Would journalists be willing to cover the daily activity of propoganda bots?

Given that a number of talented individuals and teams have created tools to identify and track the activity of Russian-affiliated bots, bot networks and trolls that are active on Twitter, I wonder if journalists would be willing to cover this daily activity as news? Reporting on the president’s tweets - which I find to be absurd, as it is not news, but propaganda - can only be counterbalanced by showing what Russian-affiliated bots are doing every night (US time) to push right wing, divisive, conspiratorial topics and hashtags to trend by the time Americans get up in the morning and look at Twitter.

If you haven’t looked at botsentinel I highly recommend it. Also, if you’re not aware of the conspiracy theory many right-leaning Americans have bought into, in which all news that is damaging about Trump is part of an elaborate conspiracy to stop him from exposing a child slavery and sex ring in which - I kid you not - the Clintons, Obamas, John Podesta, Valerie Jarrett, and George Soros are involved, I invite you to see where the hastag of this fake deep source, QAnon, rates every day. The podcast Reply All did an episode in which the explained what QAnon is all about - Episode 122, The QAnon code(https://www.gimletmedia.com/reply-all/122-the-qanon-code#episode-player)).

While the tone of the Reply All hosts’ discussion bothers me -I honestly don’t think this is funny at all - the explanation is excellent. I’d welcome ideas on how this kind of information might get covered. If we wonder why millions of Americans respond in seemingly inexplicable ways to news of human rights abuses and deeply troubling behavior and policies, this is part of how to understand the answer - it’s what’s in their feeds, amplified and magnified by sharing among Americans and by well known figures.

@beah, @lydialaurenson I’d welcome your thoughts as I’m following the discussion on digital journalism…and any others’ thoughts as well, of course. Thanks, all.

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A great and salient point. A prerequisite to much of human tech is knowing how to distinguish humans from bots. (Otherwise botnets can use almost any well-intentioned moderation or other tool to their own ends.)

I don’t know how or where to publish regular updates on this, but some of the researchers at IFTF and other institutions are certainly tracking this with more detail than just botsentinel (which is indeed great). I also think we need to look at the global market for bots, which is perhaps 100x the size of that for “political Russian bots”: it is a massive enterprise, which is the only reason that the propaganda we all hate is able to hide so well: no platform wants to get rid of the rest of the ecosystem, which literally makes them run.

Hm. There’s a lot going on in this space that I’m pretty uneducated on, but I’m checking out the links you shared – thanks.

Are you familiar with Kevin Roose? He’s a NYTimes reporter and does a ton of great work in this space https://twitter.com/kevinroose

I’m not familiar with him and will check out his work. I’m actually 100% off of Twitter because of my deep concerns about the platform, but I can find his work elsewhere and will do that - thanks so much!

he’s a NYTimes columnist so you can certainly follow him there too https://www.nytimes.com/by/kevin-roose

For the first time, since hearing about Qanon on Twitter last year through the data scientist who is behind the bot-checking tool MakeAdverbsGreatAgain.org––I heard someone on MSNBC actually utter ‘Qanon’ out loud. (That data scientist, btw, is on Twitter as https://twitter.com/conspirator0 & works to expose bot nets and hashtags like Qanon & followthewhiterabbit––as long as whatever the bots are on at the moment.) The mention on MSNBC, of course, was because Qanon people had a visible presence at Trump’s rally last night. I scanned the hashtag on twitter and they were thrilled about their representation.

I wanted to add images but I am new and now realize I cannot. You can search it yourself, though, and see what I saw, I am sure. Celebrating the signs that were held up at the rally.

OH I am literally hearing Qanon mentioned on MSNBC, again, right now. It was on Nicole Wallace’s show. They probably love how it makes them feel valid, despite the fact that they definitely called them a conspiracy theorist group. I don’t know who of them truly believes this VERY COMPLICATED theory, and who just loves the chaos of it… but there is danger in it, regardless. Someone is going to act out against the “villains” in the story they are telling themselves.

I would like to see someone take it more seriously, but I fear that this sort of thing is very uncomfortable for people. This is the first time that me writing about it on Twitter has resulted in any response––and it’s just because some more major people mentioned it in a serious tone––which is what is needed.

https://twitter.com/RVAwonk on Twitter has 348k followers & gets shared by journalists. She often discusses bots… and she often shares the data scientist I mentioned. They do a lot to check others’ work and keep people honest about their reading of data.

Too often I see journalists blindly bump topics that are inflated by bots with no awareness for that fact. I think the fact that something being visibly ‘popular’ in the previously-believable terms can no longer be believed, is just existentially too difficult for most journalists to accept. Perhaps the idea of actually confronting this, and reporting on it––perhaps unable to find a real solution in any immediate sense, is too scary.

