Of Locker room talk, Guano go crazy and Best laid Plan(demic)s

MisDisMal-Information Edition #3

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 #3 of MisDisMal-Information.

Change in schedule

While the first 2 editions of MisDisMal-Information went out on a Monday, future editions are more likely to go out Friday and Saturday to add to your weekend reading load.

Locker room talk

I warned you in Edition #2 that you haven't signed up for good news. Undoubtedly, one of the most disturbing events on Indian Social Media last week were the leaked conversations from 'boislockerroom'. The conspiracy theories surrounding the events are still flying about. I am not linking to or mentioning any of them because I can't speak to their veracity at this point. We'll just have to wait. 

It shouldn't surprise anyone that the topic # boyslockerroom caused a lot of activity and anger. What did surprise me was another related but opposing trend that was making its way up twitter's trending section -# girlslockerroom. And invariably, when such topics come up, it is common to see activity on # notallmen and # yesallmen.

I used a combination of tools by OSoMe and some analysis using Twitters APIs to try and dig in a little.

I should call out that this chart using the Trends tool represents activity as a percentage relative to 10% of Twitter data per day. So it helps in looking at relative activity for different hashtags. It is interesting that, based on this dataset at least, the rise and fall in activity in the two hashtags appear to be concurrent. But don't put on your tin foil hats just yet.

Next, I looked at Hoaxy for # girlslockerroom to see what the diffusion pattern was like.

It looked like a lot of the traffic was the result of amplification of a few early tweets. How does that hold up against what I found using the API?

Now, let me apologise in advance for throwing a whole lot of numbers on you.

Based on 15000 tweets on the hashtag, there were around 8000 accounts who tweeted. I first looked at the top 100 accounts by number of tweets, to determine if there was a pattern around creation dates. 

Why? High activity from accounts with recent creation dates is "generally" an indicator of coordinated activity of some sort. So, what happened?

It was certainly curious that 16% of tweets came from accounts created in Mar and Apr 2020. The 2nd most active account was created in Jul 2013, so that could explain the large-ish piece for that month in the pie chart.

Then, I expanded the pie-chart to consider all tweets and accounts, and it became more evident that there is definitely a preponderance of accounts that were created recently. Hmmm.

A limitation of this exercise is that the sentiment analysis was subjective. Does this proove conclusively that there was coordinated activity? No, it does not. Abnormal activity? Probably.

Oh, and here's an hourly plot of tweets between 5th and 7th May.


Guano Go Crazy

Pardon my french, but I guess pandemics do drive some strange behaviour. We're on a straight drive to get rid of bats. Meanwhile, in MP, police filed a criminal case against an individual for making fun of the way a union minister wore a mask. In Manipur, police arrested someone for "spreading fake news on Covid-19 and creating panic among citizens"

Also, no, Abhijit Banerjee has not signed up for twitter, but man, did a lot of people for it.

And, since we're on the topic of things that are batshit (guano) crazy. Remember the 5G tower burning that happened in UK? Well, after claiming 77 mobile towers there, the theory has made its way to Canada too.


Tick Tick Boom goes the 'Fake News'

BOOM published its own study on Information Disorder trends, with some really interesting and interactive visuals. Screenshots won't do them justice, so I suggest you go and check them out.

Ok, fine. Here is one. Now go, but come back also.

Conspiracy Repeats Itself?

Kate Starbird tweeted about a paper that looked into conspiracy theories surrounding the Zika outbreak.

An interesting portion of the paper.

The most prominent difference we have noticed between conspiracy theorizing about Zika and other conspiracy theories (both health and non-health related) lies in the extreme scientific uncertainty in Zika virus. Within the eight categories we reported, scientific uncertainty directly led to the emergence of conspiracy theorizing of Zika origins and its link to microcephaly. Scientific uncertainty was coupled with little knowledge about the proper ways to contain Zika virus, which encouraged the growth of mistrust in the actions of authoritative organizations and legislation, another two categories of conspiracy theories. In contrast, political leanings and ideologies were an important factor in the theorizing of mass shooting events on Twitter [60].

The high uncertainty associated with Zika not only drove people to social media to look for essential information, such as local, hyperlocal, and alternative information [29], but also helped create and spread conspiracy theories. Such contradiction resides in the differences of social media sites and human behavior

The part that really intrigued me was the one about strategies to construct and develop conspiracy theories.

  1. Strengthen the theory

    • Citing authoritative information selectively

    • Citing popular cultural products

    • Elaborating with 'richer' but often unreliable information

    • Connecting unrelated dots

    • Sketching/describing a scenario

  2. Weaken authorities/reputation

    • Meta-discussion of science with the aim to weaken its authority

    • Ideological arguments

    • Adding Hypothetetical/Unknowable risks

    • Casting doubts/aspersions on imagined conspirators

  3. Defending the theory

    • Meta-discussion of the theory with the aim to legitimise it by focusing on the 'rational', 'reasonable' aspects

    • Encouraging criticism of mainstream narratives.

    • Deflecting burden of proof

Speaking of, there has been no shortage of conspiracy theories linking Bill Gates to COVID-19. This isn't vox-pop, it sounds more like antivax-pop. The latest one dealt with a Windowed Corona Crop Circle.

BBC's Marianna Spring has a report out on who starts and spreads misleading stories.

