Tag Archives: internet

Hate Clicking

Welcome to the Resistance!

A few days ago, in a comment to this blog, Norris Lineweaver posted a link to an article from Medium, describing “hate clicking”--a mechanism employed primarily (at least, so far) by young, technically-savvy people, but available to everyone who has a computer. It falls into a category that Pew calls “digital disruption.”

The rest of the country got a hint of the possibilities when young people used their social media skills to artificially inflate the Trump campaign’s count of registrations for the Tulsa rally. The campaign flaunted the phony numbers, boasting that it reflected the President’s popularity–and vastly increasing media attention to the actual, pathetic turnout.

The article notes the Trump campaign’s expensive, aggressive online presence, and its enormous number of  paid online advertisements. It also points out that these ads aren’t really about soliciting votes; they are intended to generate data that can then be used for purposes of fundraising and merchandise sales. And as the author also reminds us, industry practice is generally to charge by the click. Each time an ad is clicked it costs the advertiser anywhere from a few pennies to a few dollars.

Here is where you come in. Every day (and up to a couple times a day) Google “Trump” or “Trump Store” or “MAGA Hat” or something similar and then click on the ad links. Look for the ones that say “Ad” next to them, those are the ones they are paying for.

If thousands of us do this a few times a day it will increase the campaign’s online ad spend while producing nothing of value for them. It is probably not helpful to refresh and click again more than a handful of times per day because online advertising platforms often filter out repetitive frequent clicks from the same computers and don’t bill for them.

The article then goes into considerable detail about the most effective ways to click and distort the data being gathered, while costing the campaign extra money.

There you have it. Easy peasy. As someone who’s spent a few days doing this, I can say that it feels good to throw a wrench in Trump’s historic investment in digital advertising. Yes, it does mean looking at it a bit more than I’d like, but the fact that it’s costing them money — that holy grail of human virtue from Trump’s point of view — makes it worthwhile.

The author cautions that this tactic is not intended to take the place of the other important ways to get involved in the upcoming election. He does not recommend “hate clicking” as a replacement for phone banking, voter registration, or donating money–as he says, It’s not either/or. It’s both/and.

But for those of us who feel angry and powerless when we read about Trump’s interminable assaults on competent government and the rule of law, the prospect of using the “down time” required by the pandemic to actually do something is a gift.

I still remember when–back at the dawn of the Internet Age–many of us thought the World Wide Web would improve democratic (small-d) participation. We failed to anticipate the extent to which this new medium would disseminate hate, misinformation and propaganda, and actually set back the cause of thoughtful democratic deliberation.

It has been very demoralizing.

This report on “hate clicking”–in addition to offering a tool for political action that I hadn’t previously considered–offers something else: a suggestion that, as the medium matures (along with a generation for which its possibilities are intuitive), it may fulfill at least part of that original promise.

For good or ill, it may increase participation.

Alex Jones And Donald Trump

One of the blogs I read regularly is Juanita Jean’s: The World’s Most Dangerous Beauty Parlor, Inc. “Juanita Jean” is really a Texan named Susan DuQuesnay Bankston. She’s a longtime Democratic activist in her part of Texas, and a wit who reminds me a lot of the late, great Molly Ivins.

Bankston’s husband and son are both lawyers (these things tend to run in families), and her son recently represented parents of children who were killed in the Sandy Hook massacre, in a suit against Alex Jones.

As many of you are probably aware, Alex Jones is a truly vile, probably crazy conspiracy theorist who spent years making life hell for those parents–telling his depressingly large and equally crazy audience that the massacre never happened, that it was a “false flag” operation conducted by the government, and that the parents were really actors. Followers of his constantly harassed and threatened the parents. Bankston sued Jones on their behalf and in a deposition, got Jones to admit that the massacre had been real and the children had actually been murdered.

Partly due to negative publicity generated by the lawsuit, Jones has been removed from the larger Internet platforms–Facebook, Twitter, etc.–although he evidently remains on the “dark web.”

These details are prologue: recently, Juanita Jean blogged that her son would be on an upcoming PBS Frontline show about Jones, The United States of Conspiracy. So I watched it.

