Faking it

This post has been a long time coming. Whenever I get the time to write something, the situation has changed. In the hopes of getting something done and obligating myself to write another one, this is going to be a 2-parter on the topic of “The Hacked Election.”

  1. Part The First: suddenly, fake news is a problem. (below)
  2. Part The Second: Russian government-affiliated hacker(s) either did or did not break into some email accounts. (here)

artoonist Ben Jennings takes on Vladimir Putin’s information war. (Via Index on Censorship)

America’s post-presidential election detritus had previously fallen under one of two headings: The first was “fake news,” and the second was email/server hacking. These have since been tidily packaged under the single HACKED ELECTION banner.

It makes sense. Even Google barons Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen conjoin the two strands, writing in Time Magazine: “All future wars will begin as cyberwars. Cyberattacks and online disinformation campaigns will define the next generation of conflict, and they will unfold silently, invisibly and relatively inexpensively. The threat is real, but we are equipped with the means to keep the cyberpeace. It’s now incumbent on policymakers and tech companies to help keep our information secure and our infrastructure safe.”

I deal with servers, and sometimes hackers.  I also get to support various news verification practices and tools. So, on both counts, checking into Facebook has been painful as of late. I especially enjoyed that period during the election campaign when people shared poorly researched articles about Hillary Clinton’s email server security as some sort of defense for voting for a third party candidate. Technology and politics collide in strange ways.

The internet has all sorts of ways to check various items that are passed off as fact. It also works great as a way of spreading false information. It seems to be better at the latter. Most people don’t check things. Everyone shares. In this post, and the next one, I’m going to suggest we go back to treating each item under the “hacked election” heading as separate things.

Fake news vs propaganda vs just dumb

Back in late November, The Washington Post ran an article on a new self-proclaimed fact-checking website called propornot.com. This was actually what originally propelled me to start drafting this post (which should tell you how slow I am these days). When it was first published, the article was locked behind a paywall so I didn’t read it straight away. But I did read Glenn Greenwald’s critique of it at The Intercept. This user experience story has clues as to why some online content spreads faster than others. Take heed.

Anyway, the WaPo story is no longer blocked, but it does carry a disclaimer saying the publication doesn’t vouch for the website. Still, it’s a single-source article, and not a particularly good one. What’s interesting about it are these two things:

  1. Propornot.com is not just aimed telling you what content is false, it is labeling websites it claims are Russian propaganda astroturf machines;
  2. Greenwald asserts that such lists are a sort of digital McCarthyism.

Both propositions are flawed. I’ll deal with Greenwald’s first, because it’s easy to dismiss, and variations of it are being employed by people that we all know. You have them scattered amongst your Facebook friends. Some of them may be family. These people post a lot of dodgy crap, but when you call them on it they go either full troll-relativism, and ask something like, how is CNN more authentic? Or, they might jump the linguistic shark and ask what “fake” actually means. For the purposes of this: By fake, we mean content that is not substantiated with credible evidence or fact. Another term for “fake news” is “not news” or “fiction” or “lies.”

What’s dubbed in the media as fake news, is dangerous. Sometimes it hits individuals. Read my friend Arrington de dionyso’s piece, ‘How I became a target of the alt-right’, for more on that. But its also dangerous to society. Fake news is popular. False articles about the U.S. election typically performed better than authentic information in clicks-n-shares on Facebook. Propaganda and other kinds of phony articles are cheap to produce and don’t rely on advertising, as the point of the stories isn’t to get you to see ads, but to just read them. You’re already consuming the product by looking at it. In contrast, authentic journalism and investigative coverage (with verification processes) is expensive. The economic ecosystem of digital publishing rewards the former, and punishes the latter.

Some election coverage has clearly been propaganda. We have the one-woman show that is Eva Bartlett as a prime example of this. Pushing out daily content on how entire massacres in Syria are faked, and and all the videos you’ve ever seen about the White Helmets rescuing people are supposedly staged, on some studio lot, I suppose not far from where they faked the moon landing. So here’s a professional propagandist running demonstratively false information. Yet I’ll see six or seven people I’d previously attributed as having some intelligence sharing it as though it were fact. They’ll also often defend this bilge regardless of whatever counter evidence is brought into the discussion. Countering this stuff is exhausting, and is another activity that the ecosystem of digital publishing doesn’t often reward.

Items 1-5: not facts.

