Current events continue to lead me to focus on and attempt to alert people to the extent that news stories are being altered and hoaxed for use as actual political weapons via the internet. While most of the current news coverage has to do with the extent to which Facebook’s demographic data collection was – and probably still is – being used by Russian actors in both the 2016 elections and ongoing efforts to divide and fragment the American public, there are a lot more weapons available than the Facebook data. And those tools are available to both individuals and activist groups who are taking advantage of them to do exactly the same thing the Russian political warfare is doing, dividing and fragmenting the American public for political purposes.
One of the things that has emerged from actual studies of the Russian information warfare is the danger of short term messaging; by short term I don’t mean the sort of Facebook campaigns which used structured political messaging in literally tens of thousands of targeted ads but rather the power of tweets, retweets, hashtags and other instant messaging systems. The speed at which those tools allow weaponized news to go viral is amazing, and totally outpaces not only fact checking but the possibility that news sources may make mistakes and then recant. The recantations never, ever, catch up with the false news.
We witnessed an example of that this weekend when a series of doctored news items concerning Parkland shooting survivor Emma Gonzalez “ripping up the U.S. Constitution” went viral on social media. The story and images involved were totally false – but easily planted using what are called “free speech outlets”, which offer no checking of information and simply serve as a conduit for anything sent though them. In this instance it appears to have begun with a “doctored” animation placed on GAB (an ultra-conservative outlet) and then forwarded via Twitter. Within a matter of minutes the original tweet had been retweeted 1,500 times and liked 2,900 times. In time GAB was forced to acknowledge that the original was a fake but of course the damage had already been done and all those wanting to believe such a thing had no doubt internalized it as confirmation of their own views.
Long before the truth could catch up the story had crossed platforms and was appearing on websites and blogs. Adam Baldwin immediately tweeted the totally false story to 270,000 of his followers. And the story was added to an extended campaign already targeting Gonzalez, largely fed via 4Chan – an outlet routinely used by Russian trolls. That campaign accused her of being an illegal alien but also included anti-Semitic attacks on her and her family. If that doesn’t seem to make sense, it doesn’t have to, these sorts of campaigns feed off hate, and neither consistency nor rationality are required. And of course the story was also posted to Reddit’s pro-Trump page r/The Donald and widely shared by conservative news figures.
For more details on the Gonzalez information warfare check:
If you are not familiar with “open” comment/news sites such as 4chan take a look at these links:
Bottom line for me is that the weaknesses of Facebook are now known. There are some remedies and to some extent its use in information warfare to date has been more as a tool for actors with lots of money, implanting structured campaigns. That makes them a bit easier to at least track.
The sort of hate campaigns seen in the Gonzalez incident can be triggered by a single individual, or optimized by a handful of people – or bots. It’s the tweets, shares, retweets and shamefully unchecked repetition that makes them so dangerous. In that regard the internet is not to blame, it the internet users. And so far, even with all the recent news, there is no sign that those users are becoming any more alert or responsible in their usage – that is truly scary.