Of George Floyd Protests, Saving Men from Extinction, Banning PaatalLok and the Twitter Trump Tussle.

MisDisMal-Information Edition #6

What is this?This newsletter aims to track information disorder largely from an Indian perspective. It will also look at some global campaigns and research
What this is not?A fact-check newsletter. There are organisations like Altnews, Boomlive etc who already do some great work. It may feature some of their fact-checks periodically

Welcome to Edition #6 of MisDisMal-Information.

Thou shall not distort... faces?

The Mumbai Police issued prohibitory orders stating you can't distort faces. No, that isn't a typo, it says 'faces'.

Look at 4(i). In all seriousness, that probably was a typo though. 4(iv) goes on to take issue with 'inciting mistrust towards government functionaries'. BJP Mumbai President challenged the order. The Public Relations Officer for the Mumbai Police did clarify that the order was aimed at curbing misinformation and not government criticism. If only it was this easy to curb misinformation. The Free Press Journal reports that the Mumbai Police is also keeping an eye on social media for lockdown 5.0 rumours.

George Floyd

I am sure you know that there are a number of protests erupting around the United States in the aftermath of police brutality leading to the death of George Floyd. Such chaotic times are also the perfect storm of Information Disorder. Jane Lytvynenko is running a thread tracking disinformation, hoaxes and malinformation. At the time of writing this, it was up to 48 already. And as incredible this thread is, there is no way it can keep up with everything. There's also a page on Buzzfeed tracking this.

From false stories of missing people, to white nationalist links, buildings burning down, underrated members of the National Guard this thread is indicative of how unverified information grows wings at such times.

NBCNews ran a story about a fake account posing to be Antifa that called for violence. The account has since been suspended by Twitter and I wasn't able to verify how broadly the post was shared/viewed. It also covers a hoax 'dcblackout' trend on Twitter which was meant to sow confusion. And there's a section which delves into the Twitter's trending section which some believe has outlived its utility and is now only a place where various campaigns compete and attempt to manipulate the platform. There is some merit in this concern, it is not uncommon to see tweets treating a 'trending' status as an end in itself. And I can tell you from experience, most of them are not pretty.

And, in what seems to be customary, George Soros was dragged in too.

As is inevitable, information operations kick off at such times:

Having said that, as Donnie O'Sullivan points out - while there is misinformation, it is not all foreign interference.

I spent some time looking at the hashtag USA riots, because I noticed a similarity in anti-protest narratives from HK, Anti-CAA, J&K and now George Floyd, "rioters", "looters" etc. I was also surprised to see a lot of RW seemingly Indian (or Indian-origin) handles active on hashtags like USARiots and USAonFire. In fact, on both these hashtags, of the accounts that actually publish location information on their profiles, the top ones were from India. Even the accounts with most number of tweets using the hashtag appears to be be from India. Now, this is very different from saying that most or even a substantial portion of the activity was from India. It was still higher than I expected. There's nothing wrong with it per se, but let's just say I didn't agree with the narrative that a lot of them were trying to spin. I don't want to amplify, so I won't post the actual content here as usual.

For USARiots, 2 of the top 5 RT-ed tweets originated from Indian accounts.

Here's a word cloud of hashtags used with USAonFire. I am not sure why Payal Rohatgi is on there, but she did tweet about it.

And here's a word cloud of hashtags used with USARiots

Save Men and Censor Web Series

Speaking of strange activity on Twitter, I also looked into 2 other hashtags that were trending last week.

First, let's look at the hashtag save_male_nurses. Now, this appears to be response to an 80:20 female:male for AIIMS Nursing Officer Recruitments.

Based on my sample of 20000 tweets starting 26th May, ~2800 accounts that participated. And the top 10% accounted for about 75% of the tweets.

Sorry, the chart is a little confusing. The Y-axis on the right represents the number of tweets (green). The Y-axis on the left represents the numbers of followers and friends (people followed).

60% of the tweets came from accounts that were created in the month of May. 

I then looked at this for the top 10% of accounts by number of tweets. That number went up to 67%

Now, I am not saying there is something suspicious about this. But...

Ok, I am saying this is suspicious. But in the context of last week's 50% bot traffic CMU study, we should not assume that these are bots. Coordinated, perhaps. Bots? That's a moderate leap.