You all need to watch it too. It explains a lot about ugliness and fear and hate, and where America is right now.

The fact that someone like Jones–who certainly seems visibly deranged, whether that’s a schtick or real–could amass literally millions of viewers (presumably equally deranged) is depressing enough. The danger posed by Jones’ devotees is very real; Frontline showed a video made by the listener who believed Jones’ “Pizzagate” conspiracy and proceeded to shoot up the pizza parlor where Hillary Clinton was supposedly running a child porn ring out of its (non-existent) basement. It showed him hyping several other, equally bizarre conspiracies–including 9/11 and Obama “truther” fabrications.

The really eye-opening revelation was the show’s documentation of the relationships between Jones, Roger Stone and Donald Trump. It is not too far-fetched to think that Jones’ exuberant embrace of candidate Trump–an embrace which included Trump’s appearances on Infowars and his public praise of Jones–resulted in thousands of votes Trump wouldn’t otherwise have received.

Jones’ audience of conspiracy-believers obviously form a significant part of Trump’s base–and while that explains some things, it’s also terrifying.

Far and away the most spine-curdling part of the documentary were the repeated instances in which Jones would be shown making a wild, unsupported and frequently bat-shit crazy statement–followed by a clip showing Trump echoing that statement.

We know that Trump doesn’t listen to Dr. Fauci (or any experts, for that matter). He does, quite obviously, listen to Alex Jones.

Anyone sane who has followed politics in the United States the past four years knows that Donald Trump is both appallingly ignorant and seriously mentally ill. We’ve seen that he can be receptive to conspiratorial theories. But it’s impossible to watch this Frontline presentation without realizing how much closer to the edge he is than most observers have recognized.

I also didn’t realize how many Americans aren’t just close to that edge, but well over it.

Watch it.

 

An Omen….

Like most of you who read this blog, I’ve been sequestered for several weeks now. And also like most of you, my link to the outside world–to work, family, news, commerce–has been the Internet.

I think there’s a song about not appreciating what you have until it’s gone…

A few days ago, in the midst of end-of-semester grading and other academic “wrap-up” obligations, our Internet went out. The timing was particularly bad, because I’d agreed to participate in a FaceBook “town hall” on voting that night, and the next morning a doctoral committee on which I’ve been serving was meeting via Zoom for the candidate’s all-important dissertation defense.

Thanks to my phone, I was able to participate in both, at least to a degree. But when I drew a breath of relief, it occurred to me that I had seen a highly plausible version of the future.

Think about just how dependent we have become on the Internet.

In our house, we have a “smart” thermostat. We open and close our front door with an Internet-enabled Amazon Key. Our new water softener uses the Internet to tell us when it needs salt. We bank online–remote depositing the occasional checks that still come via snail mail, and paying bills through the bank or PayPal. If we run out of some household good–batteries, furnace filters, vacuum-cleaner bags, whatever–we order replacements on line.

Our burglar alarm is online. We pay our taxes online. We stream television online.

The pharmacy that fills our standard medications is online. Amazon is there for so many purchases–especially during the Coronavirus lockdown. And during this lockdown, we’ve been able to order groceries online and have occasional dinners delivered by ClusterTruck and the like.

Communication and information? All online.

After my panicky episode (lasting a whole day!), I started to think about what America would look like if huge numbers of our citizens lost access to the Internet.

We are already seeing the problems caused by the so-called “digital divide.” As schools and universities have moved to online instruction, poor children and children in rural areas without access broadband have been significantly disadvantaged, further driving a wedge between the haves and have-nots.

In my more idle times, I’ve wondered what would happen if America was attacked not by guns or bombs, but by a successful effort to take down the country’s Internet. I don’t know whether that’s possible–whether there is sufficient redundancy in the system to foil such an effort–but the consequences would be disastrous. It would bring all the country’s systems and commerce to a screeching halt.

What is far more likely is that, when we finally emerge from this pandemic, it will be into an economy where unemployment is at Depression-era levels. Millions of people would be hard-pressed to pay for food and a roof over their heads–let alone IPhones and Internet service.

What would that America look like?

