December 17, 2018

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2018 Digital Misinformation Roundup – The New York Times

2018 Digital Misinformation Roundup – The New York Times
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As Election Day draws near, a growing amount of disinformation is getting published online to confuse, inflame or distract potential voters.

To help readers better understand the information landscape, journalists at The Times have collected five examples of active disinformation campaigns that were reported on or took place this week.

[If you see a suspicious post or text, please take a screenshot and share it with us.]

On Thursday, Twitter suspended a network of suspected Twitter bots that were sending pro-Saudi Arabian government talking points about the disappearance of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

NBC News, which first reported the suspicious activity, says the accounts were taken down after Twitter was presented with a spreadsheet of hundreds of accounts that tweeted and retweeted the same talking points, like #unfollow_enemies_of_the_nation and #We_all_trust_Mohammad_Bin_Salman.

Curiously, many of the accounts were older and dormant. NBC reported that a batch of them “were created within minutes of each other on Nov. 16 and 17, 2017. Dozens of other bot accounts were created within the same hour on various dates in 2012.”


A CNN investigation identified a network of 1,700 separate Facebook pages designed to look as if they were run by local Women’s March organizers. In fact, they were a coordinated effort run out of Bangladesh to sell politically themed merchandise like T-shirts.

As CNN reported:

While the vast majority of the pages and events had no followers or attendees, some of the fake events promoting the wrong march date became popular. Fake events for Philadelphia and Chicago received more than 10,000 RSVPs; the event posted for Seattle picked up more than 20,000. (As ever with numbers on social media sites, it is possible that at least some of the RSVPs came from fake accounts used to make a page seem more popular).

Facebook executives told CNN that the group’s motives appeared to have been financial, rather than ideological. But the pages included ideological messages, according to Benjamin T. Decker, a research fellow at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School who gathered some of the data used by CNN.

“The coordinated messaging across over 40 pages within a 24-hour period using popular hashtags such as #womenswave and #womensmarch, coupled with locations that include Hartford, Conn., Kodiak, Alaska, Reno, Nev., and Butte, Mont., underlines the potential for legitimate users to become targets of nonpolitical disinformation on Facebook,” Mr. Decker said.



On Wednesday, Twitter released an archive of over 11 million tweets that the company believes “resulted from potentially state-backed information operations.” These include 3,841 accounts the social media site believes “to be connected to the Russian Internet Research Agency, and 770 accounts believed to originate in Iran.”

The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab was granted early access to the data and released a research paper with preliminary conclusions including:

Both troll operations put their governments’ needs first. Russia’s troll operation primarily targeted Russian speakers, while Iran’s focused on pushing regime messaging abroad by promoting aligned websites.

The Russian trolls were nonpartisan: they tried to inflame everybody, regardless of race, creed, politics, or sexual orientation. On many occasions, they pushed both sides of divisive issues.

Other than in the United States, the troll operations do not appear to have had significant influence on public debate.

Read the full report here.



On Monday, Representative Dave Brat, a Republican who represents Virginia’s Seventh Congressional District, put out a news release claiming that The Washington Post’s Fact Checker had debunked an ad by his Democratic opponent, Abigail Spanberger.

The problem: It wasn’t true. The Washington Post’s fact-check columnist Glenn Kessler went on Twitter to criticize the Brat campaign for misrepresenting his work:

A group of Brazilian journalists and researchers wrote an Op-Ed essay in The Times on Wednesday calling on WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned messaging app, to undertake immediate measures in advance of the country’s presidential election on Oct. 28.

During a recent one-week period, the group looked at more than 100,000 political images that were circulated within 347 public groups discussing Brazilian politics on the app.

Looking at the most widely shared 50 items, the group concluded that only four were “fully truthful.” In some posts, the pictures were real but “used out of their original context or related to distorted data.” Others posts “included unsubstantiated claims.” And some were just flat-out untrue.

Read the Op-Ed here or their original report (in Portuguese) here.






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