It’s Much More Than Just Fake News

This is the time of year when my students–graduate and undergraduate–present the results of their research projects to their classmates (and, of course, me). One of my better undergraduate students focused upon the legal implications of the increasing use of household “personal assistants”–those sort of “Siri for home use” voice-activated electronic devices like Amazon’s “Echo.”

In addition to detailing the investigative uses of such devices by law enforcement, he pointed out potentials for informational mischief, especially when those devices are asked to conduct a search; unlike a google search performed on a computer screen, which yields pages of results and thus highlights inconsistent responses and the questionable credibility of certain of those responses, a virtual assistant simply responds with whatever information has been moved up in the response list by someone good at search engine optimization.

His example: responding to question “who won the popular vote,” one personal assistant read from a single (conspiracy) site reporting that Trump had actually won the popular vote.  No list, no context, no description of the source.

If the implications of his presentation weren’t troubling enough,a report from the Medium website gave me chills.

A data scientist and others had begun digging into so-called “fake news” sites after the election.  It soon became clear to them that they were dealing with a phenomenon that encompassed much more than just a few fake news stories. It was a piece of a much bigger and darker puzzle — a Weaponized AI Propaganda Machine being used to manipulate public opinions and behaviors to advance specific political agendas.

By leveraging automated emotional manipulation alongside swarms of bots, Facebook dark posts, A/B testing, and fake news networks, a company called Cambridge Analytica has activated an invisible machine that preys on the personalities of individual voters to create large shifts in public opinion. Many of these technologies have been used individually to some effect before, but together they make up a nearly impenetrable voter manipulation machine that is quickly becoming the new deciding factor in elections around the world.

Most recently, Analytica helped elect U.S. President Donald Trump, secured a win for the Brexit Leave campaign, and led Ted Cruz’s 2016 campaign surge, shepherding him from the back of the GOP primary pack to the front.

The company is owned and controlled by conservative and alt-right interests that are also deeply entwined in the Trump administration. The Mercer family is both a major owner of Cambridge Analytica and one of Trump’s biggest donors. Steve Bannon, in addition to acting as Trump’s Chief Strategist and a member of the White House Security Council, is a Cambridge Analytica board member. Until recently, Analytica’s CTO was the acting CTO at the Republican National Convention.

Analytica has declined to work on any Democratic campaigns,  and according to the story, is negotiating to help Trump manage both public opinion around his presidency and to expand sales for the Trump Organization.

Cambridge Analytica is now expanding aggressively into U.S. commercial markets and is also meeting with right-wing parties and governments in Europe, Asia, and Latin America….

There’s been a wave of reporting on Cambridge Analytica itself and solid coverage of individual aspects of the machine — bots, fake news, microtargeting — but none so far (that we have seen) that portrays the intense collective power of these technologies or the frightening level of influence they’re likely to have on future elections.


  1. Now THIS is scary.
    Lies are common. Everybody has lied at some time in their life. Some of us are better at being able to identify a lie than others.
    But, THIS? This requires the concerted use of a whole staff of people to design, implement, and assess the lie.
    Even folks who only read or listen to Reuters, The Guardian, The New York Times, and/or the BBC are hardpressed to accurately assess the information for truthfulness.
    This is dangerous, folks.

  2. yes, it’s dangerous. For that matter, what about programmable glass by Corning? Could it gather data? Well go nuts. The saving grace for use in homes and public buildings is, most people won’t be able to afford it.
    Did you see TIME with Trump striding purposefully somewhere, carrying his briefcase?
    I get grumpy thinking about all these things. Moving in that direction divides us and makes people believe they have to earn more more more.
    I’ll let y’all take over Analytica. Remember FAHRENHEIT 451.

  3. Did/could these investigative devises factor in race, religion, sexual orientation, nationality, social memberships and family history in their searches of Facebook alone? I have been on the Indiana Attorney General’s “no call list” for years but that didn’t screen out the political “bot” calls on my landline phone.

    Considering what would be found in my pc records, Facebook account, Google research history, political affiliations (including my voting history because I do NOT believe it is a “secret ballot”) vs. my work history in the Indianapolis Republican government, coupled with my racial, religious and lesbian and gay mixture of family and in-laws, would blow “bot” fuses. These researches of “fake news” would find names of those who didn’t solicit the conservative – or liberal – providers of information through E-mails or Facebook posts. I sometimes forward what I know is bogus or “fake news” on Facebook because I believe it is important that others know it is being broadcast but…my negative comments and reasons are not forwarded with the post, appearing that I support the issue.

    About 15 years ago while living in Florida, a local news station decided to perform a research test to learn how much information could be found from one very basic starting point. They stopped a young couple in a mall parking lot, explained what they wanted to do and asked for permission to research the couple using only their license plate number. Their followup broadcast of results was amazing; not only their small family current financial and living situation but information about their educational, medical (which should have been private), work histories, political histories, ancestor information going back many years and giving them information they were never aware of regarding family history. Fifteen years ago, they wouldn’t have had the countless resources we have at our disposal from home today.

    If the research is only being done from one side of the political spectrum – apparently one far right side – the results would contain much “fake news” results…wouldn’t it?

  4. I forgot to ask about Kellyanne Conway’s microwave spy devices; has anyone looked into that possibility?

  5. The question for me is how the Left is always caught so flat footed. The research done by Cambridge Analytica and the process to create the bots for this work was not done in a vacuum.

  6. JoAnn, what is the Attorney General No Call list that you referred to?

    I have read quite a bit about Cambridge Analytica and found it very disheartening and frightening, but today’s blog post is a warning that we are all being controlled in ways that seem impossible to defend against or counteract. It reminds me of stories/movies about aliens taking over the world. It appears that aliens are taking over the world, but those aliens are human beings utilizing computer algorithms that give them greater power by the hour in their plan to control the world.

  7. All of that wonderful technology has a high price. I refuse to love Facebook, Twitter, and all the rest. I never complete the surveys following an on-line purchase or a visit to the doctor. There are too many ways for everything to be used to target you. I text my friends or call them, but I never saw the point of posting on Facebook.

  8. At the dismal rate of the decline of the socio/political/ economic reality we’re experiencing on Planet Earth, along with the capability of a nuclear holocaust, we could possibly experience the disappearance of humans and animals from the face of the Earth in my lifetime, which is probably less than ten years.

    From my vantage point, without immediate effective intervention, it looks like we’re going to have to start all over again.

    What do you think Pete?

  9. Nancy; the Attorney General’s no-call list was activated to stop all of the repeated sales calls from telemarketers. It apparently didn’t work with the robotic calls; not sure if it only works on landline phones but my cell phone (I use for texting only) does get occasional unfamiliar phone calls which I delete.

  10. Every year, the Koch brothers gather many of the wealthiest people in America behind closed doors. There they make their plans to take the country in the direction they want it to go in. They plan the resources and pledge money toward each approved effort. If you’ve been worried about the “Trilateral Commission”, don’t bother. Worry about these people. That’s how we get Cambridge Analytica.

    Why are liberals always caught flat-footed? They don’t have a burning desire to rule the world.

  11. It’s a shame people forget the cardinal rule of the internet – Everything on the internet is a lie.

    It’s not always true of course, but close enough that you won’t go far wrong if you start from that position and have to be thoroughly convinced otherwise on a case-by-case basis.

  12. Thanks JoAnn. I’m on that list, but I thought you were talking about something else. FYI – I use the app Truecaller for spam calls on my cell and it works well if you update it regularly.

  13. Aren’t those pesky right wingers the party that claims to keep government out of your lives? The party of personal responsibility? The party of family values?

  14. Our nation has a leader who lies practically every time he opens his mouth. Nobody seems to care more than two or three days in a row. Then it’s off to a new lie and a new handful of critics. And that, too, disappears at an alarming rate. Now we have large organizations testing the cross-your-fingers parade. Why bother with the truth when a well-worded lie will have at least a couple weeks of shelf life?

    Someone with influence and money (and a conscience) needs to publish a weekly “Magazine of Lies.” Half of every cover would feature the Fake President Trump, and the other half would zoom in on “the biggest liar of the week.” The chances would be good that all the liars would emerge from the woodwork to attack the truth tellers.

    Wouldn’t that be a fine kettle of fish? Maybe Bill O’Reilly can come to the rescue.

  15. Marv – Let’s wax philosophical. The end of the human race will not end the libertarian-led incursion into minds and souls; there will always be the programmed robots (now that Silicon Valley is teaching them emotional intelligence) who remain as targets for those right wing- programmed robots in robot on robot encounters. Egad! Here I am out on the edge of irrational analysis of a possible outcome from Shelia’s scary blog today, and since I claim to be sane, let’s get back to a possible outcome in which we humans are involved now as we try to maintain our sanity while laboring under fake news and other burdens imposed on us by Trump’s election.