I would like to see social media that promotes trends-–like Twitter-–add analytics to the trends like––how many people who mentioned this have less than 100 followers? Or less than 50? How many users who have joined in the last week? How many unique users mentioned it(or is it the same people lathering the topic)? There has to be some diplomatic way to give a shape to a trend, even if they don’t want to flat out say ‘THIS IS FULL OF BOTS.’

Anyhow… you are right, that this needs more attention. Obviously, I have feelings about it.

Thank you so much for your thoughtful post - I too have noticed that QAnon is being mentioned, finally, but usually with laughter and derision - and that does not help at all. Your analysis is spot on - and I am struggling to think through how to get this phenomenon covered seriously.

Just before seeing your post I sent a long email to Gimlet media, the company that creates the podcast Reply All, to applaud them for the quality of their work, to appreciate the explanation of QAnon, and then to ask them to consider the tone and the laughter. As I mentioned in my email to Gimlet, Michiko Kakutani addresses the use of irony and humor as a weapon very clearly - it is intended to provide deniability (I was just kidding), and is actually in written guidelines given to writers who write for the Neo Nazi The Daily Storm. There is absolutely nothing funny about what is going on - I understand the desire of people who are upset and stressed by what’s happening to want to laugh (see Stephen Colbert and Samantha Bee) but I stopped watching the after the election because honestly, this is all not funny, and I don’t think irony and humor are helping.

I would welcome any ideas about how we can influence journalists and publishers on this point - and I also realize that the business model makes coverage that is inflammatory dramatically more profitable in terms of time-engaged than other more serious kinds of reporting.

Thanks again for your post - I appreciate the thoughtful and caring thinking we are all doing here on this forum.


Last night, I watched multiple, serious, dedicated segments about QAnon, on MSNBC. They mentioned that groups like this were dangerous, being enabled by ‘the platforms’, and suggested it was because there was money to make off of conspiracy theorists. I saw serious articles in my Twitter feed, and political analysts tweeting things akin to ‘these people are going to hurt someone.’ I believe there are more segments today––they are wondering if they will show up again at tonight’s rally.

I don’t know if this is just a blip or a real sign that more visible/mainstream outlets might follow these stories, but one can only hope. At least there is some bigger level of awareness to work with, now, when asking others to talk about these issues. Since I first heard about this group last year, I just kind of thought they would be ignored, forever––I stopped mentioning them, because no one I know seemed to know what I was talking about.

Like you, I don’t watch the night shows. I couldn’t really do SNL after the election. The loss of truth sort of destroys all the best comedic devices, y’know? I guess I don’t love jokes that boil down to the mass-manipulation of human beings through things like psy-ops and propaganda. At this point, in media, I am looking for strong voices who know how to yell fire, and give clear directions about how to get out.

I get sucked into days of MSNBC if there is a Facebook story or something, because I want to know what most people are going to know. And I need to know if I need to be mad about the way they are handling it. People trust these voices, and it’s important that they say something valuable––with the appropriate tone.

It really is about credible voices, with large audiences, creating awareness about these topics and making sure people realize they are serious. I can talk about it all day, but I don’t have a TV show on a news network to reach the people who aren’t curious enough to know already.

It’s infuriating that we have to do this––that the platforms themselves are too dependent on the activity of bots, trolls & conspiracy theory groups to make real moves to combat them. I check Securing Democracy’s Hamilton68 dashboard if I have a gut feeling that there is Russian amplification on something, but should I have to? Most people are just going to see something trend to the top & think that means authentically ‘popular.’

There isn’t a Twitter client that rates tweets & trends using available bot-check tools, is there. A plug-in? Sigh. I don’t know what to even fantasize about doing for Facebook(only good news is, I got logged out in 2015 and never logged back in:joy:).

I am sorry these have been long posts, but I thought maybe if we got some big basics out, it would give us more to think about. I am not sure what an action item is for me, but it sounds like you are taking action by asking for serious conversation by those you have heard talking about it. I’ll have to listen to that podcast you mentioned.

I really appreciate the Hamilton68 Dashboard and all the work for the Alliance for Securing Democracy - I use botsentinal.combecause it’s updated more frequently - and there is a plugin called Botcheck.me that I understand tells you if someone on Twitter is actually a bot (as I’ve left Twitter I can’t say more about it).

I understand what you’re saying about the importance of credible voices with large audiences and I think about this a lot. One of the challenges in communicating is that the audiences are so narrowly segmented - progressive people watch MSNBC, people on the right watch Fox News, and their social media feeds amplify not only the messages they get from those sources but also ideas, theories and assertions that are meant to further drive divisions - that use themes from media and then distort them and drive them to the extreme. Before bots and botnets and computational propaganda we were struggling with how to reach audiences beyond ourselves (the echo chamber) - now the problem is so much more difficult that that one, which was in itself very challenging.