This pandemic has brought so many of our national weaknesses into sharp focus, and not just our inexplicable refusal to adopt universal healthcare. Chief among those weaknesses is a longstanding inattention to aspects of our constitutional system that no longer serve us; glaring examples are the Electoral College and the way our federalist system currently allocates responsibility/jurisdiction between the federal government and the states–especially responsibility for conducting elections. Along with gerrymandering and the widespread lack of both civic literacy and civic responsibility,  outdated constitutional structures are a major reason we have both a President and a Senate utterly incapable of doing their jobs, let alone handling the crisis we are now facing.

Meanwhile, social media promotes the conspiracy theories and “alternate facts” these officials depend upon for their continued political viability.

Think Nero was bad?

Our own mad leader doesn’t fiddle; he tweets while America burns–continuing to squander America’s global credibility, endanger the lives and livelihoods of millions of our citizens, and demonstrate un-self-aware buffoonery.

What would he and his pathetic crew do if more than half of America lost access to the Internet?

 

The Trolls Are Sophisticated–And Effective

A recent headline from Rolling Stone addressed an issue that is likely to keep thoughtful voters up at night. The headline? “That Uplifting Tweet You Just Shared? A Russian Troll Sent it.”

Rolling Stone is hardly the only publication warning about an unprecedented effort–and not just by Russian trolls–to use the Internet to sow disinformation and promote discord.

Who and what are these trolls?

Internet trolls don’t troll. Not the professionals at least. Professional trolls don’t go on social media to antagonize liberals or belittle conservatives. They are not narrow minded, drunk or angry. They don’t lack basic English language skills. They certainly aren’t “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds,” as the president once put it. Your stereotypical trolls do exist on social media, but the amateurs aren’t a threat to Western democracy.

Professional trolls, on the other hand, are the tip of the spear in the new digital, ideological battleground. To combat the threat they pose, we must first understand them — and take them seriously.

The Russian effort is incredibly sophisticated: the article explained that non-political, often heartwarming or inspiring tweets are used to grow an audience of followers. Once a troll with a manufactured name or identity has amassed sufficient followers, the troll will use that following to spread messages promoting division, distrust, and above all, doubt.

The authors of the article are two experts in the use of social media to spread propaganda, and they admit to being impressed by the Russian operation.

Professional trolls are good at their job. They have studied us. They understand how to harness our biases (and hashtags) for their own purposes. They know what pressure points to push and how best to drive us to distrust our neighbors. The professionals know you catch more flies with honey. They don’t go to social media looking for a fight; they go looking for new best friends. And they have found them.

Disinformation operations aren’t typically fake news or outright lies. Disinformation is most often simply spin. Spin is hard to spot and easy to believe, especially if you are already inclined to do so. While the rest of the world learned how to conduct a modern disinformation campaign from the Russians, it is from the world of public relations and advertising that the IRA learned their craft. To appreciate the influence and potential of Russian disinformation, we need to view them less as Boris and Natasha and more like Don Draper.

Lest you think it’s only the Russians employing these tactics, allow the Atlantic to disabuse you in an article headlined “The Billion Dollar Disinformation Campaign to Re-elect the President.”

The article began with a report on the approach the re-election campaign had taken to Impeachment–” a multimillion-dollar ad blitz aimed at shaping Americans’ understanding of the recently launched impeachment proceedings. Thousands of micro-targeted ads had flooded the internet, portraying Trump as a heroic reformer cracking down on foreign corruption while Democrats plotted a coup.”

That this narrative bore little resemblance to reality seemed only to accelerate its spread. Right-wing websites amplified every claim. Pro-Trump forums teemed with conspiracy theories. An alternate information ecosystem was taking shape around the biggest news story in the country.

The author, who had followed the disinformation campaign, writes of his surprise at how “slick” and effective it was.

I was surprised by the effect it had on me. I’d assumed that my skepticism and media literacy would inoculate me against such distortions. But I soon found myself reflexively questioning every headline. It wasn’t that I believed Trump and his boosters were telling the truth. It was that, in this state of heightened suspicion, truth itself—about Ukraine, impeachment, or anything else—felt more and more difficult to locate.

This, then, is where we are: in an environment in which facts–let alone truths–are what we want them to be. An environment in which the pursuit of power by truly reprehensible people working to re-elect a dangerous and mentally-ill President can target those most likely to be susceptible to their manipulation of reality.