Marianna Spring @mariannaspring
🚨 NEW 🚨 Having investigated lots of misleading stories during the pandemic, we’ve tracked down who starts and spreads them‼️ Catch my latest report 👇 and read more here 👉
bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-tre… https://t.co/jZT2PQ1uN3

BBC News (World) @BBCWorld

Conspiracy theories and speculation about coronavirus have flooded social media. But who starts these rumours? And who spreads them? Specialist disinformation reporter Marianna Spring has some answers (via @[BBC Monitoring]) https://t.co/4AdlJEnUeJ https://t.co/yZpFYgEPGq

Have you seen 'Behind the Curve' on Netflix? If you haven't I strongly recommend it. Try and watch it without judgement (it is hard, but try). The documentary is a fascinating window into a world that some of us cannot even imagine. 


Too much science leads to too much faith?

The HKS Information Review published an essay exploring the history of information systems and the interplay between faith and fact. It concludes that the increased focus on STEM education and the exclusion of the humanities may be undermining the analytical skills needed to counter misinformation.

Two extracts from this essay: 

If we keep in mind the extent to which in an increasingly intangible and virtual age, “facts” often require the same “leap of faith” as other forms of belief, then understanding the tendency to believe or not believe requires that we take up a wider variety of intellectual tools to make sense of those patterns (Cmiel & Peters, 2020). We might then pay careful attention to the broader socio-cultural, psychological and indeed personal contextual dynamics at work in patterns of “denialism.”

I suspect that educational policy that pushes STEM courses to the neglect and defunding of the arts and humanities does not provide the intellectual “tools” for parsing out the difference between “faith” and “fact” (Kleinberg, 2016). There is a difference between cultivating a respect for scientific reasoning, and what philosophers of science call Scientism— which is an almost religious belief in the singular power of “science” to provide the “correct” epistemological and practical foundations of a given society (Hurley, 2014; Williams & Robinson, 2016).


No Circle of Life: Aditi Tandon writes about incorrect information around the return of the animals and how it is harmful.

An Eoghan Sweeney quote from it

“And I know if you point out misinformation, people may come back and say ‘oh what harm is it, it makes people feel happy.’ But I think this is something that goes right to the heart of attitudes. It shows that accuracy, truth, objectivity are not necessarily as crucial as they should be. So if you get people in a mindset where they will happily start sharing stuff without verifying, where do you draw the line? That can be quite dangerous,”

Arabian Knights contd: If you remember Edition 2, then you also recall that there was an element of an information operation here, given the use of re-purposed accounts. This has led to a call for India to enhance information warfare

There is an urgent need for the government to create a department of information warfare and psychological operations under the NSA and within the armed forces.

Ok, then. 

Zombie Misinformation: How wayback machine is used to give misinformation a new life.

This zombie content has better performance than most mainstream media news stories, and yet it exists only as an archived record.


Bee-Tee-Dubs

No, no, I haven't discovered my inner millennial voice (or is it a Boomer term?). This is a section called Big Tech Watch.

Facebook announced additional members to its Oversight Board (which now has its own Twitter handle). The co-chairs penned an op-ed about it, but I would recommend reading Daphne Keller's thread on it.

Staying on Facebook, it published its April 2020 Coordinated Inauthentic Behaviour Report. This was accompanied by reports from Graphika and DFRLab going into details of Iranian and Kremlin propaganda respectively.

Key points from Graphika's Report

  • Facebook took down over 500 pages, groups and accounts attributed to an Iranian state broadcaster.

  • Primary language was Arabic, followed by English, Persian, Bengali (no typo, I checked twice) Bosnian and French.

  • There were some operations targeting domestic politics in the US (2012) and UK (2014).

  • "A significant number of assets that were created in or after 2017 focused on politics in Africa."

  • Activities ranged from (Covert) Public Diplomacy, Amplifying State Outlets, Geopolitics and Coronavirus Coverage,

From DFRLAb's Report

  • Facebook removed 140 assets, DFRLab had access to 69 of them.

  • "Most of the pages and groups the DFRLab had access to had clear connections to News Front and South Front".

  • "The DFRLab also found suspicious links to another Russian propaganda outlet, ANNA News"

  • One of the accounts used a photo of David Cameron as its profile picture.

  • Some accounts shared identical posts across various groups often on the same day (Sound familiar)?

  • "News Front and South Front both used false equivalence and distortion to manipulate the information environment."

  • Use of Photoshop 

Other posts used photoshopped, fabricated, and defamatory images to target Western politicians, including a photo of Hillary Clinton posted ahead of the 2016 presidential elections that supposedly showed her shaking hands with Osama bin Laden. The Photoshopped image superimposed bin Laden’s head on the body of Indian musician Shubhashish Mukherjee, who can be seen meeting Clinton at a 2004 event in the original photo.

Jordan Liles had a thread on pages run from Pakistan and India, which he believes are inauthentic.

TikTok now allows users to report COVID-19 specific misinformation. 

Best Laid Plan(demic)s

I am assuming you've heard of the Plandemic Documentary by now. Platforms tried hard to take it down, but probably only Streisand-ed themselves. You can still find it, and now everyone is talking about it.

Remember the good old days when we thought COVID-19 was a relatively easier topic for platforms to be decisive on? Well, those days are long gone as their response to the whole disinfectant saga showed.

Misinformation Super-spreaders

NewsGuard published reports on COVID-19 Misinformation 'Super-spreaders' on Facebook in Europe and Twitter.

Also, celebrities can be super-spreaders too. (I'm looking at you Big B) 

Fear the Middle-man

Robyn Caplan, writes for Brookings that COVID-19 misinformation is a crisis of content mediation.

And round up, Bee-Tee-Dubs, this piece by Kara Swisher in which she concludes that in the post COVID world Big Tech will be more powerful than ever.

Bonus Research: - [ASPI][ASPI]'s report on COVID-19 disinformation. - Karen Kornbluh and Ellen P.Goodman on [Safeguarding Digital Democracy][GMFUS] - Benjamin Strick's OSINT investigation into Chinese and Russian-named bots.