Tag Archives: disinformation

How The Internet Facilitates Dishonesty

Sometimes, just skimming the news is enough to trigger heartburn.

In addition to the hourly reminders that our country is being “governed” (note quotation marks) by a dangerously ignorant lunatic and the daily disclosures of corruption and cronyism, we are routinely reminded of the difficulty of separating all manner of informational wheat from both inadvertent and purposeful chaff.

The other day, the Guardian carried a story about dishonesty in–of all things– a women’s fertility app.

I didn’t even know such things existed. It would never have occurred to me that fertility could be managed on line–but evidently, in the age of the Internet, pretty much everything is subject to online interventions.

The problem is, it turns out that this particular app comes with an agenda.

A popular women’s health and fertility app sows doubt about birth control, features claims from medical advisers who are not licensed to practice in the US, and is funded and led by anti-abortion, anti-gay Catholic campaigners, a Guardian investigation has found.

The Femm app, which collects personal information about sex and menstruation from users, has been downloaded more than 400,000 times since its launch in 2015, according to developers. It has users in the US, the EU, Africa and Latin America, its operating company claims.

Although it markets itself as a way to “avoid or achieve pregnancy,” what the app really does is create doubts about the safety of birth control.

Femm receives much of its income from private donors including the Chiaroscuro Foundation, a charity backed almost exclusively by Sean Fieler, a wealthy Catholic hedge-funder based in New York.

Fieler’s foundation has long supported organizations– and politicians such as the vice-president, Mike Pence – that oppose birth control and abortion. Fieler has criticized Republicans for failing to outlaw abortion, calling their reticence “the tyranny of moderation” in a recent editorial.

The Chiaroscuro Foundation, with Fieler as its chairman and main backer, provided $1.79m to the developers of the Femm app over the last three years, according to IRS statements. Fieler also sits on the board of directors for the Femm Foundation, a not-for-profit which operates the app.

The Femm app asserts that “hormonal” birth control–i.e., the pill– may be “deleterious to a woman’s health” and promotes learning one’s “cycles” as  a safer, “natural” way to avoid pregnancy. This is medically inaccurate information.

“The birth control pill is one of the greatest health achievements of the 20th century,” said Dr Nathaniel DeNicola, an OB-GYN with the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, which has studied fertility apps extensively. “This is part of standard women’s healthcare.”

“Natural” family planning methods using fertility awareness are known to have a failure rate of about 25 unintended pregnancies for every 100 women a year in the US.

I wonder how many women have downloaded this app in good faith, relying on the professional advice of “doctors” who are unlicensed in the U.S. and who are peddling information inconsistent with sound science and best practices.

For that matter, I wonder how many other apps, websites and blogs are providing information they know or should know is both untrue and potentially damaging, whether for ideological reasons or financial ones. We already know about the so-called “dark web,” where alt-right white nationalist propaganda radicalizes the vulnerable, and conspiracy theories ensnare the gullible. Add to that the new “deep fake” technologies, and the potential for mischief (and worse) is enormous.

I have no idea how we combat the avalanche of misinformation that is facilitated by the Internet’s low entry barriers. It seems clear that the “big guys”–the social media mavens–don’t know how either.

Ultimately, better education (and better mental healthcare), plus development of some sort of “Good housekeeping seal of approval” denoting credibility might act as warning devices, but for right now, it’s a Wild West–and the bad guys aren’t wearing black hats so that we can recognize them.

Baffle Them With Bullshit

The BBC recently opined that the goal of all those Russian bots and trolls isn’t to convince Americans of any particular fact or position–it’s to bombard us with so many competing versions of everything that nothing makes sense.

The observation reminded me of the old saying, “If you can’t convince them with your arguments, baffle them with your bullshit.”

CNN recently ran a story with a similar premise: the title was “Why Russian Trolls May be More Excited That the NFL is Back Than You Are.

The same Kremlin-linked group that posed as Americans on social media during the 2016 US presidential election has repeatedly exploited the controversy surrounding the NFL and players who have protested police brutality and racial injustice during the National Anthem, playing both sides in an effort to exacerbate divides in American society.

The debate is almost certainly an irresistible one for the Russians, given that it includes issues of race, patriotism, and national identity — topics the Russian trolls sought to exploit during the run-up to the election, and have continued to focus on in the two years since.

Propaganda in the age of the Internet has gotten far more sophisticated, and the goals it pursues are no longer limited to winning a particular debate or political campaign. The changes really started in earnest with Big Tobacco–the PR firms trying to head off new regulations realized that a frontal attack on the medical science showing that smoking is linked to cancer would fail, because contrary scientific studies paid for by the tobacco companies wouldn’t be seen as credible.