I have no idea how reality fights back. I do know that Democrats too “pure” to vote unless their favored candidate is the nominee are as dangerous as the trolls.

I think it was Edmund Burke who said “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Beating That Dead Horse

I’m still mulling over that screenshot I referenced a few days ago–the one from the pro-Trump website showing the names and pictures of four people identified as Democratic Senators who were switching to the GOP in protest of the President’s Impeachment.

As you’ll recall, none of them were real Senators–or, probably, real people.

Whoever created that website clearly operated on the assumption that visitors would be  partisans so civically-ignorant that the phony names and stock photos wouldn’t trigger doubts or send them to a fact-checking site.

It was probably a well-founded assumption.

We occupy a fragmented media environment that increasingly caters to confirmation bias.  As I’ve frequently noted, Americans no longer listen to the same three network news shows and read the same daily newspapers; the ensuing intense competition for eyes, ears and clicks has spawned a treacherous information terrain.

A post at The World’s Most Dangerous Beauty Salon, Inc. is enough to curl your hair. (Sorry–couldn’t resist.) It even has graphs showing how Right-wing hoaxes and Trump’s tweeted lies proliferate.

Yesterday I talked about how Trumpists flocked to their latest article of faith that Trump isn’t really impeached because the House hasn’t transmitted the articles of impeachment to the Senate.  There is no basis in law or fact for that belief, but it’s there anyway, virally spreading throughout Trumpland.

Another profoundly stupid message that has evidently convinced those who want to believe: now that Trump is impeached, he’s automatically eligible to run 2 more times.

With rampant propaganda proliferated over social media facts or truth no longer matter.  Worse, Trump’s Twitter account amplifies these lies.  Every time he tweets one of his insults, childish taunts, threats, or lies,  it goes out to millions or users, retweeted thousands of times.  In the hands of an immoral politician like Trump, social media is weaponized for the dark side.  You can see it, but can also measure it.

The above-referenced graphs of Google trend lines show searches for these “facts.”

When I first practiced law, an older lawyer in my firm told me that there is really only one legal question, and that’s “what should we do?” That maxim applies more broadly; it absolutely applies to the absence of what has come to be called “news literacy.”

Every so often, one of my more naïve students asks why the government can’t just pass a law requiring media outlets to tell the truth. As I try to explain, truth and fact are often honestly contested—and of course, there’s the First Amendment. But we aren’t powerless just because government is prohibited from censoring us.

There’s no reason the private sector cannot develop tools to help citizens determine who they can reasonably rely on—and who they can’t. (The current criticism of Facebook for allowing campaigns to post dishonest political ads is based upon that company’s legal and technical ability to eliminate them.)

What if a nonpartisan, respected nonprofit—say the Society for Professional Journalists—developed an analog to the “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval,” attesting to the legitimacy of a media source? The award of that seal wouldn’t indicate the truth or falsity of any particular article, but would confirm that the organization was one that adhered to the procedures required of ethical, reputable journalists.

It would take substantial funding, of course, to develop and maintain the capacity to monitor the practices and procedures of media outlets claiming to be “news.” And that “seal of approval” wouldn’t mean that any given report wasn’t flawed in some way—genuine reporters are human and make mistakes. But it would allow citizens who actually care about accuracy and evidence-based reporting to be reassured about the journalistic bona fides of sources they encounter.

Those bona fides are important, because in the new information world we all must navigate, each of us is our own “gatekeeper.” The days when editors and reporters decided what constituted verifiable news are long gone.

And that brings me back to the screen shot shared by my friend.

I know I’m beating a dead horse, but propaganda flourishes when only 26% of adults can name the three branches of government, fewer than half of 12th graders can define federalism and only 35% of teenagers know that “We the People” are the first three words of the Constitution. When politicians make claims that are blatantly inconsistent with America’s history and form of government, widespread civic ignorance virtually guarantees the uncritical acceptance of those claims by partisans who desperately want to believe them.

Adequate civic knowledge can’t guarantee that visitors to a website will know fake Senators when they see them–but it’s an essential first step.