The Challenges of Staying Informed in the Mis-Information Age
Disclaimer: The opinions relayed in this op-ed do not necessarily reflect the views of OMI as a company, or its staff.
by Kent Lewis, president of Anvil Media Inc.
We are entering a newer and scarier Information Age. A majority of US-based social media platform users get their news from Twitter (74 percent) and Facebook (68 percent)¹.
According to the Freedom of the Net report from Freedom House, propaganda influenced elections in 17 countries around the world, including the United States². Unfortunately, the trend does not stop there, as formerly trustworthy sources ranging from Google to Pinterest are also susceptible to manipulation while consumers and brands alike are paying the price. This article touches on just a few of the recent unsettling trends in the new Mis-Information Age.
Facebook is currently the largest social media platform on the planet, with over two billion users. Over the past year or so, third party groups — including the government — have criticized Facebook for a lack of self-regulation.
ProPublica recently checked to see how well Facebook delivered on its promise to mitigate racial and ethnic profiling with its ad platform. The results were not promising, as ProPublica was able to create test ads to promote a fictional apartment using discriminatory ad targeting. Facebook itself admits that their algorithmic rules and policies have fallen short of current federal fair housing rules³.
This tremendous lack of oversight allowed Russians to expertly game the platform and influence the last US election; the numbers tell a compelling story⁴. For starters, Facebook turned over 3,000 Russia-placed Facebook ads to Congress as evidence, worth $100,000. That sum is paltry compared to what global brands spend on the platform annually, but few brands can show similar impact dollar-for-dollar.
Facebook also recently tripled its estimate of fake and duplicate accounts to 6–10 percent, which adds up to 270 million accounts (nearly the size of the US population)⁵. It’s a fair question to ask how Russia and other nefarious agents would tap Facebook’s user base to influence opinion and action. Let’s explore.
Russia has proven it can do more than hack large corporate databases and government websites remotely. For a nominal cost, Russian agents created thousands of fake accounts through which they authored and shared false, inflammatory information. The Russians even pulled from their cold war propaganda playbook, which includes creating divisions among people by tapping into emotions. Once divided, the “enemy” is easier to defeat.
For example, operatives created the Blacktivist Facebook page, which had 400K Likes, and was designed to appeal to African Americans concerned with civil rights and general distrust of police. The profile (since deactivated) fueled distrust among one population towards another, and this happened across the demographic spectrum. The Twitter account @TEN_GOP which had north of 100,000 followers, provided a similar narrative, but appealed to Southern whites. Fabricated theories about voter fraud in Florida and similar disinformation were so compelling to the target population, the @TEN_GOP account was retweeted by the likes of Kellyanne Conway and Donald Trump Jr.
Even advertising is corrupted by malfeasance. Adform, an ad-tech company based in Denmark, recently reported an ad fraud scheme of alarming scale, Hyphbot. The bot created nearly 35,000 domains and one million unique URLs, which appeared in 15 ad exchanges ant a rate of nearly 1.5 billion requests daily⁶. At its peak, Hyphbot could have generated half a million dollars a day. This significant sum is only a fraction of the estimated $6.5 billion in annual ad fraud, however. The good news is that this number has fallen 10 percent over last year. Perhaps the new industry initiative known as Ads.txt has been a meaningful contributor to overall reduction of fraud.
Google’s own trillion-dollar search engine algorithm is susceptible to false and misleading information. When Devin Patrick Kelley gunned down 26 churchgoers in Sutherland Springs, Google spread misinformation thanks to it’s ‘Popular on Twitter’ feature⁷. Google may have put too much trust in unverifiable sources when feeding real-time Twitter results for related searches. Just hours after the incident, tweets falsely labeled Kelley as a Muslim convert, member of a pro-Bernie Sanders group and a radical with ties to ANTIFA. Millions of people read the Google feed and the misinformation and speculation shaped perceptions while failing to provide verifiable facts.
Google’s had other issues with false or misleading information appearing in search results. Originally meant to answer common questions from consumers, Google’s ‘answer box’ is powered by websites ranking on the first page for specific searches⁸. The ‘rich snippet’ or ‘position zero,’ as it’s also commonly known, helps power voice searches on mobile devices and Google Home. While only 15 to 20 percent of all Google searches currently return a featured snippet, the impact can be significant. Earlier this year, prominent search engine marketer, Danny Sullivan, noticed that select Google searches were returning clearly false results, including the idea that Barack Obama was attempting a government coup d’état. ALT-right news sites like Breitbart also generated unfounded results, including the accusation that Hillary Clinton is an alcoholic. The questionable sources can originate across the political, socio-economic and geographic spectrum, making it difficult for Google to identify and remove erroneous results, but that doesn’t make the issue any less important to address.
Originally known for posting pictures of flowers, weddings and gardens, Pinterest has broadened its userbase significantly. Unfortunately, with growth comes opportunity for misuse. While Pinterest is an image-centric website, it’s not immune to manipulation. For example, many people turn to Pinterest for healthy lifestyle advice and information. Unfortunately, Pinterest is chock-full of misleading information, ranging from miracle cures to warnings about common ingredients that can kill you⁹. One popular pin saved to 16,000 boards suggested vitamin B17 is a viable cancer treatment, when in fact it can kill in high dosages due to cyanide levels. Another pin claims Alkaline water kills cancer. The Washington Post reported Pinterest was also inundated with bogus election-oriented content by the Russians.
No platform is immune.
Social media platforms are not the only targets of hostile hackers and opportunistic hucksters. Even a highly-trusted marketplace like Google Play Store has been compromised. For a brief time in early November, anyone attempting to download WhatsApp for Android from the Google Play Store may have been duped into adding a fake app¹⁰. While the fake app provided WhatsApp functionality, it buried users in advertising. The creators of the app utilized a few simple tricks, including an identical icon, similar-looking company name and copy to convince hapless visitors to download. The app could have contained more malicious malware or otherwise compromised phones, should the criminals decided to go that route. Fortunately, that was not the case; unfortunately, nearly one million people downloaded the fake app before it was deleted from the store.
Because of all of the questionable content on ‘trusted’ platforms over the past year or so, US internet users are more jaded about the information sources from which they consume content. In a recent HubSpot study, most US respondents indicated they distrust the top three platforms nearly equally: 59 percent of Facebook users find the platform to be at least somewhat untrustworthy, compared to 55 percent of Google and 58 percent of Twitter users¹¹.
President Trump hit on something when he ‘coined’ the phrase ‘fake news’. Although his definition centers on what he sees as unfriendly media outlets, the reality is much worse: popular search engines, social media platforms and even apps are not to be trusted at face value, without a much closer look.
While the old adage says you must ‘always trust, but verify,’ I would suggest a modification to more effectively navigate information sources in today’s Mis-Information Age: verify, then trust, and even then, do so with a grain of salt.
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