Tag Archives: propaganda

Polarization, Partisanship and Junk News Consumption over Social Media in the US

Maybe this is just the Brits picking on us. Or, maybe they are onto something.

Vidya Narayanan, Vlad Barash, John Kelly, Bence Kollanyi, Lisa-Maria Neudert, and Philip N. Howard. “Polarization, Partisanship and Junk News Consumption over Social Media in the US.” Data Memo 2018.1. Oxford, UK: Project on Computational Propaganda. comprop.oii.ox.ac.uk

What kinds of social media users read junk news? We examine the distribution of the most significant sources of junk news in the three months before President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union Address. Drawing on a list of sources that consistently publish political news and information that is extremist, sensationalist, conspiratorial, masked commentary, fake news and other forms of junk news, we find that the distribution of such content is unevenly spread across the ideological spectrum. We demonstrate that (1) on Twitter, a network of Trump supporters shares the widest range of known junk news sources and circulates more junk news than all the other groups put together; (2) on Facebook, extreme hard right pages—distinct from Republican pages—share the widest range of known junk news sources and circulate more junk news than all the other audiences put together; (3) on average, the audiences for junk news on Twitter share a wider range of known junk news sources than audiences on Facebook’s public pages.

I hadn’t heard the term computational propaganda before. Here is how they describe it:

The Computational Propaganda Research Project (COMPROP) investigates the interaction of algorithms, automation and politics. This work includes analysis of how tools like social media bots are used to manipulate public opinion by amplifying or repressing political content, disinformation, hate speech, and junk news.

We use perspectives from organizational sociology, human computer interaction, communication, information science, and political science to interpret and analyze the evidence we are gathering. Our project is based at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford.

So in other words, we are all being manipulated by some very old and tired ideas using powerful new technologies Hitler and Stalin could only have dreamed of.

why deny science when you can just make it up?

There is no reason to deny facts or evidence when you can just make up new ones that suit your pre-conceived notions, you truly believe anything that comes out of your own mouth is true, and tens of millions of other people do too.

This is not supposed to be a political blog. But it is supposed to be a blog about whether our civilization is progressing or at risk of a catastrophic downfall. And when the things in the first paragraph I just wrote are happening, I have to lean toward the catastrophic downfall side.

From Bloomberg:

“The ice caps were going to melt, they were going to be gone by now, but now they’re setting records,” Trump said in excerpts of an interview with Piers Morgan on the U.K. television network ITV broadcast Jan. 28. Trump didn’t specify the data behind his statement about setting records…

“There is a cooling, and there’s a heating,” he said. “I mean, look, it used to not be climate change, it used to be global warming. That wasn’t working too well because it was getting too cold all over the place…”

In 2014, less than a year before he entered the 2016 presidential race, president, Trump said on Twitter that the “POLAR ICE CAPS are at an all time high, the POLAR BEAR population has never been stronger. Where the hell is global warming.”

Anybody with some basic science or information literacy knows that a short-term fluctuation in the data does not prove or disprove a long-term trend. You can look at a lot of those short-term fluctuations together and begin to determine whether they represent random noise or whether they are consistent with some longer-term trend you are seeing in the larger data set, as scientists are doing with recent hurricanes, droughts and fires.

This was my favorite quote of all though:

“The Paris accord, for us, would have been a disaster,” Trump said in excerpts of an interview with Piers Morgan. “Would I go back in? Yeah, I’d go back in. I like, as you know, I like Emmanuel” Macron.

I can’t picture Emmanuel Macron, but what I can picture is Sasha Baron Cohen kissing Will Ferrell in Talladega Nights. Sometimes fiction actually does turn into reality!

Goering on Propaganda

An article on History News Network has this disturbing quote from Hermann Goering:

The Nazis fundamentally understood that public opinion was merely something that could be manufactured: propaganda would make people believe anything the regime wanted them to. As Reichsmarshal Goering told the Nuremberg Tribunal: “it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country.”

Blame the Jews, the Communists, the Mexicans, the Muslims, the Koreans, the Chinese, the Russians, the atheists, anything to avoid looking internally for real causes of and real solutions to complex probems.

Uranium One

I’m at a disadvantage traveling and trying to post on my phone, so my posts may be short for awhile.

So just what is/was Uranium One? According to Lawfare.com, almost nothing. It was a business transaction between a Russian government-linked company and a Canadian company owning U.S. uranium mines. Such transactions have to be reviewed by a panel including many U.S. government agencies, which seems like a good idea. The State Department, overseen by Hillary Clinton at the time is one of the many departments involved. The transaction was reviewed and approved by the book. And seriously, that’s all. To suggest otherwise is propaganda, not professional journalism based on facts and logic.  We seem to live in a country now where even educated people don’t realize there is a difference.




St. Augustine on lying

It turns out St. Augustine wrote a long essay on the subject of lying in 395. So George Costanza’s “it’s not lie if you believe it!” actually goes back a little further.

For not every one who says a false thing lies, if he believes or opines that to be true which he says. Now between believing and opining there is this difference, that sometimes he who believes feels that he does not know that which he believes, (although he may know himself to be ignorant of a thing, and yet have no doubt at all concerning it, if he most firmly believes it:) whereas he who opines, thinks he knows that which he does not know. Now whoever utters that which he holds in his mind either as belief or as opinion, even though it be false, he lies not. For this he owes to the faith of his utterance, that he thereby produce that which he holds in his mind, and has in that way in which he produces it. Not that he is without fault, although he lie not, if either he believes what he ought not to believe, or thinks he knowswhat he knows not, even though it should be true: for he accounts an unknown thing for a known.

