Automated Propaganda, Weaponized Bots

botSociologist Philip N. Howard, writing in “IEEE Spectrum,” discusses automated political propaganda.  His article “How political campaigns have weaponize social media bots” is readable and important to an understanding of political propaganda.

Looking at Tom Reed’s facebook page, I often wonder if comments there are posted by people or machines? It may not be possible to know.

  • False facebook accounts aren’t easily identified.
  • Some bots are mixed with human participation.
  • Postings from false accounts are echoed by persons who may be unaware of the source of the material.

In some cases one might be suspicious. One account “likes” whatever some other accounts post on Tom Reed’s official page but never anything else. As this suspicious account is an account devoid of content, one might think it is a bot. Other accounts which post comments, but are also devoid of meaningful content, are also suspicious. Yet Howard reports that bots can have all the attributes of an account created by a person.

Howard writes:

..about half of Twitter conversations originating in Russia involve highly automated accounts. Such accounts push out vast amounts of political content, and many are so well programmed that the targets never realize that they’re chatting with a piece of software.

Here is one way to identify automated propaganda postings:

We have found that accounts tweeting more than 50 times a day using a political hashtag are almost invariably bots or accounts that mix automated techniques with occasional human curation. Very few humans—even journalists and politicians—can consistently generate dozens of fresh political tweets each day for days on end.

Here is another point on the extent of propaganda efforts:

Facebook, for example, disabled over 1 billion fake accounts, and its safety and security team has doubled to more than 20,000 people handling content in 50 languages. Twitter reports that it blocks half a million suspicious log-ins per day. 

One thing I found interesting is that both the Clinton campaign and the Trump campaign used political bots in 2016. The Republican effort was larger and perhaps more sophisticated. One wonders if that made the difference in the election, and whether Russian expertise was critical in the Republican effort.

Howard concludes:

To defend our democratic institutions, we need to continue to independently evaluate social media practices as they evolve, and then implement policies that protect legitimate discourse. Above all, we need to stay vigilant, because the real threats to democracy still lie ahead.

Philip N. Howard is the director of the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford and principal investigator of the Computational Propaganda Project.

https://spectrum.ieee.org/computing/software/how-political-campaigns-weaponize-social-media-bots

 

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About whungerford

* Contributor at NewNY23rd.com where we discuss the politics, economics, and events of the New New York 23rd Congressional District (Allegany, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Chemung, (Eastern) Ontario, Schuyler, Seneca, Steuben,Tioga, Tompkins, and Yates Counties) Please visit and comment on whatever strikes your fancy.
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20 Responses to Automated Propaganda, Weaponized Bots

  1. josephurban says:

    The problem is that the young tech “geniuses” who devise these social networking sites have no core value except making money. Facebook claims it cannot adequately police the network. Nonsense.
    You hire more people for starters. It is a multi-billion dollar company after all. Second, you review each NEW member and verify that they are humans.
    Third , you place their country of origin as part of their Facebook account . For example I might be : Joe Urban, USA. A Russian would be: Vlad the Magnificent, Russia.
    It is simply a matter of hiring folks to keep the system clean or at least make sure we know WHO is actually posting ideas.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. whungerford says:

    As reported, facebook has a staff of 20,000; this hardly seems insignificant. How would new accounts be verified; what distinguishes humans from robots? How would the country of origin be verified?

    On a similar subject, one may wonder why the government can’t stop nuisance phone calls: The answer seems to be that spammers and scammers hide their identity and country of origin.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. josephurban says:

    According to my research Facebook has a value of about $ 470,000,000,000. They can afford to hire more people.
    https://www.celebritynetworth.com/richest-businessmen/companies/facebook-net-worth/

    Is it possible locate the geographic area from the IP address of the computer? I am not a computer expert, but it seems to be not that difficult if you make the effort. At least not for computer technicians.

    https://www.howtogeek.com/252070/how-do-you-find-a-computers-geographic-location-using-the-command-line/

    Like

  4. whungerford says:

    I believe:

    • Ordinarily, information about an IP address is easily found.
    • Bad guys are able to hide it.
    • Experts at NSA are able to uncover it, in some cases even if hidden.

    While NSA reportedly fought back during the 2016 election, spies and counterspies probably prefer to save their best stuff for a time of greater urgency.

    Identifying false accounts is likely not labor intensive–small groups of experts may be far more effective than thousands of workers.

    Like

  5. Arthur Ahrens says:

    Gentlemen,
    Might I suggest the core reason that propaganda succeeds?

    The sheer inability of many people to either think critically or to escape their own preconceived notions and prejudices in their own comfortable bubbles (present company excepted, of course! ;))

    ” ‘Nothing on this page is real’: How lies become truth in online America”
    https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/nothing-on-this-page-is-real-how-lies-become-truth-in-online-america/2018/11/17/edd44cc8-e85a-11e8-bbdb-72fdbf9d4fed_story.html?utm_term=.1cce30c930c7

    A stunningly good read. It describes a page intended to be outrageous satire yet eaten up as fact by a significant portion of the population. A page placarded as being FAKE, and yet items contained therein were accepted as gospel and propagated by those willing to accept their publication as truth.

