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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 ... ›
Thanks to modern technology, we can reexamine our assumptions about ancient warriors.
- The 2600-year-old remains of a young Scythian warrior are now known to be female.
- The young warrior appears to have been around 13 years old when she died.
- The findings shed light on the Scythian culture.
Throughout the literature of the ancient world, tales of great bands of warrior women captivated listeners' imaginations. From China to Greece, stories of their exploits filled hearts with fear and awe. Recently, historians have begun to accept that the Amazons were real, in a way; they were slightly embellished versions of Scythian warriors.
While we've known for some time that many of the warrior graves their culture left behind were the burial sites of women, modern DNA analysis allows us to review if every skeleton previously thought to be male really is. One such review of a mummy found in 1988 proves that one young warrior was actually a 13-year-old girl.
Joan of Scythia?
The 2600-year-old remains were discovered at Saryg-Bulun in Central Tuva in 1988 when the region was still part of the USSR. Contained in a tightly sealed coffin made of larch trunk, the remains were mummified and well preserved. One report states that a wart on the child's face was still evident. The coffin also contained a battle-ax, a quiver with arrows, a headdress, coat, and various bronze ornaments.
As the young warrior was presumed to be male, the researchers were surprised when they analyzed her genome and discovered the remains belonged to a young woman. Despite how common it is to see the remains of female warriors, this coffin did not contain items typically given to deceased women, such as beads or mirrors.
Excavator Marina Kilunovskaya explained this to Archaeology.org, "This discrepancy in the norms of the funeral rite received an unexpected explanation: firstly, the young man turned out to be a girl, and this young 'Amazon' had not yet reached the age of 14 years."
The research team will now attempt to get a more accurate dating of the remains and will use CT scans to try and learn precisely how this young warrior died. The various artifacts discovered in the coffin will also be analyzed for metal composition and preserved.
Who were the Scythians and why did they have little girls as warriors?
The Scythians were the rulers of the Steppes from Ukraine to Xinjiang and the probable inventors of horseback riding. These nomadic warriors also had a reasonably egalitarian society for the ancient world. Many sources agree that cross-dressing was common in their culture, and some go so far as to suggest their idea of gender was fluid.
Across the steppes, women were trained to be warriors just as men were and could prove fearsome in battle. Skeletal remains proven to be female (about a fifth of all discovered remains) often show the same battle injuries as males. Burial sites with weapons and all the honors of a warrior are common for both sexes. Just last year, the gravesite of other female warriors were found.
They were known as a warlike people, and it is thought entire tribes participated in battles. It was said that no nation could stand against them without outside help. However, they also made beautiful art, had an elaborate religious system, and were known for their unique clothing. They had no written language, but descriptions of their culture endure in the writings of their neighbors.
Even if the Amazons weren't quite real, they were based on an existing culture. As we learn more about how the Scythians lived and died, we're better able to contextualize the stories and myths they appear in. As with all archaeological discoveries, it also allows us to better understand where humanity has been, so we might make a better choice of where we're going.
Dunbar's number is a popular estimate for the maximum size of social groups. But new research suggests that it's a fictitious number based on flimsy data and bad theory.
- A team of researchers recalculated Dunbar's number using his original methods and better data.
- Their estimates were as high as 520 and were stretched over a wide enough range as to be nearly useless.
- The authors suggest that the method used to calculate the number of friends a person can have is also theoretically unsound.
Since 1992, people have been talking about "Dunbar's number," the supposed upper limit of the number of people with whom a person can maintain stable social relationships. Named for British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, its value, rounded from 148 to 150, has permeated both professional and popular culture.
The Swedish taxation authority keeps offices under 150 people as a result of it, and the standard facilities of the W. L. Gore and Associates company are based around the concept. Dunbar's number was cited in Malcolm Gladwell's bestselling book Tipping Point, and it also has a fair amount of academic influence, the original paper having been cited 2,500 times.
It's also probably wrong.
Despite its fame, Dunbar's number has always been controversial. A new study out of Sweden and published in the journal Biology Letters suggests it might be both theoretically and empirically unsound.
Getting to 150
Less well known than the value of Dunbar's number is how he came up with it. The value of 150 is determined by looking at the ratio between the size of the neocortex in primates and the average size of groups they form. These ratios were then applied to data on the human brain, and the average value of roughly 150 relationships was determined.
The point of this study isn't to replace Dunbar's number but to dismiss the notion that such a number can be determined in the first place.
However, this number has always been the subject of debate. An alternative value based on empirical studies of American social groups is a much higher 291, nearly double that of Dunbar, and suggests that the median social network has 231 people in it. That value wasn't calculated by crunching other numbers; it kept coming up again and again when the authors of that study looked at the professional and social networks cultivated by different groups of people.
Yet, even in the face of critics and new studies, Dunbar's number always managed to hang on in popular and academic discourse. That is where this latest study comes in.
A new study with old methods but better data
In the new study, the researchers did similar calculations as Dunbar but with updated information on the size of monkey brains and social networks. While their average human group size was below Dunbar's estimate, the upper boundary of the 95 percent confidence interval ranged between 2 and 520 people depending on what methods were used. Nearly every method gave a range of possibilities with a maximum value higher than 150.
