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How bland positive messages help Russian trolls spread disinformation
The Internet Research Agency has learned that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.
- When we read examples of fake news headlines from the 2016 election, they seem blatantly false.
- However, the data shows that most Russian trolls were mostly sharing posts meant to camouflage their actions, with a small percentage of posts sharing fake headlines.
- As the 2020 elections approach, researchers are discovering that Russian trolls are becoming more sophisticated and savvy in how they spread disinformation.
All of us like to think that we would know when people are manipulating us online. Reading headlines such as "Pope Francis shocks world, endorses Donald Trump for president" or "ISIS leader calls for American Muslim voters to support Hillary Clinton" seem like obvious fabrications (they are).
Especially now, after the 2016 election's revelations have come to light, we all like to think that we're smarter and more prepared to question blatantly fake news. But researchers suggest that we might not actually have a great handle on what Russian trolling looks like in the lead up to the 2020 election.
The Internet Research Agency's new approach
The previous headquarters of the Internet Research Agency at 55 Savushkina Street in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons
The Internet Research Agency (IRA) first formed in 2013, employing thousands of employees whose sole job was to write up fake blog articles, craft polarizing comments, and share disinformation through social media accounts. We might think of the IRA as primarily issuing the blatantly fake headlines described above, that only the very ignorant could fall for this kind of propaganda, but in reality, the IRA's employees function more like savvy marketers than they do Orwellian propagandists — though there's admittedly less of a difference in this case than we might like.
In a recent article for Rolling Stone, researchers Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren described their knowledge of the on-going disinformation campaign being waged by the IRA. As researchers into state-sponsored disinformation and its influence, Linvill and Warren have been keeping their fingers on the pulse of the post-2016 internet trolls. They write:
"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."
Linvill and Warren offer examples of modern troll posts — typically, they aren't stirring up conflict between black or blue lives matter or claiming that Hillary Clinton has been running a pedophilia ring in the basement of a pizza parlor. Instead, they're posting tweets like one from a fictional "Tyra Jackson" celebrating former football player Warrick Dunn's charity work, a tweet that garnered nearly 290,000 likes.
In Linvill and Warren's previous research, they broke down the kinds of posts that Russian trolls made into separate categories. The most common by far were what they termed "camouflaging" posts, or posts that had no overt political connection, which accounted for more than half of the troll accounts' activity. They were related to local news stories, uplifting posts like the one made by Tyra Jackson, blandly positive messages such as "Start each day with a grateful heart #GoodMorning #happywednesday," and similarly disarming, normal subjects.
This camouflaging posts made it all the more convincing when they did sow disinformation. Linvill and Warren found that, at least in the lead up to the 2016 election, troll accounts were most likely to support the right and attack the left. This finding makes intuitive sense; conservative forces did win the 2016 election, after all, so it seems reasonable that Russian trolls were going at-bat for the right. Importantly, however, a significant portion of Russian troll activity landed on the left-side of the political spectrum. In Linvill and Warren's research, they found that 12 percent and 7 percent of Russian troll posts attacked the left and supported the right, respectively, but 5.4 percent and 7.4 percent attacked the right and supported the left as well.
It can be tempting to conclude that Russia's goal is to support conservative politicians given the results of the 2016 election, but the data suggests that their true goal is merely to widen our political divide in a party-agnostic way. Consider a tweet from the fictional twitter account @politeMelanie that Warren and Linvill uncovered:
"My cousin is studying sociology in university. Last week she and her classmates polled over 1,000 conservative Christians. 'What would you do if you discovered that your child was a homo sapiens?' 55% said they would disown them and force them to leave their home."
This is a completely made-up anecdote, but were a left-leaning individual to come across it, they might accept it as true since it reinforces stereotypes regarding the intolerance and ignorance of religious and political groups. We might like to think that we wouldn't fall for this, but the 300,000 people who liked it probably took it at face value.
The idea that divisiveness itself is the goal of Russian trolls is better seen in which politicians they've attacked or defended in the past. For example, once the Republican primaries started in 2016, the IRA's instructions to its employees was to "use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump — we support them)."
We might chalk this strategic decision up to Putin's well-known personal animosity with Hillary Clinton, but we can see a similar dynamic emerging in the current democratic primaries. Middle-of-the-road candidates such as Joe Biden are frequently the target of Russian trolls, while the most polarizing candidates such as Donald Trump and Sanders enjoy greater support. The goal is to amplify the differences between opposite ends of the political spectrum until staying true to one's party makes more sense than staying true to one's country.
The IRA knows that this goal can't be accomplished through a direct, brutish disinformation campaign; instead, it takes a subtle touch that they are consistently perfecting.
- The Primer on Russia's "Active Measures," Its Information Warfare ... ›
- Fake news is everywhere. Even in places that were once legitimate ... ›
A cave in France contains man’s earliest-known structures that had to be built by Neanderthals who were believed to be incapable of such things.