    An excerpt:
    ““Nothing on this page is real,” read one of the 14 disclaimers on Blair’s site, and yet in the America of 2018 his stories had become real, reinforcing people’s biases, spreading onto Macedonian and Russian fake news sites, amassing an audience of as many 6 million visitors each month who thought his posts were factual. What Blair had first conceived of as an elaborate joke was beginning to reveal something darker.
    —–“No matter how racist, how bigoted, how offensive, how obviously fake we get, people keep coming back,”—-
    Blair once wrote, on his own personal Facebook page. “Where is the edge? Is there ever a point where people realize they’re being fed garbage and decide to return to reality?””

    There’s the nub of the question.
    When and how do people become critical consumers?

    Regulation is needed to be sure. But until people develop the ability to analyze facts critically, they will remain ripe targets for both automated and human propaganda.

    “The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

    Liked by 1 person

  6. whungerford says:

    Arthur, thanks for citing the WAPO article; I agree it is well worth reading. As I remember from HS English class, satire in its purest Elizabethan form should correct bad manners and false ideas. Since the contrived posts reinforced rather than corrected ignorance and prejudice, they failed as good satire.

    I have noted comments made on Tom Reed’s facebook page, which are intended to be satire, but are not recognized as such. Even when the author reinforces the joke, it seems to fly over some heads. New NY 23rd authors have been chided for articles, intended to be tongue-in-cheek, which were taken at face value by readers.

    False information has an impact even when disbelieved. DJT blaimed CA wildfires on bad forest management; experts disagree. Yet the seed of falsehood was sown–even those who know better (to say nothing of those who choose to believe the President) may have the false idea, at least as a possibility, lodged in the back of their minds.

    I wonder if there is a lower bound for belief in politics–is there a lie so blatantly false that a minimum number of those who heard it would believe it? If there is, what is that minimum–five, ten, twenty percent or something closer to half of us?

    Like

  7. Arthur Ahrens says:

    whungerford,

    “New NY 23rd authors have been chided for articles, intended to be tongue-in-cheek, which were taken at face value by readers.”
    –That is AWESOME. Readers blamed the writers for the readers’ ignorance! Next time, point them at Gulliver’s Travels. If someone reads that, and believes in Lilliputians and Yahoos, is that Swift’s fault?

    “Since the contrived posts reinforced rather than corrected ignorance and prejudice, they failed as good satire. ”
    –An interesting point. Perhaps the readers were ill-equipped to appreciate good satire.

    “I wonder if there is a lower bound for belief in politics–is there a lie so blatantly false that a minimum number of those who heard it would believe it? If there is, what is that minimum–five, ten, twenty percent or something closer to half of us?”
    –A good question. I believe that the number depends on circumstances.

    “DJT blaimed CA wildfires on bad forest management; experts disagree. Yet the seed of falsehood was sown–even those who know better (to say nothing of those who choose to believe the President) may have the false idea, at least as a possibility, lodged in the back of their minds.”
    –Probably for Trumpists. Whose numbers are slowly but steadily dwindling. The rest of us recognize a fool when we see him. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/nov/19/make-america-rake-again-finland-trump-forest-fire

    Over the years, I have noted that a consistent 30% of the population seems to believe whatever is fed to them. At any time.

    But in special circumstances, nearly everyone believes lies. Case in point: WMD and the runup to the Iraq War. More than 90% of the population wanted blood after 9-11, the Bush administration provided it. Hillary Clinton was caught up in it. There were a number of clear-headed people arguing otherwise (yours truly among them) but the lies/propaganda prevailed. Even the NYT failed to exercise due diligence. The vote was not even close. And din’t that turn out well!

    We have forgotten this:
    “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” Thomas Jefferson

    Like

  8. josephurban says:

    As a high school teacher of many years I found myself combating the idea among students that “everyone’s opinion is as good as any other opinion”.

    I have no idea as to why this refutation of expertise developed. But the idea has taken hold, I think , in the general public. Those so-called “experts” are seen as a bunch of know-it-alls.
    Why is there an apparent hostility to experts , at least in much of the population?

    Part of it may be the development of the “experts” who are on the payroll of private interest groups.. The oil company experts and tobacco company experts who have an agenda and not a desire for the truth or accuracy? Is it the cynicism developed by the Reagan Republicans , that government is bad, therefor any expert that thinks a problem requires government involved is also bad? So, global warming is a myth, even though 99% of climate scientists can point to real data to show it is real?

    Or is it a watered down “free press” filled with “reporters” who will not do the hard work of research and see themselves as vacant receptacles for whatever anyone says? Reporters who are more interested in “polls” of the massively ignorant population than they are in informing that population? Can you imagine Walter Cronkite putting up with the daily nonsense that comes from this president?

