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How Russia’s online influence campaign engaged with millions for years – TechCrunch

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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.

Examples of posts targeting black Americans.

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.”

Predictably, even social networks’ moderation policies became targets for propagandizing.

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.

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Apple Unleashed: Everything we can expect

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Slightly over a month after its September event, Apple is set for an “Unleashed” October event. This second product launch of the fall on October 18 is scheduled a day before Google’s much-anticipated Pixel event. Strategically timed or not, the Apple event is not going to have any competitive iPhones to show. The highlight of the “Unleashed” event will be the new MacBook Pros powered by an upgraded in-house processor.

Once again, it wouldn’t be an in-person event; it will be livestreamed from Apple’s Cupertino headquarters for the world to follow. It will kick off at 10am Pacific Time on Monday, which is unusual, since Apple products are generally released on Tuesdays. To an extent, this is cleverly timed to hog up Google’s limelight.

Apple as we know has already launched iPhone 13 lineup along with the Apple Watch Series 7 and new iPads, it is exciting to understand what is in store for the latest launch event. We are definitely going to see the upgraded ARM-based M1 chipset – likely called M1X – which will find its way into the revamped MacBook Pros, in the Mac Mini, and maybe a larger iMac.

Perhaps, there is no concrete information about the M1X Macs but a recent leak does confirm the possibility of long-rumored AirPods 3 to join the party. The new AirPods were earlier expected to release along with the new iPhones, that hasn’t happened, so we are hopeful the earbuds will make an appearance on Monday.

How to watch the event?

Before we delve deeper into the expected products, let’s run through how you can watch the event live. In case you miss the livestreaming, we will be covering the product launches as and when they happen here on Slashgear.

The “Unleashed” event will be streamed live on Apple’s website or on the Apple TV app. It will also be aired on the Apple channel on YouTube, so you can tune in to your preferred medium at 10am PT on October 18.

The revamped MacBook Pro

The next-generation Apple processor designed specifically for the Mac is expected to get more than just an incremental upgrade. The M1 chip launched last year has proven its worth with powerful features and incredible efficiency. The chipset revolutionized the MacBook Pro in 2020; in 2021, the processor with upgraded performance and efficiency will power the notably distinct MacBook Pro beyond ordinary expectations.

When Apple introduced the M1 chip, it informed that the transition from Intel to Apple’s own silicon will take about “two years” to complete. Into the second year now, we expect the journey is almost complete and the potent new chipset is ready. It can replace the Intel processing in the larger-screen MacBook Pro and take the performance of the smaller Pro to an exciting new high.

Actually, two MacBook Pro variants are launching this year. The 13.3-inch model from the previous year goes out and a resized 14-inch MacBook Pro will debut, which is likely to arrive alongside a 16-inch model. Since both the variants will run on the same graphics-enhancing M1X processor, Apple may deliver two separate options of its SoC for either MacBook. The difference may be in the GPU and storage variants.

Besides the incredible processing, the MacBook Pro is for the first time in five years allegedly receiving a redesign in line with the trusted form factor of the iPhone 13. The flat-edge design that launched with the iPhone 12, will add a nice appeal to the new MacBook Pro that will arrive without the Touch Bar but a 1080p webcam.

The laptop is also likely to arrive with mini-LED panel boasting 120Hz refresh rate. There is a chance it will feature a thinner bezel and include slots for SD card and HDMI. The MagSafe charging is allegedly making a comeback to the Apple MacBook Pro.

AirPods 3

The probable launch of AirPods 3 is a rumor that doesn’t seem to settle. Whenever we discuss the pre-launch expectation of an Apple event the next-generation AirPods invariably pop up in discussion. The much-anticipated earbuds might launch this time after failing us in September when they should have logically arrived with the iPhones.

The redesigned, entry-level AirPods 3 are likely to launch with a shorter stem and a wireless charging case, similar to the AirPods Pro. There have been leaks suggesting them with silicone ear tips. Despite how close they get to the AirPods Pro, the third-gen AirPods will be an affordable alternative without ANC.

The final thoughts

In the lead-up to the second fall event, there have been half-baked stories about a few other probabilities. Notable Apple analyst Mark Gurman thinks a high-end Mac Mini powered by the improved in-house chip is on the cards. Announcement of a release date for the company’s macOS Monterey is also likely at the event. The desktop operating system was previewed at the WWDC 2021, albeit a small update, it will still be exciting to know a possible date for its release.

This is more or less what we can expect. Apple however has a knack for pulling out the unexpected, so we’ll only know what’s what on Monday when Apple goes Unleashed. There could be some surprises but 14 and 16-inch MacBook Pros powered by M1X SoC is going to be the biggest highlight.

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Tinder’s latest feature helps users find dates for in-person weddings

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If taking a total stranger as your plus one to a wedding doesn’t sound like a bad idea to you, Tinder is back with a new feature that’ll make the entire process easier. The company has announced a feature called Plus One that, as you’d expect, lets users alert others that they’re looking for a date to take to a wedding.

Tinder announced its new Plus One feature on Thursday, stating that it has teamed up with WeddingWire to help users find someone to take as a date to a wedding. The feature is available in the app’s Explore section, ensuring users are able to make their particular needs known to others who may want to tag along.

The team-up with WeddingWire, meanwhile, is to launch a ‘Wedding Guest Grant’ giveaway that’s now live. With this, the first 100 people to join the Plus One section in Explore will get $460 toward the cost of a wedding — the average amount WeddingWire says people spend to show up as guests.

Many in the industry are bracing for an anticipated onslaught in weddings later this year and through 2022. The reason is — you guessed it — because of the wedding postponements that occurred in 2020 and most of 2021 due to the pandemic.

The combination of readily available vaccines in many places, as well as cheap rapid COVID-19 tests and loosened travel restrictions, have made in-person weddings a safer option again. According to Tinder, it has seen the number of users adding “plus one” to their profiles increase 45-percent since the start of 2021.

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Steam Blockchain games ban: Good news for NFT and crypto alike

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An update to Valve’s rules for games on Steam effectively bans all Blockchain games that use cryptocurrencies or NFTs. This is GOOD news if you’re a cryptocurrency or NFT holder, at the moment, as it represents another public acknowledgement of the real-world value of cryptocurrencies and NFTs alike.

It’s not clear yet if this means that any sort of game using ANY sort of blockchain tech will be removed – but it DOES stop all blockchain-based digital tokens from playing a part in games on Steam. Information was shared by the folks behind the game Age of Rust, a game that’s built with blockchain tech that allows the exchange of NFT in accordance with puzzle solving gameplay.

SEE TOO: What is NFT? (for the crypto-newb)

If we’re looking at the situation from the perspective of the developers of a game like Age of Rust, this is certainly a setback. It might just be a temporary setback, but it IS a setback. These developers will need to find a new way to distribute their games – which might mean they need to work with less well-known game hosting platforms.

The developers of Age of Rust suggested that Valve told them that “Steam’s point of view is that items have value and they don’t allow items that can have real-world value on their platform.” So if you were wondering if a company as big as Valve considered those bits of code you were earning in your games to have any value outside of the games you’ve been playing… there’s your answer.

Now it’ll be interesting to see the point at which Valve must acknowledge the difference between in-game cryptocurrency and NFT exchange and in-game purchases, and whether there’ll be any further distinction between the two in future updates to Steam’s set of rules for hosted games. Given Steam’s use of tradeable achievement cards, tokens, and the like, it would not be shocking to find Valve incorporating non-fungible tokens (NFTs) into their platform at a higher level in the near future.

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