Instead, they hit on a tactic that has since been used to great effect by  other special interests, most notably fossil fuel companies denying climate change: they claimed that the evidence was still “inconclusive” and Congress should wait for more information before acting. Encouraging confusion was far more effective than attacking the science. The tactic played into the reluctance of lawmakers to pick a side in contentious debates.

It’s even easier for the Russians, because their goal is simply to divide us. They don’t care which side “wins” a debate–their goal is to add fuel to the fire and watch it burn.

Darren Linvill, an associate professor at Clemson University who has been studying the Russian group’s behavior with his colleague Patrick Warren, explained that the trolls “don’t slant toward one side or the other in the NFL flag debate, but they do slant very steeply to both extremes,” he said.

“Kaepernick is either a hero fighting a corrupt system or a villain who has betrayed his country. It’s two very simple, divisive story lines told at the same time with the goal of dividing our country rather than adding nuance to an ongoing, important national conversation.”

The most pernicious aspect of a fragmented media environment in which partisans can “shop” for the realities they want to find is the overwhelming uncertainty that less ideological citizens experience. We no longer know which sources are credible, which advocacy groups we can trust, which “breaking news” items have been vetted and verified.

We don’t know what’s bullshit and what isn’t–and that’s paralyzing.

False Equivalence 101

An article by Jeffrey Toobin in The New Yorker references a new book on right-wing media, written by Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts. The book–to be published next month by Oxford University Press– is titled, “Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics.

It debunks a favorite belief of politicians and journalists. As Toobin writes,

The Washington conventional wisdom presupposes a kind of symmetry between our polarized political parties. Liberals and conservatives, it is said, live in separate bubbles, where they watch different television networks, frequent different Web sites, and absorb different realities. The implication of this view is that both sides resemble each other in their twisted views of reality. Rachel Maddow and Sean Hannity, in other words, represent two sides of the same coin.

This view is precisely wrong.

The two sides are not, in fact, equal when it comes to evaluating “news” stories, or even in how they view reality. Liberals want facts; conservatives want their biases reinforced. Liberals embrace journalism; conservatives believe propaganda. In the more measured but still emphatic words of the authors, “the right-wing media ecosystem differs categorically from the rest of the media environment,” and has been much more susceptible to “disinformation, lies and half-truths.”

This assertion sounds as if it is itself the result of propaganda–liberal propaganda, in this case. But as Toobin reports,

“Network Propaganda” is an academic work at the crossroads of law, sociology, and media studies. Benkler is a law professor at Harvard and a co-director of the university’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, where Faris and Roberts both conduct research. The book is not a work of media criticism but, rather, of data analysis—a study of millions of online stories, tweets, and Facebook-sharing data points. The authors’ conclusion is that “something very different was happening in right-wing media than in centrist, center-left and left-wing media.” Accordingly, they wrote the book “to shine a light on the right-wing media ecosystem itself as the primary culprit in sowing confusion and distrust in the broader American ecosystem.”

The book examines the way in which that right-wing “ecosystem” works. Stories frequently begin on conspiracy theory sites like Infowars; if they remained there, most people would either fail to encounter them or see them for what they are. But they “migrate” to outlets like Fox News, that claim to follow principles of objective journalism. The authors note that there simply aren’t significant sites on the left that mirror those on the right by trafficking in “chronic falsity;”  furthermore, the “upstream sources” in the center and on the left do adhere to traditional journalistic standards, so they debunk rather than parrot the stories contrived by those few sites that  crank out leftwing propaganda.

This lack of symmetry is why “Pizzagate”–accusing Hillary Clinton of pedophilia and of molesting children in the basement of a pizza parlor–was widely reported, while unverifiable allegations that Trump had raped a 15-year-old quickly died.

The authors’ telling conclusion, based upon their data analysis, was that Trump’s election wasn’t the result of Russia’s (admitted) interference, nor to Cambridge Analytica’s manipulation of Facebook.

Rather, it was the feedback loop of right-wing quasi-journalism that had the most impact—and that hypothesis has profound implications not only for the study of the recent past but also for predictions about the not-so-distant future.

This analysis confirms the suspicions of several of my colleagues who have “lost” their previously rational parents to Fox News.

The sixty-four thousand dollar question is: in a country committed to freedom of speech and the press, what can we do about it?

A Different Kind Of Weapon

A story about the recent Santa Fe school shooting highlighted what worries me most of all about America’s future–not to mention humanity’s–and our ability to engage in fact-based, rational discussion and debate.