I’ve done work on how to effectively frame communications to help people think more productively about poilcy issues and to build support for policies that are evidence based across the political spectrum. The methods are based on empirical social science research and they do work when you can read people across the spectrum - I’m referring here to the work of my friends at the FrameWorks Institute (http://www.frameworksinstitute.org/) - I’m now thinking about what we need to do that advances their work into the current communications environment. The work of Social Psychologistst Elizabeth Levy Paluck see here on social norms engineering is very relevant - she works on the question of what influences not only thinking but also behavior on social issues. Here’s a relevant article Norm Perception as a Vehicle for Social Change - I hear Paluck interviewed on the Hidden Brain podcast but couldn’t find the episode just now to post it.

I appreciate having this discussion this forum - these questions require our urgent attention and effort.

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What about anti Trum bots and trolls?

Let me check out those links & get back to all of this at once! :slight_smile:

If you follow the behavior of bots and trolls on Twitter, the vast majority are tweeting pro far right themes, retweeting the president as well as Fox news tweets. If you look at botsentinel.com you can see the activity of these Russia- affiliated propaganda bots and bot nets 24/7.

There are indeed bots and trolls aimed at progressives too - one of their central aims is to divide, and that involves inflaming both sides. The way the game is played in Russian cyber psychological warfare is to deepen existing divisions to create discord.

How do you think for Facebook and Google, bots trolls and conspiracy theory is good for Business or bad?
And why before we had no problems with such mass disinformation, what’s changed?
And why the human brain is so “loves” oconspiracy theories and various unusual fakes news?

Thanks for the tag! This is definitely an interesting topic. There are certainly journalists and other writers I know of who are following this topic, but much of their detailed coverage is not in mainstream outlets.

Personally, I still find Twitter, with all its faults, to be the best way of tracking quickly-evolving topics over time, mainly by using Twitter Lists.

The Twitter List feature:
(skip this paragraph if you already know what Lists are)
There’s a feature called “lists” that takes a while to find and set up, but once you have lists set up, they’re awesome. It’s a good way to keep track of specific segments of people, and it’s also a good way to dodge the algorithmic de-chronologicalizing changes that bedevil one’s main Twitter feed nowadays. You can have public lists or private lists.

My Silicon Valley Commentary list:
Many of my lists are private, but here’s a public list that might be interesting for CHT people to take a look at: https://twitter.com/lydialaurenson/lists/silicon-valley-commentary

I’ve added a lot of researchers, writers, and publications to that list over the years. I don’t agree with all of them, to be sure, but many of them are doing research that’s relevant to this topic and others in the CHT wheelhouse.

Interesting thread! Thanks for starting it and tagging me.

Hi––took me some time to get back, but that work your friends are doing looks interesting & I think that article you mentioned is super relevant.

I have spent the last couple weeks determining how exactly I need to pour all of my thoughts out @ Jack, on Twitter––as it seems he is in complete denial of what Twitter is. All of these CEOs are out here pretending they are an alley wall.

The way norms are redefined via social media is really important––and the fact that bad actors & bots(to return to your orig post) can play a part in it, is a big deal. It pushes us not to a place where the legitimately most popular ideas survive, and spread, but where ideas that are gamed the most successfully have just as good a chance of appearing popular. The message ends up being ‘this is normal,’ and(as the article you provided suggests), normative perceptions can be malleable & some crazy lie or hate campaign that is formed on Twitter & artificially amplified, can influence societal norms. It’s not like Twitter is an isolated environment. I turn on the news, and they are talking about Twitter. I look at Twitter, and they are talking about the news.

Anyhow, Jack keeps talking about journalists as if he thinks it’s someone else’s job to discern what is ‘real’ on his site. Meanwhile he offers a huge lack of transparency & no tools. But your original call for journalists to cover daily activity of propaganda bots seems important––I wish there was a bigger voice willing to talk about it. As that Harvard Business Review study, Truth Disrupted, found, “false news spreads online faster, farther, and deeper than truth.” Gotta keep fighting, any way we can… we’re already behind. Easier to automate trash, than carefully share the truth, complete with sources. :confused:

In the meantime, I think I am turning my twitter account into a place to tell Jack how he is blowing it. :joy: Watch––I’m probably going to get banned for it.

I also agree w/r/t irony, dark humor, and deniability.
I work in a computer lab and the public sits down in front of splash pages thrown up by the default MSN Edge. We can change the default but it switches back all the time when it updates…
Anyway:: The default MSN splashpage is “Informational” (like Office.com’s) It’s news posts. Posts that are designed to outrage you are sprinkled about. Also under Google, if you tap News under Google, the headlines are speckled about with outrage and heavy partisan bias. I just wish the defaults were calm and straightforward instead of addictive.

But which came first, if you look at old microfilm of the newsprint, it’s the same headlines meant to hook you. I wish we could influence journalists and publishers but I don’t know how we put the brakes on it.