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.
Boeing 737 MAX packed with journalists completes first flight
Boeing was hit very hard when the US government banned its 737 MAX passenger airliner for 20 months. On Wednesday, the aircraft staged its first flight with media onboard since the fleet was grounded by the government. Boeing is desperate to show passengers and airliners that the 737 MAX is safe and ready for operation.
The test flight was conducted by American Airlines and spent 45 minutes traveling from Dallas, Texas to Tulsa, Oklahoma. The test flight was conducted weeks before the first commercial passenger flight will happen on December 29. Boeing and American Airlines held the flight to help eliminate any concerns about aircraft safety.
The massive aircraft was grounded in March 2019 after two crashes happened within five months, killing 346 people. The media flight was the first time anyone other than regulators and industry personnel flew on the 737 MAX since it was grounded. The flight had roughly 90 people aboard, who all wore masks due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Boeing’s aircraft was cleared by the FAA last month after the aircraft received design changes and new training for pilots. Boeing needs the aircraft’s return to service to go very smoothly as the aircraft is critical for the company’s reputation and finances. Hundreds of billions of dollars are on the line, with airlines worldwide having spent hundreds of billions of dollars purchasing aircraft.
Reports indicate that the aircraft has been discounted significantly to help lure carriers who may be wary of the aircraft to purchase. Boeing has a 24-hour situation room that monitors every 737 MAX flight globally. The company says it will continue to work closely with global regulators and customers to return the fleet to service safely.
Facebook might finally be sued by the US government next week
The political landscape in the US hasn’t yet stabilized almost a month after one of the most important elections in its recent history. It is perhaps because of that state of flux that government officials under the current administration are moving quickly to wrap things up while they can. Last month saw Google formally sued for monopolistic business practices and TikTok’s fate could very well be decided this Friday. Next week will see yet another high-profile legal drama when the US government slaps Facebook with an antitrust lawsuit of its own.
It seems almost ironic that Facebook would be the last Big Tech company this year to get formally sued considering it was one of the first to get into legal trouble with the US government. Although the Trump administration formally started inquiries and investigations into Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon only last year, Facebook’s name has already been dragged into the spotlight right after the previous presidential election. But while those previous issues centered around election interference and privacy, this lawsuit will instead focus on anti-competitive practices.
Reuters sources aren’t yet certain on what points the lawsuit will include but it is almost certain that it will involve its acquisition of Instagram and WhatsApp. The social media giant has been accused of buying up smaller rivals in order to gain monopoly of the market. Facebook argued that it actually helped those become market leaders instead.
Given its already negative reputation in the public’s and the government’s eyes, Facebook might face an uphill battle to make judges see things from its point of view. It doesn’t help its case that, despite the numerous scandals it has been involved in, Facebook remains a powerhouse and influential company, even with the competitors that the social media giant says disproves allegations of monopoly.
According to one source, as many as 40 states will sign the lawsuit that will be filed next week. The FTC is also reportedly considering filing a separate but related complaint with a district or administrative law judge. No date for the FTC’s lawsuit has been shared.
Google News Showcase tries to address the paywall elephant in the room
While many praise and thank Google for making information and news available to the masses on the Internet, others, especially publishers, hate it for almost the same reason. Some have even sued Google for putting directly in Search results content that should otherwise be viewed on the content owner’s website. And then there’s paywalled content that effectively blocks users from accessing those without paying a fee. In order to better promote its News platform, Google is negotiating with publishers in order to provide some locked content to readers for absolutely no charge at all.
To be clear, Google isn’t just making available paywalled content for free at the expense of publishers that own them. It will be the one publishing partners that are taking part in this relatively new Google News Showcase program. Even then, only select articles will be made available for free, pretty much like a trial or appetizer.
There are, however, more caveats to this seemingly generous offer. The biggest one for people will be the requirement to still register for each and every publisher they want to view paywalled content from. This, Google says, is so that publishing partners can build relationships with readers, which is to say that they will send you regular communications (read: spam) to convince you to sign up and pay for a subscription.
Another limit of this paywall program is that Google News Showcase itself isn’t available in all regions of the world. Google only names Germany, Brazil, Argentina, France, the UK, and Australia as some of the few but it is working to expand its reach to more countries. Courting US publishers might be trickier than in other countries.
Google is also working to expand Showcase beyond Android and iOS to Google News on the Web and its Discover feature. Together with a new panel for curating important local and national news from users’ favorite publishers, Google is more aggressively pushing its platform as the new way people could get their daily news fix and not from Facebook or Twitter.
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