In the first hours after the Texas school shooting that left at least 10 dead Friday, online hoaxers moved quickly to spread a viral lie, creating fake Facebook accounts with the suspected shooter’s name and a doctored photo showing him wearing a “Hillary 2016” hat.

Several were swiftly flagged by users and deleted by the social network. But others rose rapidly in their place: Chris Sampson, a disinformation analyst for a counterterrorism think tank, saidhe could see new fakes as they were being created and filled out with false information, including images linking the suspect to the anti-fascist group Antifa.

The immediacy and reach of the disinformation about gun violence are nothing new, nor is this tactic limited to the gun debate–and that’s the problem.

Thanks to technology, we are marinating in propaganda and falsehood–weapons that are ultimately far more powerful than assault rifles.

There have always been efforts to mislead the gullible, to confirm the suspicions of cynics and the certainties of ideologues. No matter how diligently we try not to indulge in confirmation bias, most of us are susceptible to the “facts” that have been slanted in a direction we’re predisposed to accept. But we have never seen anything like the onslaught of utter fabrication that has been made possible by our new communication mediums, and the result is beginning to emerge: Americans are increasingly distrustful of all information.

We don’t know who or what to believe, so we suspend belief altogether.

When people occupy incommensurate realities, they can’t communicate with each other. The one thing Donald Trump does understand–and unfortunately, it is the only thing he appears to understand–is that lies and “alternate” facts undermine citizens’ ability to make decisions based in reality. Thus his attacks on the “fake” news media and his assertions of “achievements” that exist only in the precincts of his grandiose imagining.

The effectiveness of this technique of cultivating uncertainty was prominently displayed during the so-called “tobacco wars,” when flacks for the tobacco industry realized that a frontal attack on medical reports linking smoking to cancer were doomed, but that efforts to muddy the waters–to suggest that the “jury was still out”–could be very effective. If the attack was on the reliability of science, the public would discount it, but if the message was “scientists still aren’t sure,” people who wanted to be fair–and those who wanted to keep smoking– would withhold judgment.

That same tactic has been used–very effectively–by fossil fuel interests to undermine settled science on the reality and causes of climate change.

The problem is that people of good will–and, of course, those who are not so well-intentioned–no longer know what to believe. What is factual, and what is self-serving bullshit? And how do we tell the difference?

 Unless we can address this issue–unless we can reclaim the ability to determine what is fact and what is fiction, what is credible evidence and what is “disinformation”– humanity is in a world of hurt.

Just the Facts

As regular readers of this blog know, I tend to harp a lot on the inadequacies of the media and the importance of accurate and complete information. My (frequently unarticulated) assumption is that if people agree about the facts of a matter, they are more likely to agree upon what those facts mean. So facts matter. A lot.

Case in point: yesterday, I shared my frustration about Fox News and its incessant drumbeat about a ‘Benghazi scandal’ the details of which the network neglects to specify. One of the commenters purported to fill in the blanks by asserting that the administration had refused to deploy troops that were within range and might have saved lives.

That would indeed be scandalous, if true. But as most other media outlets have reported, every military official in a position to know has emphatically denied the allegation. (Former Secretary of Defense Gates characterized the belief that the nearest troops could have gotten to Benghazi in time to defend the embassy as based upon “a cartoonish understanding” of military operations.) Unless every military expert from Gates on down is part of a conspiracy to protect the administration, the facts do not support the single concrete accusation being made.

I’ve been mulling over the role fact-finding plays in our political debates, because I’ve been reading a book that has been getting a lot of attention lately, Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt’s scholarship is focused upon moral psychology, and the book is an excellent and very accessible exploration of evolutionary morality and the operation of culture on innate human tendencies.

One of the innate tendencies Haidt identifies is a belief in proportionality; that is, a belief that reward should be based upon contribution. Most of us have an innate “fairness” monitor that tells us that the member of the tribe who works hard should be entitled to a greater share of communal goods produced than the slacker.

I think both conservatives and liberals agree with this moral premise. Their dispute is with application—that is, with the facts. For example, if you believe that people are poor because they are lazy and conniving—that is, slackers, you will resent their dependence on public assistance. If you discover that the great majority of poor people work 40 or more hours a week at jobs that simply do not pay enough to allow them to get by, and that those who are “gaming the system” are a very small percentage, you are less likely to feel that you’ve been taken advantage of and more likely to support policies aimed at making the working poor self-sufficient.

There are lots of other examples, but the basic point is: facts matter. Conservatives and liberals (terms that have lost much clarity in any event) share many more moral premises than the pundits and pontificators assume.

What we increasingly do not share is accurate and complete information–and a uniformly credible media.