In another example, we have noted “anti-imperialists” pundit Vanessa Beeley, who’s only online goal is to constantly repeat Russian or Syrian regime talking points on social media and repeat false claims in rapid succession on sites such as Center for Research on Globalization, RT, Mintpress News and (rather unfortunately) Antiwar.com and various Ron Paul fan sites. The thing these sites have in common is that they almost exclusively cite one another when supporting various dubious claims, until you end up in a circular set of links.

But legitimate organizations, such as the White Helmets rescue group, do need to use extreme caution in what they publish, as these people rely on it for their content, and wait to misappropriate any material they can.

The Bellingcat blog has a post on how White Helmet campaign material has been re-purposed by Beeley and others to discredit the organization: “Because of this, they have regularly been smeared by the Syrian and Russian governments, and decried as fakes and terrorists. Russian state TV outlet RT (formerly ‘Russia Today’), for example, ran an opinion piece on 26 October by writer Vanessa Beeley, who labeled them a “terrorist support group and Western propaganda tool’, while a separate report a week earlier questioned the White Helmets’ neutrality by claiming that they were funded by Western governments. As early as May, Kremlin wire Sputnik called the White Helmets a “controversial quasi-humanitarian organisation” which was ‘fabricating ‘evidence’ of Russia’s ‘disastrous’ involvement in Syria”. This Sputnik piece also quoted Beeley, as saying that the White Helmets ‘demonize the Assad government and encourage direct foreign intervention.’ ”

Bacchantes at the Million Woman March, by Arrington de dionyso

But not all of this can be attributed to propaganda, or to a single state-run propagandist’s goal. A lot of it is just stupidity taken to a dangerous extreme: The whole #pizzagate strangeness that drew my friend Arrington into the the target of online alt-right Trump trolls, is of a different variety. It is, of course an entire fabrication, but it’s something that fermented in the bizarre and poorly designed forums populated by folks who haven’t entirely dismissed the possibility of lizard people running things. And that can end with an armed man swinging a gun around in a pizzeria. But while this was a lunacy enabled by at least one member of President Elect Trump’s team, We cannot add this to the list of Russian propaganda operations… without evidence. There are more simple likelihoods: such as that a percentage of the population is dangerously unbalanced. The roots of something like Pizzagate came entirely from inside the U.S.

A Donald Trump supporter at a rally in Minneapolis, Minnesota, makes his feelings about journalists known. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

There is more than a little evidence that the Occam’s Razor favours the “unbalanced population” thesis. The Index on Censorship found in their last study that, more and more, journalists are being attacked in the United States and Europe, not by state actors, but by partisan supporters who support a fringe or far-right candidate, and who don’t tolerate criticism of them. And the candidates, (or president elect) aren’t rushing to criticize it or intervene in any serious way.

This is my problem with Propornot.com and the emerging narrative. Some content — on the election, Trump, Clinton, and topics of interest to Russia’s government, such as events in Ukraine and Syria — is state manufactured and disseminated online. This is without a doubt. Sputnik, Russia Today, and some other outlets provide clear evidence of this. But that’s propaganda and not “hacking the election.” Other content may come from people who either believe this propaganda, or parrot it out of some sense that they’re giving The West™ a well-deserved smack regardless of whether it’s true. Others are actually publishing original content not remotely commissioned by a Russian agency, butwhich simply reflects their ideology or belief.

The PropOrNot plugin scans your google searches and browser content to tell you waht to think about it.

Propornot.com, and other similar projects, lump it all together as specifically Russian-run propaganda, as if there are no other propagandists out there or other motives for spreading false information. Furthermore, they want you to use an app, which will just tell you if what you’re looking at is real© or not. So here’s an idea: trust a website run by anonymous people to install something in your browser that will outsource your intellectual ability to critically think about what you’re reading, and collect a bunch of data on what you’re looking at online.

I have similar qualms with Facebook’s own solution to this problem. Though, Facebook won’t be anonymous, and will undoubtedly put more rigor into its code, Facebook messes up. Facebook reporting tools are also regularly gamed by coordinated online campaigns.

Putting the technical problems aside, the simple fact is this: An app that outsources audience critical thinking will not teach media literacy. And we desperately need more of that in a world gushing with constant information. We don’t want to back into an internet that looks like this.

And yet, making lists of sites you find dodgy is not McCarthyism unless you are the government. Glenn Greenwald is over-stating the situation in his article on propornot.com. If the Washington Post didn’t look at it carefully enough when promoting the website, Greenwald is going a bit too far off the reservation in the other direction. It may be that the site is being run by some shady division of the CIA or out of the White House somewhere, but that’s not been proven.