In a French cave deep underground, scientists have discovered what appear to be 176,000-year-old man-made structures. That's 150,000 years earlier than any that have been discovered anywhere before. And they could only have been built by Neanderthals, people who were never before considered capable of such a thing.
This is going to force a major shift in the way we see these early hominids. Researchers had thought that Neanderthals were profoundly primitive, and just barely human. This cave in France's Aveyron Valley changes all that: It's suddenly obvious that Neanderthals were not quite so unlike us.
According to The Atlantic, Bruniquel Cave was first explored in 1990 by Bruno Kowalsczewski, who was 15 at the time. He'd spent three years digging away at rubble covering a space through which his father felt air moving.
Some members of a local caving club managed to squeeze through the narrow, 30-meter long tunnel Kowalsczewski had dug to arrive in a passageway. They followed it past pools of water and old animal bones for over 330 meters before coming into a large chamber and a scene they had no reason to expect: Stalagmites that someone had broken into hundreds of small pieces, most of which were arranged into two rings—one roughly 6 meters across, and one 2 meters wide—with the remaining pieces stacked into one of four piles or leaning against the rings. There were also indications of fires and burnt bones.
Image source: Etienne FABRE - SSAC
A professional archeologist, Francois Rouzaud, determined with carbon dating that a burnt bear bone found in the chamber was 47,600 years old, which made the stalagmite structures older than any known cave painting. It also put the cave squarely within the age of the Neanderthals since they were the only humans in France that early. No one had suspected them of being capable of constructing complex forms or doing anything that far underground.
After Rouzard suddenly died in 1999, exploration at the cave stopped until life-long caver Sophie Verheyden, vacationing in the area, heard about it and decided to try and uranium-date the stalagmites inside.
The team she assembled eventually determined that the stalagmites had been broken up by people 176,000 years ago, way farther back even than Rouzard had supposed.
There weren't any signs that Neanderthals lived in the cave, so it's a mystery what they were up to down there. Verheyden thinks it's unlikely that a solitary artist created the tableaux, and so an organized group of skilled workers must've been involved. And “When you see such a structure so far into the cave, you think of something cultural or religious, but that's not proven," Verheyden told The Atlantic.
Whatever they built, the Bruniquel Cave reveals some big surprises about Neanderthals: They had fire, they built things, and likely used tools. Add this to recent discoveries that suggest they buried their dead, made art, and maybe even had language, and these mysterious proto-humans start looking a lot more familiar. A lot more like homo sapiens, and a lot more like distant cousins lost to history.
A recent study used fMRI to compare the brains of psychopathic criminals with a group of 100 well-functioning individuals, finding striking similarities.
- The study used psychological inventories to assess a group of violent criminals and healthy volunteers for psychopathy, and then examined how their brains responded to watching violent movie scenes.
- The fMRI results showed that the brains of healthy subjects who scored high in psychopathic traits reacted similarly as the psychopathic criminal group. Both of these groups also showed atrophy in brain regions involved in regulating emotion.
- The study adds complexity to common conceptions of what differentiates a psychopath from a "healthy" individual.
When considering what precisely makes someone a psychopath, the lines can be blurry.
Psychological research has shown that many people in society have some degree of malevolent personality traits, such as those described by the "dark triad": narcissism (entitled self-importance), Machiavellianism (strategic exploitation and deceit), and psychopathy (callousness and cynicism). But while people who score high in these traits are more likely to end up in prison, most of them are well functioning and don't engage in extreme antisocial behaviors.
Now, a new study published in Cerebral Cortex found that the brains of psychopathic criminals are structurally and functionally similar to many well-functioning, non-criminal individuals with psychopathic traits. The results suggest that psychopathy isn't a binary classification, but rather a "constellation" of personality traits that "vary in the non-incarcerated population with normal range of social functioning."
Assessing your inner psychopath
The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to compare the brains of violent psychopathic criminals to those of healthy volunteers. All participants were assessed for psychopathy through commonly used inventories: the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised and the Levenson Self-Report Psychopathy Scale.
Experimental design and sample stimuli. The subjects viewed a compilation of 137 movie clips with variable violent and nonviolent content.Nummenmaa et al.
Both groups watched a 26-minute-long medley of movie scenes that were selected to portray a "large variability of social and emotional content." Some scenes depicted intense violence. As participants watched the medley, fMRI recorded how various regions of their brains responded to the content.
The goal was to see whether the brains of psychopathic criminals looked and reacted similarly to the brains of healthy subjects who scored high in psychopathic traits. The results showed similar reactions: When both groups viewed violent scenes, the fMRI revealed strong reactions in the orbitofrontal cortex and anterior insula, brain regions associated with regulating emotion.
These similarities manifested as a positive association: The more psychopathic traits a healthy subject displayed, the more their brains responded like the criminal group. What's more, the fMRI revealed a similar association between psychopathic traits and brain structure, with those scoring high in psychopathy showing lower gray matter density in the orbitofrontal cortex and anterior insula.