    For instance, we were told the Vinson strike force was headed to Korean waters to send a message to the North Korean dictator that we’re mad as heck and ain’t gonna take it anymore. Trouble is, the strike force turned right instead of left when leaving Singapore for some “war games” with the Australians, greatly disappointing hawks such as McCain and Lindsay and our defense industry, among others, so now we are told that the strike force turned around and has headed north for Korean waters to send a message to bad guys everywhere, from Moscow to Damascus, thus ending Trump’s claim that he doesn’t wish to “telegraph” his military moves. This disturbed man afflicted with terminal narcissism and love of adulation cannot help but brag and I fear that intelligence reports given to him are going to show up on Fox News ten minutes after he hears them in the future, all to the great comfort of Putin, Assad and others who can then call their spies home since they are already in possession of what the spies were sent to discover.

    If there can be any levity connected with the way these Keystone Kops/Three Stooges are now running the country as they play their fear card and fabricate fake news of their own for cover, consider the following use of fake news in this Vinson strike force connection by a liberal – that the Vinson-led force isn’t headed for Korean waters but is headed due east for the Panama Canal, and that someone should call the head Kop of the Defense Department or Bannon or Kushner and tell him that the canal’s locks are too small to accommodate the Vinson and that perhaps the strike force should head back west to Korean waters or, alternatively, back to home port in Singapore.

    Far out and ridiculous? Sure, but in keeping with official lies and fake facts fed to us today by the Kops and Stooges. So what’s next with fake news? That the strike force will steam in to Mexican waters to enforce their payment for Trump’s wall? A blockade of Victoria and Vancouver until the Canadians agree to changes in NAFTA?

    Fake news and manufactured facts can make for irrational outcomes, but can be used both ways and, I hope, contain the seeds of their own destruction as we return to Newtonian science and Aristotelian logic and the real world of right and wrong and cause and effect. Meanwhile, perhaps a dose of fake news used to blunt fake news against a background of humor will help point out that we need not lower ourselves to decision making based on fantasy, and recalling that in algebra a minus times a minus yields a plus.

  16. I almost always look to the source to determine if something is totally false, true or some where in between. There have always been slants in news. Facebook has a huge amount of half-truths or out right lies.

    A few days ago I received an E-Mail that provided a long list of so-called jury verdicts for millions of dollars when people sued companies. The message was we are in desperate need of tort reform. I suspect the underlying message is when some politician calls for Tort Reform, people will recall the outrageous jury awards, and vote for him or her. The ending shot was please forward this E-Mail if you believe in Tort Reform. I checked these “awards” out on numerous web sites. Trouble was all of these jury verdicts were totally false, they never happened.

    The message from the Right Wing is now that Bill O’Reilly was taken down by the Liberal Media. O’Reilly’s own conduct is brushed aside. However, Stephen Colbert offered some sympathy to out raged O’Reilly fans: “In case you’re a fan of sexual harassers who are on TV all the time,” Colbert said, “we still have Donald Trump.”

  17. It appears we need a ‘truth squad’ news source which exposes the manufactured fake news on a daily basis. I wish we’d have had it during the past presidential campaign.

    Sheila – I hope you will call a few famous reporters with state and national news outlets to share today’s story and keep focusing attention on the problem and hopefully a solution. The involvement of Steve Bannon in producing fake news is not exactly surprising, but he’s funneling information to the President many times a day and to unsuspecting voters on a regular basis. Even respected news outlets are sometimes taken in.

    In my mind, manufactured fake news is fraud, but who would decide what’s fraudulent?
    Not the government which is now in the hands of a faker in the White House. The best defense presumably is another news organization devoted to exposing the fakers. It would have to be bi-partisan to be credible, and from the sounds of it, needs to be international. Evil will prevail unless good people expose it.

  18. What are “Facebook dark posts”? I love the Magazine of Lies idea. It sounds more fun than Fact Check, which sends me useful weekly updates.

  19. Gerald,

    I doubt this horror show is going away without a countervailing response from its POTENTIAL opposition.