When the authors applied Dunbar's exact same methods from 1992 to their new data, they got an average group size of 69 people — but a 95% confidence interval between roughly 5 and 292. This is far too wide a range to be of any use.
Additionally, the authors discuss the flimsy nature of the theory behind Dunbar's number. Human brains often work differently than those of our nearest evolutionary cousins, as evidenced by our ability to create things like, "Stockholm, symphonies, and science." The idea that we would process social information exactly like other apes do is a bold and largely unsubstantiated claim.
They quote a study by Jan De Ruiter and their rejection of the idea that the ratio between monkey neocortex size and group composition can be carried over to humans:
"Dunbar's assumption that the evolution of human brain physiology corresponds with a limit in our capacity to maintain relationships ignores the cultural mechanisms, practices, and social structures that humans develop to counter potential deficiencies"
So, is there a new Dunbar number?
The point of this study isn't to replace Dunbar's number but to dismiss the notion that such a number can be determined in the first place. The authors go so far as to end their paper with:
"It is our hope, though perhaps futile, that this study will put an end to the use of 'Dunbar's number' within science and in popular media. 'Dunbar's number' is a concept with limited theoretical foundation lacking empirical support."
While this study may not be the death of Dunbar's number — after all, less empirically sound ideas have endured much longer — it may be the foundation for new attempts to determine how large our meaningful and stable social groups can be.
The author of 'How We Read' Now explains.
During the pandemic, many college professors abandoned assignments from printed textbooks and turned instead to digital texts or multimedia coursework.
As a professor of linguistics, I have been studying how electronic communication compares to traditional print when it comes to learning. Is comprehension the same whether a person reads a text onscreen or on paper? And are listening and viewing content as effective as reading the written word when covering the same material?
The answers to both questions are often “no," as I discuss in my book “How We Read Now," released in March 2021. The reasons relate to a variety of factors, including diminished concentration, an entertainment mindset and a tendency to multitask while consuming digital content.
Print versus digital reading
The benefits of print particularly shine through when experimenters move from posing simple tasks – like identifying the main idea in a reading passage – to ones that require mental abstraction – such as drawing inferences from a text. Print reading also improves the likelihood of recalling details – like “What was the color of the actor's hair?" – and remembering where in a story events occurred – “Did the accident happen before or after the political coup?"
Studies show that both grade school students and college students assume they'll get higher scores on a comprehension test if they have done the reading digitally. And yet, they actually score higher when they have read the material in print before being tested.
Educators need to be aware that the method used for standardized testing can affect results. Studies of Norwegian tenth graders and U.S. third through eighth graders report higher scores when standardized tests were administered using paper. In the U.S. study, the negative effects of digital testing were strongest among students with low reading achievement scores, English language learners and special education students.
My own research and that of colleagues approached the question differently. Rather than having students read and take a test, we asked how they perceived their overall learning when they used print or digital reading materials. Both high school and college students overwhelmingly judged reading on paper as better for concentration, learning and remembering than reading digitally.
The discrepancies between print and digital results are partly related to paper's physical properties. With paper, there is a literal laying on of hands, along with the visual geography of distinct pages. People often link their memory of what they've read to how far into the book it was or where it was on the page.
But equally important is mental perspective, and what reading researchers call a “shallowing hypothesis." According to this theory, people approach digital texts with a mindset suited to casual social media, and devote less mental effort than when they are reading print.
Podcasts and online video
Given increased use of flipped classrooms – where students listen to or view lecture content before coming to class – along with more publicly available podcasts and online video content, many school assignments that previously entailed reading have been replaced with listening or viewing. These substitutions have accelerated during the pandemic and move to virtual learning.
Surveying U.S. and Norwegian university faculty in 2019, University of Stavanger Professor Anne Mangen and I found that 32% of U.S. faculty were now replacing texts with video materials, and 15% reported doing so with audio. The numbers were somewhat lower in Norway. But in both countries, 40% of respondents who had changed their course requirements over the past five to 10 years reported assigning less reading today.
A primary reason for the shift to audio and video is students refusing to do assigned reading. While the problem is hardly new, a 2015 study of more than 18,000 college seniors found only 21% usually completed all their assigned course reading.
Maximizing mental focus
Researchers found similar results with university students reading an article versus listening to a podcast of the text. A related study confirms that students do more mind-wandering when listening to audio than when reading.
Results with younger students are similar, but with a twist. A study in Cyprus concluded that the relationship between listening and reading skills flips as children become more fluent readers. While second graders had better comprehension with listening, eighth graders showed better comprehension when reading.
Research on learning from video versus text echoes what we see with audio. For example, researchers in Spain found that fourth through sixth graders who read texts showed far more mental integration of the material than those watching videos. The authors suspect that students “read" the videos more superficially because they associate video with entertainment, not learning.
The collective research shows that digital media have common features and user practices that can constrain learning. These include diminished concentration, an entertainment mindset, a propensity to multitask, lack of a fixed physical reference point, reduced use of annotation and less frequent reviewing of what has been read, heard or viewed.
Digital texts, audio and video all have educational roles, especially when providing resources not available in print. However, for maximizing learning where mental focus and reflection are called for, educators – and parents – shouldn't assume all media are the same, even when they contain identical words.