    And what of those who do seek to tell the truth? They are often ignored or simply lost in the symphony of propaganda. I think of the McClatchey news organization which did try to report honestly on the Iraq War. Why didn’t the rest of the “news” organizations follow their lead?

    https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/03/17/the-reporting-team-that-g_n_91981.html

    Like

  9. Arthur Ahrens says:

    “Why didn’t the rest of the “news” organizations follow their lead?”

    They were victims of groupthink. The same pernicious phenomenon I observe often. Even on blogs like this one.

    Like

  10. Arthur Ahrens says:

    “I have no idea as to why this refutation of expertise developed.”

    As far as proximate causes…
    How about the ubiquitous and pervasive nature of modern telecommunications?
    The willingness of the Hoi Polloi to accept anything on TV as gospel.
    The insatiable maw of TV news, on all networks. As long as they can fill airtime, the talking heads will keep their mouths moving, regardless of content.

    As far as root cause…
    The repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1986-87.
    The subsequent rise of highly partisan Fox News.

    Like

  11. whungerford says:

    Perhaps we take expertise for granted–unemployment is down, the lights stay on, we have increasingly fancy electronic devices, the furnace and A/C work, we enjoy hot and cold running water, sewage and garbage disappears, it is seldom that an airplane crashes or a town burns down, foreign doctors and engineers fill any void, so there is no apparent need for experts. Why worry?

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Arthur Ahrens says:

    Another thought.
    Everything is just ducky, as per Whungerford’s post.
    Or is it?
    Depends on what you would like to examine, I guess.

    I myself am focused on Global Warming. As are many other people.
    The omens there are, I fear, not auspicious.

    Like

  13. Arthur Ahrens says:

    inauspicious omens, indeed.
    Our children and grandchildren have only trouble to look forward to.

    Like

  14. whungerford says:

    What did voters understand when Tom Reed said a Trump Administration promised disruption? Disruption is generally unwelcome–rising prices, unemployment, timely, effective potentially disruptive action to counter climate change are examples. Did we understand Tom to mean that effective government–international treaties, trade agreements, social justice, respect for truth–was targeted for disruption and welcome that?

    Like

  15. Arthur Ahrens says:

    Whungerford,

    Please provide the relevant Tom Reed quote. I am unable to discover any time that Tom endorsed disruption. By anyone.

    Like

  16. whungerford says:

    Here’s one:

    Reed said that he supported Republican candidate Donald Trump because he offered the best chance of “disrupting” Washington D.C.

    “I know we all share concerns. But he’s not a traditional politician. He’s not one who is tied into the establishment and continuing the status quo. I believe, given the warts and everything else he offers, he offers the best chance to bring that private sector background, that new way of doing business to Washington D.C. so that we put the American people first,” Reed said.

    https://ithacavoice.com/2016/11/52142/

    Liked by 1 person

  17. josephurban says:

    When Obama was president Tom Reed used to say that the deficit was the biggest problem we faced. He would never vote to increase it. Then he scrubbed his website of his past statements and voted for the massive increases in the deficit caused by the tax giveaway. But that is classic Tom Reed.

    Like

  18. Arthur Ahrens says:

    Joe-
    your comment, while accurate, has nothing at all to do with propaganda or weaponized bots.

    Whungerford-
    I see that Reed did not promise “disruption” in your example. The word was put into his mouth by a reporter from the Ithaca Voice. The quotes is a nice touch, taking away from the larger message. Perhaps he did say “disruption” elsewhere. I find that unlikely. It seems out of character to me.

    However…

    This is how propaganda and false news starts. A politician says something. It is paraphrased by a reporter. Put into quotes to make it important. And a well meaning person repeats it. It is then picked up by the automated propaganda machine and weaponized by bots.

    Ironic that you provided a textbook example of the start of propaganda in your piece decrying automated propaganda.

    Like

  19. josephurban says:

    Arthur. You quoted the following:
    “Whungerford-
    I see that Reed did not promise “disruption” in your example. The word was put into his mouth by a reporter from the Ithaca Voice. The quotes is a nice touch, taking away from the larger message. Perhaps he did say “disruption” elsewhere. I find that unlikely. It seems out of character to me.”

    You are correct that in the example given Reed was not quoted as saying Trump was f=going to be disruptive. However, during the debate , when asked about his support for Mr trump, Reed did say that he was supporting Trump because he would disrupt the “status quo”, among other things. It was not the ONLY reason Reed supports trump, but it was a reason he clearly articulated during the debate with Mr Plumb.
    He said he supported Trump who “represents the biggest chance for change in Washington, DC,To breaking up and disrupting the status quo”. So, Mr Hungerford is correct in his statement which was quoted from the Ithaca newspaper.

    So, it is not propaganda. It is not what the Trump supporters call “alternative facts”. It is a factual statement, not taken out of context.

    Like

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