Since we're here, let's also take a look at the hashtag word cloud. (P.S. The garbled text came in from Twitter's API. I didn't knock it out because that would change the relative representation of the remaining hashtags)

My favourite ones are MensRightsRHumanRights and MenTooRHuman

I also looked into the CensorWebSeries hashtag. Which was a response to PataalLok. That's what the tweets seem to be saying, but I read it on Whatsapp.

The sample I looked was for 25000 tweets with ~6500 users tweeting about it.

There wasn't a whole lot that surprised me. There were gripes about how a lot of web series are anti majority, anti army, against Indian culture, etc. Usual suspects were blamed - tukdetukdegang, champagne socialists, liberals and Anushka Sharma. Ok, she isn't quite a usual suspect. 

And Payal Rohatgi made an appearance again. 

Twitter versus Trump verus Facebook

A lot has already been written about this so I won't belabour the point. 

  • Twitter Flagged a Trump tweet for election related misinformation and then another tweet for glorifying violence.

  • The Whitehouse published an Executive Order seeking to 'reduce censorship' by narrowing the scope of Good Samaritan content removal that electronic services are allowed as per Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

  • Facebook disagreed with Twitters actions and said private companies should not be arbiters of truth. Except, Facebook has, and does (real-name policy) and will.

  • And now for the India angle: Indian news channels held debates that India should look to replicate it because of “Lutyens’ friendly Jack's anti-hindu bias”. I wrote about it hereUnrelated, but, a former IT Cell co-convenor wants sedition charges on employees of Twitter India because a US based group promoted a hashtag related to Khalistan as well as KYC norms to regulate fake handles.

This is a complex, complex topic. Read this post by Elettra Bietti in which she argues that Free Speech is not a Triangle but a Circle. In that, "‌discourse around online speech forms an insoluble circle that needs to be broken". Some quotes:

The debate on online speech, when understood as a question about the tensions between Twitter and Trump’s respective behaviors, is circular. Failing to take into account the important legal, technological, social, and behavioral forces that structure online speech, particularly the question of platform power and the question of algorithmic opacity, means failing to adopt a meaningful understanding of what speech consists of in the twenty-first century. Through his configuration of speech as a triangle, Jack Balkin recognizes the plurality and multi-angularity of online speech but maintains an atomistic and solutionist perspective on how speech can be addressed. For him, platforms, governments and individuals are opposing atomistic forces that exert force or pressure against one another.

...we should start by recognizing that speech is political and socially constructed and that free speech is not about being able to speak in a legal, institutional and technological vacuum but about being empowered to speak and communicate through meaningful legal, institutional and technological constraints as an equal that is worthy of respect and is given a real voice in the democratic process, cultural and social life.

So, what can Twitter do? Poynter has some suggestions

  • Algorithms designed to help slow the spread of dis/misinformation, like circuit-breakers during stock market crashes

  • Fact-checking programs and working with third-party, independent fact-checking organizations, like the verified signatories of the International Fact-Checking Network.

    • Start with fact-checking the accuracy of content put out by influencers and accounts with large followings.

  • Media literacy education programs for users.

More to Consume

  • Does debunking work? This research paper seems to conclude that it does.

Twitter avatar for @CaulfieldTimTimothy Caulfield @CaulfieldTim
My new paper: "Does Debunking Work? Correcting #COVID19 Misinformation on Social Media" [accepted]
osf.io/5uy2f/ #scicomm cc @DrJenGunter @MediaSmarts Key pts: - Concerns about backfire overstated - If done well (below) #debunking helps - Empowering public essential
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  • Pandemic Conspiracy Theorists Have Found A New Home On TikTok

  • Misinformation on Mobile Instant Messengers is a huge area of interest. Shorenstein Center has published some research on the topic

  • Anti Fake-news laws have turned out to be contentious. In an episode of Arbiters of Truth, Gabriel Lim talks about Malaysia's tryst with such legislation. Facebook criticised Singapore's POFMA. And in Myanmar, a news editor was sentenced to 2 years in jail for misreporting.

  • How is China planning to win back the world? Through “spin, obfuscation, hyperbole, and outright disinformation” as per this piece in The Atlantic.

  • Who fact-checks the fact-checker? Ayush Tiwari of Newslaundry asks in this article on PIB Fact check. Paging Lutyens’ friendly Jack.