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Challenging election disinformation with data

What journalists can do to avoid being easy marks

Harvard University researcher Brian Friedberg operates like a detective, snooping in the dark recesses of the Internet. His main target is the far-right conspiracy theory QAnon, a shadowy movement described in a recent CNN report as “dangerous and growing.”

Q has surfaced as a factor in congressional races and news coverage in the 2020 presidential election. “We are Q” posters and T-shirts have appeared at President Donald Trump’s rallies, sending up red flags.

Operatives function as provocateurs intent on luring followers away from mainstream media. Even conservative Fox News has been in their crosshairs. “They encourage distrust of any news sites outside of their frame,” said Friedberg, a senior researcher with the Technology and Social Change Project at the Harvard Kennedy School.

He has followed the movement since it appeared on the anonymous imageboard 4chan in October 2017, and has watched it grow into a global phenomenon.

Political parties attempting to manipulate news coverage is nothing new, but Friedberg’s research shows QAnon has expanded its base and pushed disinformation to an extreme.

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In August, The Guardian reported that QAnon’s media ecosystem includes “enormous amounts of video content, memes, e-books, chatrooms, and more, all designed to snare the interest of potential recruits, then draw them `down the rabbit hole’ and into QAnon’s alternate reality.”

Twitter, Facebook and other social networks are flooded with QAnon-related false information about the 2020 election, COVID-19, and Black Lives Matter protests. Facebook has removed or restricted thousands of QAnon and militia groups and their accounts promoting conspiracy theories and hate speech.

QAnon has drawn attention in high places. Asked about the movement during a press briefing, President Trump claimed its followers “are people that love our country” and “I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate.” The FBI has designated Q a domestic terrorist threat.

For journalists, it is a Catch-22. Ignoring these groups is not an option. The public has a right to know who they are and the threats they pose. But, amplification also is an issue. Does press coverage unwittingly provide oxygen to extremist movements? Experts like Friedberg, an investigative ethnographer specialising in anonymous communities, provide a window into how these groups operate. Social media platforms provide an entry.

Inside Q, Friedberg has seen detailed instructions from organisers on how to create fake accounts, what kind of memes to spread, which influencers to target on social media, and how to get journalists’ attention. “My job is to get deep into these spaces, get to know them, get to know their norms and what’s important to them,” he said.

A lot of the online world right now is designed to grab media attention. Journalists are the main target.

Media manipulation in practice

In February, Wired published an article, “QAnon Deploys `Information Warfare’ to Influence the 2020 Election,” describing how the movement planned to “flood social media with pro-Trump, pro-Republican, and anti-Democratic narratives or, failing that, to simply hijack and derail conversations.”

A screenshot that accompanied the story declared “memewar on Democrats,” labelling them “traitors.” Wired reported Trump retweeted QAnon accounts at least 72 times, including 20 times in one day in December 2019.

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Screenshot of post on 8kun, captured December 16, 2019. Courtesy of Elise Thomas, Wired.

Media professionals are on the frontlines of this global information war that defies basic standards of truth, fairness and impartiality.

“A lot of the online world right now is designed to grab media attention. Journalists are the main target,” said Joan Donovan, research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. Among her areas of expertise: online extremism, media manipulation, and disinformation campaigns.

Donovan and Friedberg co-authored a report for the Data and Society Research Institute on “source hacking,” a technique manipulators use to get reporters to pick up falsehoods and unknowingly amplify them to the public.

The study contains an important message for journalists: “Learning the tactics of source hacking is a starting point for understanding manipulation campaigns and for designing platforms that can defend against them.”

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Data & Society's new report explains the difficult balance journalists face in the fight against disinformation.

The report breaks down the tactics used by trolls into four categories:

  1. Viral Sloganeering: “Repackaging reactionary talking points for social media and press amplification”
  2. Leak Forgery: “Prompting a media spectacle by sharing forged documents”
  3. Evidence Collages: “Compiling information from multiple sources into a single, sharable document, usually as an image”
  4. Keyword Squatting: “Strategic domination of keywords and sock puppet accounts to misrepresent groups or individuals”

Friedberg provided examples for each category, highlighting how these groups hijack media attention.

Viral sloganeering: The Q movement strongly identifies with several slogans popularised through hashtags, memes, videos, posters and online conversations. Among the most common, “Calm before the storm,” used to refer to upcoming arrest and indictments of President Trump’s political enemies.

“Where we go one, we go all,” also known as WWG1WGA, is a community-building phrase and a call to action for participating in meme campaigns and crowd-sourced Q posts. “The Great Awakening” is a promise to followers of the salvation to come.

Forged leaks can be deployed across social media, with manipulators attempting to drum up enough activity to trigger further news coverage.

An explanation from the report: “Because these forms are easily transmitted and copied, they can quickly spread to public forums, both online and offline, and thus become removed from the group that created them. If manipulators are able to hide the source of the slogan and create a sufficient social media circulation, mainstream media sources may provide even further amplification.”

Case in point, during October 2018, anonymous social media users posted #JobsNotMobs, an attack on immigration in the run-up to U.S. midterm elections. The slogan moved from fringes of the right-wing internet to the top, drawing a Tweet from President Trump. His campaign distributed “Jobs vs. Mobs” signs at rallies.

To the originators, it was like winning the Super Bowl. “Any mention in the press is a victory. Even hit pieces by journalists are shared in these community as trophies, proof they are being noticed,” said Friedberg.

Leak forgery: On Aug. 10, The Daily Beast reported that a “flight log” of Jeffrey Epstein’s “Lolita Express” private jet containing dozens of Hollywood A-listers had gone viral among QAnon followers even though it was “laughably fake.”

The doctored flight list featured dozens of celebrities, including Barack Obama, Crissy Teigen and Beyoncé, with no known ties to Epstein. A cross-reference of the screenshot list with the flight logs released in the court record found it named 36 celebrities who never set foot on the plane. The powerful and elite are prime targets for forgers. So are election campaigns.

In December 2017, Republican congressional candidate Omar Navarro released a phoney document via Twitter targeting his opponent, Congresswoman Maxine Waters. It appeared to be a plan for Waters to accept a donation from a bank in exchange for allowing 41,000 immigrants to move into her South California district. Despite being discredited, months later the tweet containing the forgery had nearly 15,000 retweets, 12,000 likes, and remained online.

From the report: “Like viral slogans, forged leaks can be deployed across social media, with manipulators attempting to drum up enough activity to trigger further news coverage. By staging conversations about the forged leak through alternative news outlets and social media, manipulators draw in mainstream news coverage before any entity can debunk the documents.”

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Evidence collages: Friedberg directs journalists to the website for examples. It contains more than 200 “Qproofs,” billed as “a collection of QAnon evidence produced by anonymous patriots.” A section labelled “Breadcrumbs” has archived Q graphics dating back to October 2017.

“These simple graphics are a huge, huge part of how `knowledge’ is produced in the Q community,” Friedberg said.

He points to Aug. 12, 2017, Charlottesville Unite the Right Rally, when a white supremacist drove his car into a group of counter-protesters, killing one of them and fleeing the scene. Using open source investigation techniques, 4chan manipulators quickly constructed a convincing evidence collage, falsely identifying the driver of the car as a leftist student. The collage was amplified on far-right news platforms and social media.

From the report: “Manipulators use these carefully constructed `infographics’ to sway breaking reporting and encourage further investigation by citizens. Evidence collages often contain a mix of verified and unverified information and can be created with simple image-editing software.”

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Keyword squatting: In July, Friedberg wrote an article for Wired about the “blood-harvesting conspiracy,” a plot targeting celebrities and based on a rumour that “global elites” were harvesting the chemical adrenochrome from the blood of children and injecting it to stay healthy and young. He traced a surge of online interest in March to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Celebrities posting photos of themselves stuck at home and looking less than camera-ready were besieged on social media with accusations that they were suffering from adrenochrome withdrawal. In their logic, [Covid-19] shutdowns had stalled the adrenochrome child-trafficking supply chain,” Friedberg wrote in Wired.

Conspiracists spread the adrenochrome hashtag to new users while, at the same time, harassing their targets. For them, it was a victory.

The report explained: Keyword squatting is the “technique of creating social media accounts or content associated with specific terms to capture and control future search traffic . . . Squatting can also support forms of online impersonation where manipulators use misleading account names, URLs, or keywords to speak as their opponents or targets.”

Friedberg’s advice for reporters: “Don’t give credence to Q’s outlandish claims. We are past the point of having to repeat them in every article. Don’t reproduce or hyperlink to their materials. Photos of Q signs at rallies are not viewed as embarrassing by the Q community. They are viewed as a visual sign of their strength.”

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The Oxygen of Amplification draws on in-depth interviews by scholar Whitney Phillips to showcase how news media was hijacked from 2016-2018 to amplify the messages of hate groups.

Journalism on the frontlines

For a project called “The Oxygen of Amplification,” media literacy expert Whitney Phillips explored the fine line journalists walk when covering groups with extremist views.

“When we cover Trump rallies, where do we train our microphones or cameras? Who do we interview? Who gets our attention? Journalists tend to focus on the loudest, the most reactionary,” said Phillips in an interview. “When we amplify those voices at the expense of other voices, it sends the wrong message. It muddies the waters.”

In her study, she offered a stark portrayal of the dilemma media face: “The takeaway for establishment journalists is stark and starkly distressing: Just by showing up and doing their jobs, journalists covering the far-right fringe – which subsumed everything from professional conspiracy theorists to pro-Trump social media shit-posters to actual Nazis – played directly into these groups’ public relations interests. In the process, this coverage added not just oxygen but rocket fuel to as already-smouldering fire,” Phillips wrote.