    The following is from “Mission Possible” by Ken Blanchard (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997) p.xix-xx:

    “The three groups in the sandcastle metaphor represent three distinct kinds of responses that organizations are making to the need for change today:

    1. The first group sees no need to change. Its members believe that whatever got them to where they are today will suffice to get them through tomorrow. In the spirit of Scarlet O’hara in “Gone With the Wind,” they say, “I’ll think abot it tomorrow.” They are frozen in time, paralyzed at the prospect of changing the status quo. Because of this they are no longer in tune with their markets, and thus NO MATCH for their more fleet-footed competitors. The future for them looks bleak.

    2. The second group is not fixated on yesterday’s success formula, and its members recognize the need to constantly improve what they already have. The are striving to fortify their present ways of operating in an effort to build and sustain customer loyalties in current served markets.

    3. The Third group is focused on the future, committed to creating new competitive arenas. Its members recognize that even if they get better, they can still be put out of business by an unexpected change in markets, customer needs, or technology. Realizing that tomorrow’s customers are unlikey to resemble those of today, they are busy dreaming about creating what could be.

    With the first group out of the race [which includes most of the pro-democracy NGOs] we’re left with the last two, which brings us to this important inquiry.”

    America is going through a fundamental, as opposed to a technical, change with the election of Donald Trump as President. Without a countervailing contextual intelligence within the pro-democracy NGOs we are ALL DOOMED.

  20. Marv – Well, if we are not doomed, we will be left gasping for breath in this Trumpworld already predicted by Orwell. Perhaps we should rename the Defense Department the Department of Love, as in Orwell’s 1984 novel, or perhaps we should follow your more militant view and get rid of Trump via impeachment, indictment, or both. I have little faith in the 25th Amendment as it is a yet untried remedy and its application sure to precipitate a constitutional crisis, though we may be in the midst of a constitutional crisis at present which we have not yet acknowledged given the massive conflicts of interest and nepotism Trump is parading before our very eyes and challenging us to do something about it. Maybe we should take him up on his dare and do something about it. He is already under FBI investigation but all these investigations we are hearing about are months away from ending, and we could have very serious problems between now and then, so someone in the House should file a bill of impeachment with an ethics report attached to the bill as Exhibit A.

  21. I agree this is scary, but I still have hope. The Rump is fooling no one other than himself, perhaps. Even Republicans are turning against him. He is a fat, racist, lying, misogynist, arrogant, emotionally immature pig, and everyone knows it. No amount of spinning or manipulation can conceal his fundamental flaws as a person and complete unfitness for office, which becomes more obvious day after day. He avoids interviews because he screws himself every time he opens his mouth, and can’t spin away his endless missteps. Despite the Fox machine and people like Gary Varvel trying to spin him as successful, he’s accomplished nothing he said he would. Instead, he has stirred up controversy, insulted just about every U.S. ally, made lots of work for lawyers, wasted millions of taxpayer dollars protecting him and his concubine, and has tried to start a war with Korea just to prove how “tough” he is. No one’s buying it. He might have gotten away with using the tactics you described to create support before the election, but we’re on to him now, and the investigations aren’t going away. I predict he’ll either be impeached or will resign.

  22. Gerald,

    “[Marv] perhaps we should follow your more militant view and get rid of Trump via impeachment, indictment, or both.”

    I’m not for militant action at all. At this point in time, it would only start a Race/Civil War. Impeachment might have been a way of putting him on the defensive a few months ago but not now. Only a few Republican office holders have jumped ship. If they haven’t done it by now, they’re not going to unless they can be convinced, with SUFFICIENT FACTS, more than just internet or cable tv talk, that he is leading us ALL into a catastrophe or worse, INCLUDING THEM.

  23. Fake News must have swallowed the perjurer Attorney General Sessions.

    From Attorney General Jeff Sessions, still unhappy that President Trump’s immigration order has been stayed by the courts:

    I really am amazed that a judge sitting on an island in the Pacific can issue an order that stops the President of the United States from what appears to be clearly his statutory and Constitutional power.

    An “island in the Pacific”? Seriously? That island is Hawaii. It’s a state. It has federal judges, just like all the other states. That includes judges in Washington, Virginia, New York, and California, who stayed Trump’s original order, and judges in Wisconsin and Maryland, who stayed Trump’s revised order in whole or part. Nor is it “amazing” that a judge can stay an executive order. That’s what judges do if circumstances warrant. That’s how our country works. The attorney general should respect this, even when he disagrees with a court’s decision.

    No wonder the gubmint can’t keep track of billion dollar carrier groups. They are all fake noise incompetents.

  24. mike from iowa; you cannot be the least surprised that Sessions is a “birther” as well as a White Nationalist, he has supported the KKK in his colorful southern legal career. His statement proves he is as mentally incompetent as Trump; did he miss Virginia listed among those states blocking the immigrant ban?

  25. Gerald and others, this talk is interesting, but we can start today making bumper stickers saying IMPEACH TRUMP BECAUSE…and put a brief statement about why he should be impeached. Give to friends to put on cars. Magnetic signs are good and can be modified. I had two on my car with a daily running total of US military killed, up till 4000 had been killed in Iraq and the signs blew away. People talk about impeachment. ????

  26. Marge; I looked out my front door last summer and fall to see SIX Trump yard signs and passed FIVE more on my daily walks. This neighborhood consists of one street 5 blocks long, 2 streets 3 blocks long and 1 street 2 blocks long; only one way in or out. There was 1 Hillary sign and 1 Hillary sticker on a car window, my neighbor and I had Bernie signs and my “Pence Must Go” sign stood for over 2 years till inauguration morning. You’re damned right I am afraid, that is why I removed the Pence sign on January 20th. Republicans have given us many reasons not to trust them and to be afraid.

  27. Marge@4:44 & 4:46 pm,

    “People talk about impeachment”

    Gerald and you are right. It’s time to take action.

    Back in Dallas in the early 80’s we started with a bumper-sticker campaign that sparked the successful campaign for 1 man, 1 vote [I know it should have been 1 person, 1 vote] by creating a new organization B.A.A.D. [Battle. Against. All.Discrimination] which begin with only 50 automobiles which included the most vocal County Commissioner. It was a takeoff on M.A.D.D.

    I’ll donate two of my unused URL’S to the cause: & plus the cost of maintaining the websites when created. It doesn’t cost that much only $5.95 a mo. for each website. They can both advertise the BUMPER STICKERS.

    We have some terrific writers on this blog who could volunteer 4 action without being called-up. Why not commence the verbal artillery attack right NOW!! Having been an artillery officer trained as a forward observor, I’ll be glad to oversee the FIRE DIRECTION CENTER while we organize, but not necessarily thereafter.

    I’m again reminded of the very successful automobile safety campaign organized by Ralph Nader. Has it been 50 years?

    Since this was Marge’s idea, she needs to be our Commanding Officer right now. Anyone disagree? Let’s do it!!

  28. JoAnn,

    You’re right. It’s not that easy. And there is some danger. But you have to make a stand somewhere. But what could be worse than a successful Trump/Pence/Bannon regime?

    To me it could only be death. So what do some of us have to lose?

  29. I really do inhabit a system in which words are capable of shaking the entire structure of government, where words can prove mightier than ten military divisions.”
    ― Václav Havel

  30. Marv; I don’t “make a stand”, I do take daily walks (weather permitting) wearing my favorite slogan tee shirts. I have four with President Obama’s picture and slogans, one has a picture of his Hawaiian birth certificate on the back, one is with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Martin Luther King, III. Also have an Obama sweatshirt for cold weather. I have two different versions of “Homeland Security, fighting terrorism since 1429” with pictures of four elderly Native American men. Today I am wearing my “Stop The War” tee shirt from the September 2006 rally in Washington, D.C. with a bloody hand print on the front. I walk at a pretty good clip with my 4-wheeled walker so I am a moving target. My fears haven’t stopped me from being a walking billboard for the Democratic party. Some days I think I should dress “my age”; decided that would be too boring.

    Speaking of the Democratic party; today in the mail I received a very large certificate (at least 8 X 10) from Democratic Representative Dan Forestal in the Indiana House of Representatives – congratulating me on my 80th birthday. A week early but it is the thought that counts! I’m still laughing; maybe I will post it in my front window.

  31. You’re right. You’re not “making a stand.” And that’s why you never have or never will support me.

    And that’s why I have been a fool in wasting so much time on this blog.

  32. Marv – You have not wasted your time on this blog. Opinions, of course, vary, but yours have been helpful in adding to or moderating opinions the rest of us have held. Let’s all hang tough and devote our collective energies in defying the common foe, a psychopath and his billionaire cabinet.

  33. Gerald,

    I’m still with you. No doubt it’s very difficult to deal with this for all of us, including Sheila. However, we’ve got to deal with this problem NOW while we still can. There’s not going to be a tomorrow.

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