Tag Archives: disinformation

The Story Of Our Age

Jeffrey Goldberg is the editor of the Atlantic, one of the more credible and informative publications I read, and he recently transmitted an email to subscribers titled “Notes from the Editor-in-Chief.” I am going to take the liberty of quoting large portions of that message, because I entirely agree with him about the nature and extent of the danger we face.

Last week, a Michigan congresswoman whose existence had not yet entered the rest of the country’s consciousness credited Donald Trump with having “caught Osama bin Laden,” among other terrorists. It is difficult to forget that night in 2011 when Barack Obama told the world that, on his orders, a team of Navy commandos had killed the al-Qaeda leader. But Representative Lisa McClain, a first-term member of Congress, showed that, with effort, and with a desire to feed Trump’s delusions and maintain her standing among his supporters, anything is possible.

In ordinary times, McClain’s claim would have been mocked and then forgotten. But because these are not ordinary times—these are times in which citizens of the same country live in entirely different information realities—I put her assertion about bin Laden on a kind of watch list. In six months, I worry, we may learn that a provably false claim made by a single unserious congressional backbencher has spread into MAGA America, a place where Barack Obama is believed to be a Kenyan-born Muslim and Donald Trump is thought to be the victim of a coup.

Disinformation is the story of our age. We see it at work in Russia, whose citizens have been led to believe the lies that Ukraine is an aggressor nation and that the Russian army is winning a war against modern-day Nazis. We see it at work in Europe and the Middle East, where conspiracies about hidden hands and occult forces are adopted by those who, in the words of the historian Walter Russell Mead, lack the ability to “see the world clearly and discern cause and effect relations in complex social settings.” We see it weaponized by authoritarians around the globe, for whom democracy, accountability, and transparency pose mortal threats. And we see it, of course, in our own country, in which tens of millions of voters believe that Joe Biden is an illegitimate president because the man he beat in 2020 specializes in sabotaging reality for personal and political gain. This mass delusion has enormous consequences for the future of democracy. As my colleague Yoni Appelbaum has noted, “Democracy depends on the consent of the losers.” Sophisticated, richly funded, technology-enabled disinformation campaigns are providing losers with other options.

The Atlantic has joined with the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago, and the two entities staged a conference focusing upon disinformation of all sorts. (The conference is available online.) The Institute of Politics was founded by David Axelrod, who has expressed his opinion that the “future of this country—and of our democratic allies around the world—depends on the ability and willingness of citizens to discern truth from falsehood.”

Goldberg was forthright in admitting to the nature of the challenge disinformation poses for “big-tent” magazines like the Atlantic.  He reiterated his belief that citizens of democracies require  a wide variety of views and opinions, and insisted that

We strive for nonpartisanship at The Atlantic, and we aim to publish independent thinkers and a wide variety of viewpoints. But this most recent period in American history has presented what might be called “both-sides journalism” with serious challenges—challenges that have prevented this magazine from publishing many pro-Trump articles. (After all, our articles must pass through a rigorous fact-checking process.)

Long-term, the emergence of our citizens from the Tower of Babel we currently inhabit will require a co-ordinated effort. My own repeated calls for more and better civics education–leading to greater levels of civic literacy– obviously point to an important part of that effort, but civics education alone cannot address the economic and psychological insecurities that make so many Americans receptive to the lies and hatreds being promoted by would-be autocrats and their enablers.

I don’t know what it would take–what policies could impose at least a minimum of coherence and integrity to the Wild West that is our current information environment without sacrificing the First Amendment– but as Goldberg  and Axelrod clearly understand, figuring that out is obviously job number one.

I’m on vacation without reliable Internet access, but when I get home, I intend to click through and watch that conference….

 

Restoring Trust

I’ve concluded that we Earthlings are in a race between self-destruction and human ingenuity.