There were some key differences between the groups, however. The researchers noted that the structural abnormalities in the healthy sample were mainly associated with primary psychopathic traits, which are: inclination to lie, lack of remorse, and callousness. Meanwhile, the functional responses of the healthy subjects were associated with secondary psychopathic traits: impulsivity, short temper, and low tolerance for frustration.
Overall, the study further illuminates some of the biological drivers of psychopathy, and it adds nuance to common conceptions of the differences between psychopathy and being "healthy."
Why do some psychopaths become criminals?
The million-dollar question remains unanswered: Why do some psychopaths end up in prison, while others (or, people who score high in psychopathic traits) lead well-functioning lives? The researchers couldn't give a definitive answer, but they did note that psychopathic criminals had lower connectivity within "key nodes of the social and emotional brain networks, including amygdala, insula, thalamus, and frontal pole."
"Thus, even though there are parallels in the regional responsiveness of the brain's affective circuit in the convicted psychopaths and well-functioning subjects with psychopathic traits, it is likely that the disrupted functional connectivity of this network is specific to criminal psychopathy."
Counterintuitively, directly combating misinformation online can spread it further. A different approach is needed.
- Like the coronavirus, engaging with misinformation can inadvertently cause it to spread.
- Social media has a business model based on getting users to spend increasing amounts of time on their platforms, which is why they are hesitant to remove engaging content.
- The best way to fight online misinformation is to drown it out with the truth.
A year ago, the Center for Countering Digital Hate warned of the parallel pandemics — the biological contagion of COVID-19 and the social contagion of misinformation, aiding the spread of the disease. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, anti-vaccine accounts have gained 10 million new social media followers, while we have witnessed arson attacks against 5G masts, hospital staff abused for treating COVID patients, and conspiracists addressing crowds of thousands.
Many have refused to follow guidance issued to control the spread of the virus, motivated by beliefs in falsehoods about its origins and effects. The reluctance we see in some to get the COVID vaccine is greater amongst those who rely on social media rather than traditional media for their information. In a pandemic, lies cost lives, and it has felt like a new conspiracy theory has sprung up online every day.
How we, as social media users, behave in response to misinformation can either enable or prevent it from being seen and believed by more people.
The rules are different online
Credit: Pool via Getty Images
If a colleague mentions in the office that Bill Gates planned the pandemic, or a friend at dinner tells the table that the COVID vaccine could make them infertile, the right thing to do is often to challenge their claims. We don't want anyone to be left believing these falsehoods.
But digital is different. The rules of physics online are not the same as they are in the offline world. We need new solutions for the problems we face online.
Now, imagine that in order to reply to your friend, you must first hand him a megaphone so that everyone within a five-block radius can hear what he has to say. It would do more damage than good, but this is essentially what we do when we engage with misinformation online.
Think about misinformation as being like the coronavirus — when we engage with it, we help to spread it to everyone else with whom we come into contact. If a public figure with a large following responds to a post containing misinformation, they ensure the post is seen by hundreds of thousands or even millions of people with one click. Social media algorithms also push content into more users' newsfeeds if it appears to be engaging, so lots of interactions from users with relatively small followings can still have unintended negative consequences.
The trend of people celebrating and posting photos of themselves or loved ones receiving the vaccine has been far more effective than any attempt to disprove a baseless claim about Bill Gates or 5G mobile technology.
Additionally, whereas we know our friend from the office or dinner, most of the misinformation we see online will come from strangers. They often will be from one of two groups — true believers, whose minds are made up, and professional propagandists, who profit from building large audiences online and selling them products (including false cures). Both of these groups use trolling tactics, that is, seeking to trigger people to respond in anger, thus helping them reach new audiences and thereby gaming the algorithm.
On the day the COVID vaccine was approved in the UK, anti-vaccine activists were able to provoke pro-vaccine voices into posting about thalidomide, exposing new audiences to a reason to distrust the medical establishment. Those who spread misinformation understand the rules of the game online; it's time those of us on the side of enlightenment values of truth and science did too.
How to fight online misinformation
Of course, it is much easier for social media companies to take on this issue than for us citizens. Research from the Center for Countering Digital Hate and Anti-Vax Watch last month found that 65% of anti-vaccine content on social media is linked to just twelve individuals and their organizations. Were the platforms to simply remove the accounts of these superspreaders, it would do a huge amount to reduce harmful misinformation.
The problem is that social media platforms are resistant to do so. These businesses have been built by constantly increasing the amount of time users spend on their platforms. Getting rid of the creators of engaging content that has millions of people hooked is antithetical to the business model. It will require intervention from governments to force tech companies to finally protect their users and society as a whole.
So, what can the rest of us do, while we await state regulation?
Instead of engaging, we should be outweighing the bad with the good. Every time you see a piece of harmful misinformation, share advice or information from a trusted source, like the WHO or BBC, on the same subject. The trend of people celebrating and posting photos of themselves or loved ones receiving the vaccine has been far more effective than any attempt to disprove a baseless claim about Bill Gates or 5G mobile technology. In the attention economy that governs tech platforms, drowning out is a better strategy than rebuttal.
Imran Ahmed is CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate.