Twitter Storms

Twitter's turn for Congressional scrutiny; how organizers can protect themselves from doxxing; and more.

  • An important new study from Oxford’s Computational Propaganda Project, written by Philip Howard, Bence Kollanyi, Samantha Bradshaw and Lisa-Maria Neudert, finds evidence that “low quality political information” on Twitter (aka “junk news”) was shared more in swing states, than non-swing states, during a ten day period at the beginning of November 2016. The study examined 1.275 million tweets that shared a URL and also had location information, categorizing 4/5 of the links shared. It also found that “the number of links to Russian news stories, unverified or irrelevant links to WikiLeaks pages, or junk news was greater than the number of links to professional researched and published news” during that crucial period right before the election. That this happened is disturbing but it doesn’t mean Russia hacked the election in swing states. Anti-Clinton voters might have been more inclined to search for and share anti-Clinton information; we have yet to see proof that “junk news” changed people’s votes, though we suspect it affected some people’s level of enthusiasm about voting.

  • Related: Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) said Twitter’s closed-door presentation to the Intelligence Committee yesterday was “deeply disappointing” and “inadequate on almost every level,” Elizabeth Dwoskin, Adam Entous and Karoun Demirjiam report for The Washington Post. (Warner sounds like a typical Twitter user who has tried to report abusive behavior on the site.) The company said it had identified and shut down 201 accounts that appeared to be tied to Russian operatives who had posted ads on Facebook.

  • Is that all? A study last year by Alessandro Bessi and Emilio Ferrara of the University of Southern California estimated that more than 400,000 Twitter accounts, responsible for about 3.8 million tweets in late September through mid-October 2016, were likely bots, So, the 201 so far identified by Twitter are literally a drop in the bucket.

  • Twitter’s public policy team’s post regarding its presentation to the Intelligence Committess shows the platform is riddled with spam. The company says it catches about 450,000 suspicious logins per day, and last week spotted one source that made “more than 5.7 million spammy follows” last week. “Since June 2017, we’ve suspended more than 117,000 malicious applications for abusing our API, collectively responsible for more than 1.5 billion low-quality Tweets this year,” the Twitter public policy team reports.

  • A fake black activist account connected to the Russian government trolled users on both Facebook and Twitter in an effort to amplify racial tensions prior to the 2016 election, Donie O’Sullivan and Dylan Beyers report for CNN. “The Facebook account had 360,000 likes, more than the verified Black Lives Matter account on Facebook, which currently has just over 301,000,” they note.

  • Life in Facebookistan: The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal captures one of the fundamental contradictions in Mark Zuckerberg’s ongoing defense of Facebook’s impact on politics: He “wants his company’s role in the election to be seen like this: Facebook had a huge effect on voting—and no impact on votes.” He goes on to explain why News Feed, the company’s master product for driving user engagement, could have negative effects on democracy. To wit:

    …let’s just say that one candidate, in a hypothetical election, was very good at driving engagement on Facebook. Perhaps this candidate was hyperbolic and prone to extreme statements that generated controversy. Perhaps this candidate hit hot-button issues and denigrated opponents personally. Perhaps this candidate used the preexisting fractures among the country’s polity to drive a lot of shares and comments, positive and negative. The other candidate in this hypothetical election was more measured. The remarks the candidate made were primarily about policy. The candidate tried to calm the passions of political followers. Does anyone doubt that this candidate’s engagement would not be as good? Now multiply that by all the media that both these candidates generate. Multiply that by the people on Facebook who come to understand that posting an anti-Trump meme gets more engagement than a pro-Clinton meme. The fake news that ran rampant on Facebook was a symptom of a larger issue. The real problem lies at the very heart of Facebook’s most successful product: Perhaps virality and engagement cannot be the basis for a ubiquitous information service that acts as a “force for good in democracy.”


  • Data-wars, continued: The Justice Department is demanding private Facebook account information of three anti-administration activists, CNN reports. One of them, Emmelia Talarico, ran the disruptj20 Facebook page; she says that if the company hands over her information, the government would have access to her “personal passwords, security questions and answers, and credit card information,” plus “the private lists of invitees and attendees to multiple political events sponsored by the page.” The ACLU is fighting the government’s demands in court.

  • NPR’s Philip Ewing reports on ways that online disinformation attacks continue, ranging from spurious interventions in the NFL “take a knee” debate coming from Russian trolls to suspicious Facebook comment patterns on news stories about the German elections.

  • Between July 7 and August 8, the employees of the internet freedom groups Fight for the Future and Free Press were hit with almost 70 “spear-phishing” attacks, all coming from the same attackers, Eva Galperin and Cooper Quintin report in a careful technical analysis for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. They write, “The attackers were remarkably persistent, switching up their attacks after each failed attempt and becoming increasingly creative with their targeting over time.” The good news: using two-factor authentication was an effective countermeasure. (It’s worth noting that the attacks occurred during a period of heavy activity by both groups in support for net neutrality, and at the same time that fraudulent comments on the issue were also flooding the FCC’s docket.) I strongly suggest sharing this article with your colleagues if you need to convince them to taking phishing more seriously.

  • Mobilization Lab’s Rhodesia Allegra offers a useful guide on how to protect yourself from doxxing.

  • This is civic tech: Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code, explains in a New York Times op-ed why she’s decided to “shun” the White House. After initially accepting an invitation from Ivanka Trump to discuss computer science education in the first days of the new administration, she changed her mind after the first travel ban was promulgated, she writes. “Collaborating with this administration, on any issue, emboldens it only further.”

  • The Omidyar Network and Reid Hoffman have each put in $4 million apiece, plus $600,000 from the MacArthur Foundation, to back an engagement campaign led by aimed at young voters called “18 in ’18,” Philip Rojc reports for Inside Philanthropy.