On the one hand, we have what I’ll call the “forces of darkness” (okay, probably more accurately described as the forces of human cupidity and stupidity)–rejection of lifesaving vaccines, denial of climate change, what’s-in-it-for-me political corruption, belief in wack-a-doodle conspiracies, and the massive amounts of propaganda and fake news that reinforce our divisions into warring tribes.

On the other hand, there are all sorts of promising efforts to address these threats to humane (and human )civilization. I’ve posted about some of them. The question, of course, is: will humanity descend into a destructive and possibly terminal dark age before these  corrective measures can take effect?

Scientific and technological efforts to combat pandemics and the worst effects of climate change will either prove themselves effective or not. Misinformation, disinformation and propaganda will actually be much more difficult to defeat, and as a mountain of research has shown, the result of our current information environment has been a massive loss of trust–in government, in the media, and in a wide variety of social institutions.

There are a number of efforts underway to combat misinformation and propaganda, to sift the wheat from the chaff–to distinguish what is factual from what is Foxified–so that citizens and future historians (assuming we make it to a future) can have confidence in the  veracity of the information they rely upon.

One of those efforts is using blockchain technology to confirm that accuracy. Starling Lab, a nonprofit academic research center, is using blockchain’s decentralized ledgers to help preserve historical data of importance to humanity. The goal is to restore integrity both to asserted facts and to the internet itself.

Jonathan Dotan is the founder of Starling.

The ultimate goal, says Dotan, is to help curb misinformation at a time when images are often used out of context to advance political and ideological agendas. But doing so requires more than building tech to facilitate the authentication and the storage of data. Starling is also creating an interface that allows third-party experts—lawyers, historians, forensic analysts, journalists, and more—to offer context and clarity about an image or video, creating what Dotan calls “a distributed form of consensus.”

“Capture, store, and verify—that’s critical in our minds to help create a proper chain of custody,” he says. And unlike other organizations that are working on similar ways to attach metadata to images, Starling, which operates between USC and Stanford, is academic, not-for-profit, and entirely open source. Its system doesn’t require a centralized entity to put a stamp of truth on any content.

Starling’s system can also be used to document the historical record in real time. In a Reuters pilot, the news service’s photographers used the lab’s technology to certify images of the 2020 presidential transition, even as its legitimacy was under attack. Starling has also built prototypes with Syrian human rights organization Hala Systems, which has been exploring how to use the lab’s so-called image provenance technology in court to present evidence of war crimes. Starling and Hala are currently working to encrypt, authenticate, and preserve social media content from Telegram and TikTok that documents the war in Ukraine.

The initial project–and the largest–involves downloading and preserving the USC Shoah Foundation’s Holocaust archive.

Stephen Smith, the foundation’s executive director, says this is particularly important at a time when disinformation campaigns seek to downplay the greatest horrors of our shared past. “The competition over history is very real,” he warns.

No kidding. (Ask teachers in Tennessee...)

My techie son has explained blockchain to me. Several times. I still don’t understand it, but I’m willing to believe that the technology builds trust. With Bitcoin, for example, every transaction is recorded on a ledger that’s shared among several “distributed nodes.” The sheer number of copies of the ledger make it hard to change or manipulate.

Blockchain’s uses aren’t limited to finance.

With the Starling Framework, Dotan is applying the same basic idea to storing information. “The idea is that end users could host a critical piece of data—be it a testimony of genocide or record of transaction,” he says. “The end result is that, paradoxically, the more that you spread out information and provide computation in a distributed fashion, the more trusted it could be.”

Dotan has started hiring and partnering with experts across disciplines, including law, journalism, and human rights. The goal is to ensure that important information is accurate, and becomes part of the historical record, from Syria and Ukraine to Washington, DC.

The linked article has much more detail on the social and technical challenges involved.It’s  long, but worth your time to read. It gives me hope at the same time as it gently reminds me that I have no idea how today’s technology works….

 

 

A New Way Of Reporting

It’s called “Open source intelligence,” and we’re learning about it thanks to Vladimir Putin and his savage assault on Ukraine.

Here’s the lede from the linked Time Magazine report

The ability of anyone with a phone or laptop to see Russia’s invasion of Ukraine unfold in almost real time—and to believe what they’re seeing—comes to us thanks to the citizens operating what’s known as open-source intelligence (OSINT). The term is shorthand for the laborious process of verifying video and photographs from Ukraine by checking everything about the images, establishing what they show, and doing all this work out in the open, for all to see.

The article focused on one of the individuals who pioneered this effort,  Eliot Higgins , who had what was described as a “boring office job in the U.K. ” during the war in Syria. In addition to examining social media posts, he also analyzed YouTube videos  that had been uploaded from phone cameras .

Although he had no training as a journalist, he set out to decipher the credibility/accuracy of those uploads by noting things like the serial numbers on munitions, and using online tools like Google Maps. While he was engaged in that exercise, he compared notes with people who were also trying to figure out what was accurate and what wasn’t–and in the process of  blogging about his efforts (under the alias “Brown Moses”)–he built a reputation as an “authority on a war too dangerous to be reported from the ground.”

In 2014 Higgins used Kickstarter to found Bellingcat (the name refers to resourceful mice tying a bell to a cat), a nonprofit, online collective dedicated to “a new field, one that connects journalism and rights advocacy and crime investigation.” Three days after its launch, a Malaysian passenger jet was shot down over the part of Ukraine held by Russian troops. Bellingcat proved the culprit was a Russian surface-to-air missile, by using largely the same array of tools—including Google Earth, the social media posts of Russian soldiers, and the passion of Eastern European drivers for posting dashcam videos—that hundreds of volunteer sleuths are now using to document the Russian invasion of Ukraine in granular detail.

It’s an extraordinary turn of events—and a striking reversal of fortunes for Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which in the past deployed disinformation so effectively in concert with its military that NATO refers to “hybrid war.” In Ukraine, however, Russia has been outflanked. Its attempts to establish a pretext for invasion by circulating video evidence of purported “atrocities” by Ukraine were exposed as frauds within hours by Bellingcat, fellow OSINT volunteers, and legacy news media outlets that have picked up reporting tools the open-source crowd hands around.

Higgins has written a book, We Are Bellingcat: An Intelligence Agency for the People, in which he describes–evidently in great detail–the time-consuming process needed  to produce an airtight case for the conclusions they reach. It was Bellingcat that ultimately assessed responsibility for the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17–but it took a full year. In Ukraine, reporting has been much faster, thanks to what Higgins calls parallel team operations.

We’re also then setting up, at the moment, two teams. One is focused on more editorial, journalistic-type investigations, where you can get that stuff out quite quickly after the events have occurred. But another team that runs parallel to that is focused purely on doing investigations for accountability.

The importance of what Bellingcat is doing can be seen via a  CNN report on two videos that Russia circulated  before its invasion. The videos  purported to show  Ukrainian attacks. Both were exposed as frauds  by the online open-source community–and the network also cited its own analysis, using online geolocation methods pioneered by the open-source community, to prove that the videos had actually been filmed behind Russian lines.

The analytic tools developed by Bellingcat and other open-source detectives are now being used by a network composed of hundreds of nonprofessionals–and tools such as geolocation have saved open source analysts hundreds of hours of work. These new tools and the growing network of volunteer sleuths have undermined Russia’s once-masterful ability to spread propaganda. As Higgins says:

This is the first time I’ve really seen our side winning, I guess you could say. The attempts by Russia to frame the conflict and spread disinformation have just collapsed completely. The information coming out from the conflict—verified quickly, and used by the media, used by policymakers and accountability organizations—it’s completely undermined Russia’s efforts to build any kind of narrative around it, and really framed them as the aggressor committing war crimes.

