Russian efforts to influence U.S. politics and sway public opinion were consistent and, as far as engaging with target audiences, largely successful, according to a report from Oxford’s Computational Propaganda Project published today. Based on data provided to Congress by Facebook, Instagram, Google and Twitter, the study paints a portrait of the years-long campaign that’s less than flattering to the companies.
The report, which you can read here, was published today but given to some outlets over the weekend; it summarizes the work of the Internet Research Agency, Moscow’s online influence factory and troll farm. The data cover various periods for different companies, but 2016 and 2017 showed by far the most activity.
A clearer picture
If you’ve only checked into this narrative occasionally during the last couple of years, the Comprop report is a great way to get a bird’s-eye view of the whole thing, with no “we take this very seriously” palaver interrupting the facts.
If you’ve been following the story closely, the value of the report is mostly in deriving specifics and some new statistics from the data, which Oxford researchers were provided some seven months ago for analysis. The numbers, predictably, all seem to be a bit higher or more damning than those provided by the companies themselves in their voluntary reports and carefully practiced testimony.
Previous estimates have focused on the rather nebulous metric of “encountering” or “seeing” IRA content put on these social metrics. This had the dual effect of increasing the affected number — to over 100 million on Facebook alone — but “seeing” could easily be downplayed in importance; after all, how many things do you “see” on the internet every day?
The Oxford researchers better quantify the engagement, on Facebook first, with more specific and consequential numbers. For instance, in 2016 and 2017, nearly 30 million people on Facebook actually shared Russian propaganda content, with similar numbers of likes garnered, and millions of comments generated.
Note that these aren’t ads that Russian shell companies were paying to shove into your timeline — these were pages and groups with thousands of users on board who actively engaged with and spread posts, memes and disinformation on captive news sites linked to by the propaganda accounts.
The content itself was, of course, carefully curated to touch on a number of divisive issues: immigration, gun control, race relations and so on. Many different groups (i.e. black Americans, conservatives, Muslims, LGBT communities) were targeted; all generated significant engagement, as this breakdown of the above stats shows:
Although the targeted communities were surprisingly diverse, the intent was highly focused: stoke partisan divisions, suppress left-leaning voters and activate right-leaning ones.
Black voters in particular were a popular target across all platforms, and a great deal of content was posted both to keep racial tensions high and to interfere with their actual voting. Memes were posted suggesting followers withhold their votes, or with deliberately incorrect instructions on how to vote. These efforts were among the most numerous and popular of the IRA’s campaign; it’s difficult to judge their effectiveness, but certainly they had reach.
In a statement, Facebook said that it was cooperating with officials and that “Congress and the intelligence community are best placed to use the information we and others provide to determine the political motivations of actors like the Internet Research Agency.” It also noted that it has “made progress in helping prevent interference on our platforms during elections, strengthened our policies against voter suppression ahead of the 2018 midterms, and funded independent research on the impact of social media on democracy.”
Instagram on the rise
Based on the narrative thus far, one might expect that Facebook — being the focus for much of it — was the biggest platform for this propaganda, and that it would have peaked around the 2016 election, when the evident goal of helping Donald Trump get elected had been accomplished.
In fact Instagram was receiving as much or more content than Facebook, and it was being engaged with on a similar scale. Previous reports disclosed that around 120,000 IRA-related posts on Instagram had reached several million people in the run-up to the election. The Oxford researchers conclude, however, that 40 accounts received in total some 185 million likes and 4 million comments during the period covered by the data (2015-2017).
A partial explanation for these rather high numbers may be that, also counter to the most obvious narrative, IRA posting in fact increased following the election — for all platforms, but particularly on Instagram.
IRA-related Instagram posts jumped from an average of 2,611 per month in 2016 to 5,956 in 2017; note that the numbers don’t match the above table exactly because the time periods differ slightly.
Twitter posts, while extremely numerous, are quite steady at just under 60,000 per month, totaling around 73 million engagements over the period studied. To be perfectly frank, this kind of voluminous bot and sock puppet activity is so commonplace on Twitter, and the company seems to have done so little to thwart it, that it hardly bears mentioning. But it was certainly there, and often reused existing bot nets that previously had chimed in on politics elsewhere and in other languages.
In a statement, Twitter said that it has “made significant strides since 2016 to counter manipulation of our service, including our release of additional data in October related to previously disclosed activities to enable further independent academic research and investigation.”
Google too is somewhat hard to find in the report, though not necessarily because it has a handle on Russian influence on its platforms. Oxford’s researchers complain that Google and YouTube have been not just stingy, but appear to have actively attempted to stymie analysis.
Google chose to supply the Senate committee with data in a non-machine-readable format. The evidence that the IRA had bought ads on Google was provided as images of ad text and in PDF format whose pages displayed copies of information previously organized in spreadsheets. This means that Google could have provided the useable ad text and spreadsheets—in a standard machine- readable file format, such as CSV or JSON, that would be useful to data scientists—but chose to turn them into images and PDFs as if the material would all be printed out on paper.
This forced the researchers to collect their own data via citations and mentions of YouTube content. As a consequence, their conclusions are limited. Generally speaking, when a tech company does this, it means that the data they could provide would tell a story they don’t want heard.
For instance, one interesting point brought up by a second report published today, by New Knowledge, concerns the 1,108 videos uploaded by IRA-linked accounts on YouTube. These videos, a Google statement explained, “were not targeted to the U.S. or to any particular sector of the U.S. population.”
