defence and Military Sector. Read the rest

China's $10B/year PR ministry mired in political fight with anti-corruption/loyalty enforcers

China's Propaganda Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party (in English, "Publicity Department") spends $10B/year -- only part of its budget -- getting the official Chinese party line into foreign news outlets, with the rest of its activity directed internally, at government communications discipline and media censorship. Read the rest

South Korea having a female leader has made North Korea even crazier

Even within the batty realms of North Korea's propaganda, the invective thrown at South Korean President Park Geun-hye is remarkable.

In perhaps its lengthiest and harshest verbal attack on Park since she took office in 2013, the North's official Korean Central News Agency on Saturday called her a "tailless, old, insane bitch," a "senile old woman" and a "murderous demon" destined to meet "a sudden and violent death."… North Korea previously called Park a "prostitute" and said she lives on the "groin of her American boss." It has frequently questioned her womanhood because she has no children, which the North labels as an "obligation" for women. North Korea also frequently refers to the "swish of her skirts," a Korean phrase used to describe women seen as overly aggressive.

"The swishes of Park Geun-hye's skirt, created by her American boss, are so unpredictable they're dumbfounding," an unnamed spokesman of the North's Joint National Organization of Working People said in a statement last year published by the KCNA. "This is all because the United States' black, hairy hands reach deep into Park Geun-hye's skirt."

Apart from the absurd sexism, there's a more politically unnerving aspect to it. For all its apparent insanity, North Korea's propaganda traditionally tried to appeal to South Korean leftists. This messaging indicates a new level of ignorance of the world outside, a turning-inwards of its paranoia. Read the rest

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