The most important war currently being waged is the war against disinformation and propaganda–and open source intelligence is a new and very welcome weapon.

Cheap Speech

Richard Hasen recently had a column–pardon me, a “guest essay”–in the New York Times. Hasen is a pre-eminent scholar of elections and electoral systems; whose most recent book is  “Cheap Speech: How Disinformation Poisons Our Politics — and How to Cure It.”

In the “guest essay,” Hasen joins the scholars and pundits concerned about the negative consequences of so-called “fake news.”

The same information revolution that brought us Netflix, podcasts and the knowledge of the world in our smartphone-gripping hands has also undermined American democracy. There can be no doubt that virally spread political disinformation and delusional invective about stolen, rigged elections are threatening the foundation of our Republic. It’s going to take both legal and political change to bolster that foundation, and it might not be enough.

Hasen uses the term “cheap speech” in two ways. It’s an acknowledgement that the Internet has slashed the cost of promulgating all communications–credible and not. But it is also recognition that the information environment has become increasingly “cheap” in the sense of “favoring speech of little value over speech that is more valuable to voters.”

It is expensive to produce quality journalism but cheap to produce polarizing political “takes” and easily shareable disinformation. The economic model for local newspapers and news gathering has collapsed over the past two decades; from 2000 to 2018, journalists lost jobs faster than coal miners.

Hasen catalogues the various ways in which that collapse has undermined confidence in American institutions, especially government, and he points out that much “fake news” is not mere misinformation. but” deliberately spread disinformation, which can be both politically and financially profitable.”

Reading the essay, I thought back to Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum that “the medium is the message.”  Hasen says that even if politics in the 1950s had been as polarized as they are today, it is highly unlikely that those division would have triggered the insurrection of Jan. 6th, and equally unlikely that millions of Republicans would believe phony claims about a “stolen” 2020 election. Social media has had a profoundly detrimental effect on democracy.

A democracy cannot function without “losers’ consent,” the idea that those on the wrong side of an election face disappointment but agree that there was a fair vote count. Those who believe the last election was stolen will have fewer compunctions about attempting to steal the next one. They are more likely to threaten election officials, triggering an exodus of competent election officials. They are more likely to see the current government as illegitimate and to refuse to follow government guidance on public health, the environment and other issues crucial to health and safety. They are comparatively likely to see violence as a means of resolving political grievances.

Hasen buttresses his argument with several examples of the ways cheap speech –and weakened political parties–damage democracy. His litany leaves us with a very obvious question: what can we do? Assuming the accuracy of his diagnosis, what is the prescribed treatment? Hasen gives us a list of his preferred fixes:  updating campaign finance laws so that they apply to what is now mostly unregulated political advertising disseminated over the internet; mandating the labeling of deep fakes as “altered;” and tightening the ban on foreign campaign expenditures, among others.

Congress should also make it a crime to lie about when, where and how people vote. A Trump supporter has been charged with targeting voters in 2016 with false messages suggesting that they could vote by text or social media post, but it is not clear if existing law makes such conduct illegal. We also need new laws aimed at limiting microtargeting, the use by campaigns or interest groups of intrusive data collected by social media companies to send political ads, including some misleading ones, sometimes to vulnerable populations.

He also acknowledges that such measures would be a hard sell to today’s Supreme Court, noting that much of the court’s jurisprudence depends upon faith in an arguably outmoded “marketplace of ideas” metaphor, which assumes that the truth will emerge through counter-speech.

If that was ever true in the past, it is not true in the cheap speech era. Today, the clearest danger to American democracy is not government censorship but the loss of voter confidence and competence that arises from the sea of disinformation and vitriol.

He argues that we need to find a way to subsidize real  journalism, especially local journalism, and that journalism bodies should use accreditation methods to signal which content is reliable and which is counterfeit. “Over time and with a lot of effort, we can reestablish greater faith in real journalism, at least for a significant part of the population.”

