Made and distributed in the US: Online disinformation

In June, the Daily Vine, an American-run Facebook page linked to Right Wing News, published a Facebook ad for a false story. Right Wing News created a series of Facebook pages and accounts over the past year under many names, according to Facebook.
Right Wing News created a series of Facebook pages and accounts over the past year under many names, according to Facebook.PHOTO: NYTIMES
In June, the Daily Vine, an American-run Facebook page linked to Right Wing News, published a Facebook ad for a false story. Right Wing News created a series of Facebook pages and accounts over the past year under many names, according to Facebook.
In June, the Daily Vine, an American-run Facebook page linked to Right Wing News, published a Facebook ad for a false story.PHOTO: NYTIMES

Social media campaigns to mislead and inflame being fomented by the left and right ahead of midterm elections

SAN FRANCISCO • When Dr Christine Blasey Ford testified before Congress last month about Justice Brett Kavanaugh's alleged sexual assault, a website called Right Wing News sprang into action on Facebook.

The conservative site, run by blogger John Hawkins, had created a series of Facebook pages and accounts over the past year under many names, according to Facebook.

After Dr Ford testified, Right Wing News posted several false stories about her - including the suggestion that her lawyers were being bribed by Democrats - and then used the network of Facebook pages and accounts to share the pieces so that they proliferated online quickly, social media researchers said.

The result was a real-time spreading of disinformation, started by Americans, for Americans.

What Right Wing News did was part of a shift in the flow of online disinformation, falsehoods meant to mislead and inflame.

In 2016, before the presidential election, state-backed Russian operatives exploited Facebook and Twitter to sway voters in the United States with divisive messages.

Now, weeks before the midterm elections on Nov 6, such influence campaigns are increasingly a domestic phenomenon fomented by Americans on the left and the right.

The shift towards domestic disinformation raises potential free-speech issues when Facebook and Twitter find and curtail such accounts that originate in the US, an issue that may be sensitive before the midterms.

"There are now well-developed networks of Americans targeting other Americans with purposefully designed manipulations," said Ms Molly McKew, an information warfare researcher at the New Media Frontier, a firm that studies social media.

Politics has always involved shadings of the truth via whisper campaigns, direct-mail operations and negative advertisements bordering on untrue.

What is different this time is how domestic sites are emulating the Russian strategy of 2016 by aggressively creating networks of Facebook pages and accounts - many of them fake - that make it appear as if the ideas they are promoting enjoy widespread popularity, researchers said. The activity is also happening on Twitter, they said.

The shift towards domestic disinformation raises potential free-speech issues when Facebook and Twitter find and curtail such accounts that originate in the US, an issue that may be sensitive before the midterms.

Said Mr Ryan Fox, a co-founder of New Knowledge, a firm that tracks disinformation: "These networks are trying to manipulate people by manufacturing consensus - that's crossing the line over free speech."

This month, Twitter took down a network of 50 accounts that it said were being run by Americans posing as Republican state lawmakers.

Twitter said the accounts were geared towards voters in all 50 states.

On Thursday, Facebook said it had identified 559 pages and 251 accounts run by Americans, many of which amplified false and misleading content in a coordinated fashion. The company said it would remove the pages and accounts.

Among them was Right Wing News, which had more than 3.1 million followers, and left-wing pages that included the Resistance and Reverb Press, which had 240,000 and 816,000 followers.

 
 
 
 

Facebook said it discovered the activity as part of its broader effort to root out election interference.

Also, the pages had become more aggressive in using tactics such as fake accounts and multiple pages to make themselves appear more popular.

Facebook's head of security Nathaniel Gleicher said: "If you look at volume, the majority of the information operations we see are domestic actors."

He added that the company was struggling with taking down the domestic networks because of the blurry lines between free speech and disinformation.

Social media services can act to remove domestic disinformation only when the American groups that are making and distributing it start to use techniques that violate the companies' terms of service, such as creating false accounts.

Ms Natalie Martinez, a fellow at Media Matters, a non-profit organisation in Washington that monitors disinformation from conservative American sites, said Facebook's actions would stem some of the flow of false content - but only for a little while.

"There is little to stop them from spawning off as a new page, or account, and just starting to build their network again," she said. "They can just keep trying to get around Facebook's rules."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 13, 2018, with the headline 'Made and distributed in the US: Online disinformation'. Print Edition | Subscribe