In fact, all but a few dozen of these videos concerned police brutality and Black Lives Matter, which as you’ll recall were among the most popular topics on the other platforms. Seems reasonable to expect that this extremely narrow targeting would have been mentioned by YouTube in some way. Unfortunately it was left to be discovered by a third party and gives one an idea of just how far a statement from the company can be trusted. (Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
Desperately seeking transparency
In its conclusion, the Oxford researchers — Philip N. Howard, Bharath Ganesh and Dimitra Liotsiou — point out that although the Russian propaganda efforts were (and remain) disturbingly effective and well organized, the country is not alone in this.
“During 2016 and 2017 we saw significant efforts made by Russia to disrupt elections around the world, but also political parties in these countries spreading disinformation domestically,” they write. “In many democracies it is not even clear that spreading computational propaganda contravenes election laws.”
“It is, however, quite clear that the strategies and techniques used by government cyber troops have an impact,” the report continues, “and that their activities violate the norms of democratic practice… Social media have gone from being the natural infrastructure for sharing collective grievances and coordinating civic engagement, to being a computational tool for social control, manipulated by canny political consultants, and available to politicians in democracies and dictatorships alike.”
Waiting on politicians is, as usual, something of a long shot, and the onus is squarely on the providers of social media and internet services to create an environment in which malicious actors are less likely to thrive.
Specifically, this means that these companies need to embrace researchers and watchdogs in good faith instead of freezing them out in order to protect some internal process or embarrassing misstep.
“Twitter used to provide researchers at major universities with access to several APIs, but has withdrawn this and provides so little information on the sampling of existing APIs that researchers increasingly question its utility for even basic social science,” the researchers point out. “Facebook provides an extremely limited API for the analysis of public pages, but no API for Instagram.” (And we’ve already heard what they think of Google’s submissions.)
If the companies exposed in this report truly take these issues seriously, as they tell us time and again, perhaps they should implement some of these suggestions.
The Big Differences Between The Crypto Exchanges Explained
Perhaps the first thing that a trader will look for when evaluating investment platforms is the fee structure. Fees are common across trading avenues, and understanding the inherent costs that come along with placing trades, holding assets, and transferring funds into and out of brokerage accounts is essential to making smart decisions throughout the investment experience.
The Motley Fool reports that Gemini (as of July 2022) provides trading services at a slightly lower rate than Coinbase (a maximum of 0.4% and 0.6%, respectively). The fee structures are very similar, and each platform uses alternative cost bases depending on whether you will be trading with the basic or advanced interface. At the core of investing (and earning a profit for your efforts) is the raw calculation of profit. Your margin will always be affected by the fees that are taken off the top, so understanding what those costs are and how they are assessed is critical. In this regard, Gemini comes out a nose ahead.
However, fee structure isn’t everything. While Coinbase might charge a slightly inflated fee to use the platform to perform cryptocurrency operations, the Coinbase trade deck supports more than twice as many cryptocurrency coins than Gemini. CryptoVantage notes that stablecoins have retained value better than the typical altcoin in the current bear marketplace, meaning there may be an opportunity for greater growth figures among some of the lesser-known or smaller crypto assets out there. If this resonates with you, Coinbase may be your only option for gaining access.
This Apple-1 Computer Is The Most Expensive In The World
While it might have been a “working computer,” it certainly wasn’t complete, and it looked nothing like what we expect a fully functioning computer to look like today. The first Apple-1s were basically just a fully assembled circuit board with 60 or so microchips. The end user still had to provide the “case, power supply transformers, power switch, ASCII keyboard, and composite video display” (via Jeffry Norman’s History of Information). Thankfully, the Apple-1 was selling at a computer hobbyist store where someone could purchase all of those things separately — American consumerism at its finest.
Over the years, several computers from the first batch of 200 Apple-1s have sold at auction. Each is unique because, after their initial sale, they were customized by each owner. In November 2021, the “Chaffey College” Apple-1, named because it was initially purchased by a professor at the college, sold for $400,000. In March 2020, RR Auction sold one for $458,711. In May 2019, Christie’s sold one for $459,000. Christie’s reportedly sold one signed by Steve Wozniak in 2013 for $387,750, and Charitybuzz sold another for $815,000 in August 2016.
Yet, none of those were the priciest Apple on the tree.
In October 2014, the Henry Ford Museum paid $905,000 for what amounted to a “vintage keyboard with pre-7400-series military specification chips, a vintage Sanyo monitor, a custom power supply in a wooden box, as well as two vintage tape-decks.” After what was described by Bonhams as “fierce competition with a bidder on the telephone,” the final sale price ended at nearly twice the estimate going into the auction. That kind of money puts a whole new spin on the idiom, “How ’bout them apples?”
Elon Musk’s Tesla Optimus Robot Actually Works
What’s arguably more interesting is what’s going on inside. Optimus uses the same self-driving computer as Autopilot in Tesla’s electric cars relies upon. It also trains itself using the same processes that Autopilot does on the roads. The development platform uses “semi off-the-shelf actuators,” Musk says. The battery is in the center of the robot’s torso, with 2.3 kWh capacity. That should be enough for a full day’s work, Tesla says.
The goal, Musk says, is a robot that can liberate a human workforce. He’s predicting “maybe a two order of magnitude potential improvement in economic output” by replacing human workers with Optimus.
As to whether that’s something, long term, people actually want, Musk pointed out that Tesla being a publicly traded company means it’ll be down to shareholders to decide. “The public controls Tesla, and I think that’s a good thing,” the CEO explained. “Because if I go crazy, you can fire me.”
Meta plans hiring freeze, NASA shoots an asteroid, and Elon’s texts about Twitter are made public • TechCrunch
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