I would add a requirement that schools teach media literacy.

That said, how much of this is do-able is an open question.

Will Propaganda Win?

Did Betty White die because she got a Covid vaccine booster?

Evidently, that’s one of the messages being circulated by the (very busy) purveyors of what we politely call “misinformation” and what is more accurately labeled propaganda. 

According to the News Literacy Project,

 Propagators of anti-vaccine disinformation previously have seized on celebrity deaths — including baseball great Hank Aaron; boxer Marvin Hagler; Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh; and rapper DMX — to falsely impugn the safety of COVID-19 vaccines. Remember: Vaccinated people also die of other causes and a significant portion of the population, including celebrities, are vaccinated. Posts that falsely connect high-profile deaths to vaccines are often attempting to exploit the public’s emotions to generate fear and distrust.

With respect to a phony Betty White quote used in that particular effort, the Project noted

This particular rumor has another red flag: The fake quote has been added to a screenshot of a social media preview for an actual article in which the quote never appeared. This lends the fabricated quote an air of authenticity without providing a clickable link, making it less likely that people will check the alleged source to confirm that the quote is authentic.

I subscribe to a couple of newsletters devoted to news literacy. There are some valiant efforts “out there” to combat the “choose your own reality” media environment we currently inhabit–efforts to provide people with mechanisms for evaluating the credibility of social media posts.

In addition to debunking the suggestion that 99-year-old Betty White died from a vaccine booster, the most recent newsletter from the News Literacy Project highlighted the continued, determined campaign to peddle the “Big Lie.” 

A year after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, the role of misinformation in fueling the historic attack continues to come into clearer focus, as does the extent to which falsehoods still shape Americans’ divided views of the deadly riot. Misinformation swept across podcasts, Facebook — as documented in this new investigation by ProPublica and The Washington Post — and other social media platforms ahead of the attack, allowing false narratives to take root and spread. Some news organizations recently published fact-checking roundups that debunk persistent falsehoods and underscore the ongoing threat misinformation poses to democracy.

The problem, of course, is that the folks most susceptible to these falsehoods, and most likely to disseminate them further, don’t read or trust outlets like ProPublica and The Washington Post. Instead, they look for more ideologically compatible sources when they engage in what we used to call “cherry picking”–what psychologists call “confirmation bias”–in their search for information.

No matter how off-the-wall any particular belief might be, there’s a website out there confirming it. (As I used to tell my Media and Public Policy students, if you really believe that aliens once landed in Roswell, New Mexico, I can find you several websites with pictures of the aliens…)

Right now, credible media outlets are focused on very real threats to American democratic institutions. And although it is absolutely true that the country has previously faced and overcome significant challenges to our unity and constitutional system, I can’t help thinking about what is different this time. I think about  that quote attributed to Mark Twain to the effect that “that history doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes.”

What is different about the stanza of that rhyme that we currently occupy is an unprecedented media environment–the extent of disinformation and propaganda, the ease of accessing false “evidence” proving that this or that conspiracy theory is correct, and the consequential, damaging absence of a widely shared reality.

It has never been easier to believe nonsense. It has never been easier to attribute the inevitable disappointments in life to nefarious (albeit non-existent) machinations of “others”– those people who look, think or pray differently.   

Political scientists and (some) politicians have long emphasized the critical importance of a free press to a free society. That’s why the First Amendment prohibited government suppression–i.e.,censorship. But censorship–like so much else–has evolved. Thanks to new communication technologies, contemporary autocrats have discovered that controlling the flow of information no longer requires suppression: censorship can be achieved simply by sowing confusion and/or drowning out disfavored news.

We are about to see what happens when credible journalism is buried in bullshit– swamped by outlets purveying partisan propaganda and lunatic conspiracy theories–and citizens at that media smorgasbord are invited to pick and choose from the copious selection. 

I’m very much afraid this “rhyme” is uncharted territory.