There are a lot of sites constantly pushing dodgy content. Some of these are consistently sourced in Tweets and Facebook posts by people we all know. Ed Brayton curated a list of these a little while ago on Patheos. I keep my own little roster as a polite note to potential commenters about one possible reason I may be ignoring them. This is not censorship. This is not chilling effect territory. This is discourse. At no place on my list (or in Brayton’s) is it alleged that we’ve found evidence that they are Russian astroturf platforms. And if you want to debate what “fake news” is, Columbia Journalism Review has a nice template outlining six varieties. Explain that away.

Really, though, if you look at the Propornot.com list, you’ll see why it’s problematic. Yes, it names a lot of dodgy websites. It also includes sites that are simply opinionated, critical of Clinton or Obama, or supportive of Trump. A couple of them are run by people I know. Having a point of view doesn’t mean someone is part of an intelligence operation to change the outcome of an election. Some of the sites on that list are actually publishing good content. People have various ethical issues about Wikileaks, right or wrong, but no one is seriously alleging the site is publishing false information. In fact, the problem has been that it’s been publishing authenticated information. (More on that in the next post, though)

Throughout this post I’ve fallen into a trap (willingly). I’ve been calling this kind of content “fake news.” In fact there’s are better phrases, like not news, or pretend news, faux news, make believe, or lies. Or maybe it’s some genre of fiction we still need to name. Something that in the post-truth era allows people to believe climate change is a globalist neo-liberal conspiracy, vaccines are some sort of government control program and that Hillary Clinton runs a pedophile ring out of a Washington, DC, pizzeria. We may need a different word, but it isn’t a new thing.

Hearst set the template for anything either Fox News has done with TV or Breitbart has published on the web.

Yellow journalism” was what people used to call it. It’s also not just the stuff of small websites and fringe blogs. Large, mainstream publications have run false reports from likes of Stephen Glass, Janet Cooke, Nik Cohn, Patricia Smith and others. They all wrote believable prose that somehow bypassed the requirement of fact checking.

It’s also important to remember propaganda is something the United States does as well. The U.S. has no shortage of examples of being caught trying to manipulate another country’s election results through the media. This doesn’t mean you have to like it when it’s done to your country, but it does imply that many people who are upset about this should maybe take the indignation down a couple of notches.

Did Russian-circulated propaganda play a part in “hacking” the election for Donald Trump? It is impossible to coherently or rationally argue that it didn’t exist, or have an effect. The evidence is clear that it did, that Trump benefited from it, and had no problem with his supporters repeating it. That is a scary situation, but a separate situation.

Alleging that Russian propaganda is actually responsible for the entire election outcome isn’t remotely accurate, and dismisses the weak footing that the Democratic party found itself in, and how it failed to strategically consider states that would be pulling in the most contentious electoral collage votes. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, sure, but her campaign didn’t do the work to win votes where it counted. When you’re scoring that many own-goals, you can’t blame one or two shots by another team for the final score. But Russia’s propaganda isn’t a hack, or if it is, it’s an old one. If media literacy is a metaphorical firewall, then the United States has a gaping security flaw. It’s just business as usual. I think some blame needs to go to the people who believed it.

Trust but verify, and don’t really trust until you verify

We don’t need automated ways of telling people something is false. Media literacy comes from knowing who information sources are, and understanding their various motives, past track record and knowing how to determine what’s accurate.

  • Verification Junkie is a “growing directory of tools for verifying, fact checking and assessing the validity of eyewitness reports and user generated content online” by one Josh Stearns.
  • Bellingcat’s Guides show how to use any number of databases, custom searches and meta data analaysis methods to verify content.
  • Exposing the Invisible is for people looking for investigative resources, but it’s got very good pages on verification techniques.
  • Google’s Maps, Earth and Streetview are great tools for determining if a video allegedly shot in a certain location actually was.
  • Tineye and Google’s reverse image search can let you know if an image has been published elsewhere and in what context.
  • ExifTool by Phil Harvey. There are too many web pages and software that will extract media file meta data to list here. The one linked to is useful for seeing the details behind the image.
  • Weather.Org can tell you whether it was rainy, sunny, snowy, etc. on a particular date in a location.
  • Sourcewatch is a wiki that can let you know who’s behind various media outlets, lobby and PR firms.
  • Snopes investigates any number of claims gaining traction online and in the press.

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