Many of the 50 journalists she interviewed acknowledged their work provided publicity and may have energised manipulators. How can media avoid becoming a bullhorn for extremist groups?

Phillips, a professor of communications at Syracuse University, advises against framing “bad actors” as the centre of narratives, reinforcing that their behaviour warrants news coverage. Among questions she says reporters should consider:

• Does the story reach beyond the interests of a specific online community to the point where it is being shared and discussed more widely?

• Is there a larger positive social benefit, such as adding to an existing conversation about solutions to a problem, or sparking a new conversation about an important topic?

Will the story cause harm to those involved, including embarrassment, re-traumatisation or professional damage?

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First Draft's mission is to protect communities from harmful misinformation. Above are examples of some free resources to help journalists outsmart false and misleading information.

There are resources journalists can turn to. Amiee Rinehart, U.S. deputy director of First Draft, an organisation that fights disinformation, first heard of QAnon in May 2018. She calls the “fringing” of the group by the media as “problematic.” Instead, she urges journalists to focus on their most destructive and dangerous beliefs, such as homophobia, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia in stories.

“[Q followers] are not merely Pizzagate peddlers who see Trump as the saviour. Their foundational beliefs are deeply troubling and toxic. That’s what media should be looking at,” said Rinehart. For those unfamiliar, Pizzagate is a debunked conspiracy theory that went viral during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Claire Wardle, First Draft’s co-founder and U.S director, posted “10 questions to ask before covering misinformation,” a guide to decision-making. Here is a sampling:

Who is my audience? “Are they likely to have seen a particular piece of mis- or dis-information already? If not, what are the consequences of bringing it to the attention of a wider audience?

How much traffic should a piece have before we address it? “What is the `tipping point,’ and how do we measure it? On Twitter, for example, do we check whether a hashtag made it to a country’s top 10 trending topics?”

How should we write about attempts at manufactured amplification? “Should we focus on debunking the messages of automated campaigns (fact-checking), or do we focus on the actors behind them (source-checking)? Or do both?”

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In an article she wrote for First Draft, Wardle warned against giving disinformation “extra oxygen.”

“Efforts to undermine and explain deliberate falsehoods can be extremely valuable and are almost always in the public interest, but they must be handled with care. All journalists and their editors should understand the risk of legitimising a rumour and spreading it further...especially in newsrooms developing misinformation as a `beat’ in its own right,” wrote Wardle.

There are models on how to fight disinformation. Jane Elizabeth, the managing editor of The News and Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, has made fact-checking a centrepiece of the newspaper’s operation.

“For journalists, it really is a conundrum,” said Elizabeth, who took the job two years ago after a stint with the American Press Institute. “Some politicians understand fact-checking better now [than in 2016] and they’re looking for ways to get around it. They’ve gotten smarter.”

Transparency, said Elizabeth, is a vital part of the process. The News and Observer posts their fact-checking guidelines, ethics code and a sample story that illustrates the rigours of fact-checking on their website. The paper provides readers with a list of resources that were consulted in writing a particular fact check, along with the names of reporters’ and editors’ who worked on it.

Earlier this summer when Donald Trump told a North Carolina audience they should vote twice to make sure their vote by mail counted, the News and Observer was careful not to keep repeating his incorrect statements in their coverage. Instead, they created a Q&A on how to vote and used a pullout quote, `No, you can’t vote twice.’ “We keep updating the site. It has become very popular,” the managing editor said.

As this report indicates, journalism faces an uphill climb as online communities built on deception, amplified through bots, trolls and cyborgs, proliferate and pollute the information ecosystem. Researchers like Donovan and Friedberg fight back with tools of their own, methodical, truthful analysis and warnings of what is to come.

“Disinformation has become part of our contemporary social fabric and it’s not going to go away easily,” said Friedberg. “We have to continue to do this work if we are going to get through it. I don’t have to worry about wasting my time.”

Resources that can help:

The International Fact-Checking Network: Monitors trends, formats and anti-misinformation actions around the world. Publishes regular articles and a weekly newsletter.

Verification Handbook, a definitive guide to equipping journalists with the knowledge to investigate social media accounts, bots, private messaging apps, information operations, deep fakes, as well as other forms of disinformation and media manipulation.

First Draft: Coalition of news organisations that offer free verification resources, tutorials and training materials, including a free two-week online course “Protection from Deception” on the U.S. election.

NBC News: Reporter Ben Collins’ guide to QAnon serves as a well-researched primer on the movement.

Google reverse image search: Verification of pictures to find where else a photograph has been used, and when it was used. Excellent tool for spotting faked or altered photos.

Bellingcat: An investigative journalism website that specialises in fact-checking and open-source intelligence.

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