So if you believe the thing you say even though there may be incontrovertible evidence out there in the world that it is false, and you just aren’t aware of that evidence or consciously ignoring it, you are not a liar. You may still be an arrogant idiot of course.

Climate of Concern

It wasn’t just Exxon that knew about climate change decades ago. But unlike Exxon, which not only denied it but used the foulest of propaganda tactics to confuse the public and delay progress, Shell made an accurate movie about it in 1991 to inform the public, called “Climate of Concern”.

Perhaps there is a parallel universe where Shell developed a sustainable business model, put Exxon out of business, and saved the Earth. Of course that is not the universe you and I are in right now.

a class on how to consume news

SUNY Stonybrook and the University of Hong Kong have a course on Coursera called Making Sense of the News: News Literacy Lessons for Digital Citizens. I wouldn’t have thought I needed a course on how to consume the news, but maybe a refresher on the basics of journalism and how to spot propaganda, whether government or corporate or something else, is not a bad idea. Prior to 2003 or so, I tended to trust the New York Times. After the weapons of mass destruction debacle, I widened my sources of news. But I stuck to professional journalistic sources, along with some of the emerging aggregators of journalistic sources, like Slate’s Todays Papers, which were a relatively new idea at the time. So the lesson I learned back then was that professional journalistic sources can be susceptible to propaganda. (Noam Chomsky explained pretty well why this is a long time ago in Manufacturing Consent – basically the cheapest and lowest-risk thing to do from a business perspective is to parrot government and corporate press releases.)

Today I find myself reading a wide range of aggregators, magazines and blogs, some making no pretense of avoiding overtly partisan language. Some of the stuffy but venerable old sources like The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Economist are behind pay walls and I am not willing to pay for those when there are so many sources of free information. I’ve dropped the BBC because it seems lean heavily on videos these days and I have no time for those, and likewise I don’t have time for NPR or podcasts in general.

When I have occasionally read the New York Times lately, I am surprised at the openly disrespectful language they are using to cover the Trump administration. While I don’t think the individuals they are covering are worthy of respect, the office still is. And by using this kind of language they are walking into the trap of appearing partisan, when they are actually presenting facts and analysis in a reasonably fair and ethical way. I guess Fox News started the process of lowering the bar for everyone, which is a shame. I would even put John Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and John Oliver in this category – even though I tend to agree with them and find them funny, I am uncomfortable with the idea of serious news as entertainment. I would rather keep the two separate.

Basically my strategy is to take in a wide range of information and let my brain do the sifting. I tend to trust my own brain above most others, but I have some nagging doubts whether the biases in what goes in ultimately affect what comes out the other end, which is my internal world view or mental model of the world. And in turn that is what determines my views on the issues, who I vote for, and what issues I am willing to invest precious time, money or effort in trying to influence.

The internet is telling you what you want to hear

That’s right, the internet is telling you what you want to hear. In some cases, it really is government and corporate propaganda, known as “astroturfing“. This is the practice of creating a fake media buzz to give you the impression that there is grassroots support for something when there really isn’t:

Astroturfing is the attempt to create an impression of widespread grassroots support for a policy, individual, or product, where little such support exists. Multiple online identities and fake pressure groups are used to mislead the public into believing that the position of the astroturfer is the commonly held view.

Although usually associated with the internet, the practice has been widespread ever since newspaper editors first invented the letters page. Pick up any local paper around the time of an election and you will find multiple letters from “concerned residents of X” objecting to the disastrous policies of Y…

As reported by the Guardian, some big companies now use sophisticated “persona management software” to create armies of virtual astroturfers, complete with fake IP addresses, non-political interests and online histories. Authentic-looking profiles are generated automatically and developed for months or years before being brought into use for a political or corporate campaign. As the software improves, these astroturf armies will become increasingly difficult to spot, and the future of open debate online could become increasingly perilous.

The other thing going on is the “online filter bubble”, which is simply the idea that search and marketing algorithms are increasingly telling you what you want to hear. This makes sense in the logic of marketing, but is dangerous when you are trying to figure out what is going on in the world. From TED:




Naomi Oreskes

From the New York Times, here are some attention grabbing quotes:

Like many people, I used to think the scientific community was divided about climate change. Then in 2004, as part of a book I was doing on oceanography, I did a search of 1,000 articles published in peer-reviewed scientific literature in the previous 10 years.

I asked how many showed evidence that disagreed with the statement made in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report: “Most of the observed warming over the past 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations.” I found that none did. Zero…

On the various issues where members of the group had been active — acid rain, ozone depletion and climate change — there appeared to be a playbook drawn from the tobacco wars: Insist that the science is unsettled, attack the researchers whose findings they disliked, demand media coverage for a “balanced” view…

When we began, we wondered about the common thread linking smoking, acid rain and global warming — what was it? Well, each was a serious problem that the unregulated free market didn’t respond to.

How does the free market prevent acid rain or climate change? It doesn’t. How do we know about the potential harm to individuals or the environment? Because of science. And how does one prevent harm? With regulation. To prevent regulation, we’ve had this campaign of doubt-mongering about science and scientists.