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coordinated inauthentic behavior

Three Easy Ways to Spot Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior Online

After spending almost a year tracking coordinated inauthentic behavior on behalf of Facebook and Google, I’ve developed a good sense of how an inauthentic social media user looks and acts online. 

Each platform has its own nuances. But many universal patterns indicate the likelihood of coordinated activity. Here I’ll discuss three common indicators – and how you can effectively spot them across any social media platform. 

But first, let’s take a look at what coordinated inauthentic behavior actually means. We’ll also briefly explore some controversy around its definition.

What is coordinated inauthentic behavior?

Two years ago, Facebook first coined the phrase ‘coordinated inauthentic behavior’ (known in the industry as CIB).

Facebook defines CIB as follows:  “When groups of pages or people work together to mislead others about who they are or what they’re doing.”

Facebook (and other platforms) are keen to highlight the ‘behavior’ side of the phrase. This helps to shield the platform from accusations of being biased against any particular political ideology.

People would be quick to make those accusations if Facebook simply focused on removing inauthentic content. It would raise the question of which content should get removed and which should stay. This would trigger wider concerns about freedom of speech and the First Amendment.  

The double standards controversy

Writing for Slate, Harvard researcher Evelyn Douek is concerned that Facebook’s definition of coordinated inauthentic behavior is lacking in clarity.

She argues that certain groups will consider certain kinds of CIB acceptable, whereas others will not. Douek draws on the example of the TikTok video that caused hundreds of young people to artificially inflate attendance numbers at a Donald Trump rally by reserving tickets en masse.

Douek contrasts that real-life scenario with a hypothetical example of Qanon supporters doing the same to Joe Biden. She highlights the risk of applying double standards to CIB, as well as to disinformation.

That’s a real concern, especially in deeply polarized times. Polarization is the key driving force behind this issue. We assume that ‘our’ side is doing good, while ‘their’ side is doing bad. That view influences how we judge the motives of coordinated inauthentic behavior. 

For the purpose of this post, we’ll use the official CIB definition. It’s still the standard that most social media platforms use. But it’s important to know that the term is not perfect, and has attracted controversy.

Is coordinated inauthentic behavior the same as misinformation or disinformation?

No. But they certainly play a role in it. For example, members of a Twitter botnet might work together to constantly pump out and amplify misleading tweets about a political figure.

Or groups of paid operatives might enter Facebook groups and astroturf the discussion about coronavirus by posting lots of comments about the dangers of vaccines. Astroturfing is a common technique of CIB, i.e. to create an appearance of legitimate ‘grassroots’ consensus on certain topics. 

OK, I’ve answered some key questions about coordinated inauthentic behavior. Now let’s look at three ways to spot it.

What are some key indicators of coordinated inauthentic behavior?

Identity Signaling

The concept of identity is at the heart of many coordinated inauthentic behavior and disinformation efforts. CIB campaigns often play on existing social and political divisions within their target audience.

For example, they might astroturf a widespread sense of approval for a certain government policy, such as a tougher stance on immigration. Immigration is an emotive issue for many people, and has the potential to drive ingroup vs outgroup sentiments.

When examining accounts for signs of inauthenticity, I consider overt identity signals, especially political ones, to be a red flag. These could include national flags, divisive political hashtags (e.g. #MAGA (make America great again) or #FBPE (follow back pro-Europe)), or a bio stuffed with identity-promoting keywords like “Army vet, patriot, Trump supporter, family man, God lover”.

Taken together, those signs indicate that the profile primarily exists to promote a certain political identity – a common giveaway of astroturfing or coordinated inauthentic behavior.

Copy Paste Sharing

It’s common to find groups of accounts sharing links or posts accompanied by the exact same text (e.g. in a quoted tweet or a Facebook share). This isn’t normal behavior for an ‘organic’ social media user, so it’s a suspicious sign.

Copy paste sharing usually indicates a campaign designed to amplify a certain message. It is likely that Twitter accounts constantly tweeting the same messages in tandem are automated (i.e. bots).

Aggressive Political Agenda

When I’m seeking signs of coordinated inauthentic behavior, I always examine the posting history of a social media account. I check whether all its posts support a specific political agenda (usually in an aggressive and antagonistic way). If so, that’s another red flag.

Sure, regular people can also post aggressively in support of a political agenda. But it’s less likely that those posts will make up the whole of their posting history. A one-topic account is a key sign of coordinated inauthentic behavior. 

Summary

In this post we examined the origins of the term ‘coordinated inauthentic behavior’. Also, we explored one of the key debates around the validity of its definition. Finally, we looked at three simple ways to spot coordinated inauthentic behavior on social media platforms.

  • First, I looked at identity signaling, where accounts project a strong sense of a certain identity (usually political) via profile hashtags, profile imagery, bio information, or posting history. 
  • Second, I discussed copy paste posting, where multiple accounts share something with the exact same accompanying text. This is often a sign of automated coordinated inauthentic behavior. 
  • Finally, I highlighted the significance of one-topic accounts that support a certain political agenda, usually in an aggressive way.

What’s the Difference Between Disinformation and Misinformation?

What’s the difference between disinformation and misinformation?

(I get asked this question a lot, so I thought it was time to write about it).

The difference between disinformation and misinformation lies in the presence of intent.  

The Difference Between Disinformation and Misinformation

Let’s look at a couple of examples to understand the difference between disinformation and misinformation.

Misinformation encompasses a wide range of misleading content, from rumour to satire to human error. However, there’s a crucial difference: misinformation doesn’t acknowledge intent.  

Disinformation, on the other hand, has a more specific and sinister meaning. Disinformation is created with an intention to deceive.

For example, a disinformation campaign could involve a doctored video. It could consist of a political candidate’s gaffes, spliced together to imply that he has dementia.

Malinformation and Fake News

We also have malinformation. This is information based on reality, used maliciously to harm its target.

The target could be an individual, a country or an organisation. The 2016 leak of Hillary Clinton’s private emails is one such example of malinformation.

Finally, the one everyone knows best: fake news.

Donald Trump popularised the term in 2016 (although Hillary Clinton was apparently the first to use it).

However, disinformation researchers prefer not to use it, as it is both politicised and imprecise. ‘Fake news’ unhelpfully conflates the three primary types of misleading information already mentioned.  

New digital technology means that misleading online content shifts and evolves rapidly. There are other subcategories of dubious online content worth knowing about. Here’s a rundown.

Other Misleading Information

Satire

Satire has existed for thousands of years. It highlights failings in society and politics using humour, irony, sarcasm or mockery.

Shakespeare often used satire in his work. For example, in Hamlet, he pointed out that royalty is not always fit to run a country properly. Now in the internet age, satirical news websites have become popular, such as The Onion and NewsThump.

But it’s not always clear where satire ends and disinformation begins. It’s easy for political news websites to spread divisive narratives under the guise of satire. The limited attention spans of most online news audiences make it even easier.

In fact, many social media users will share partisan political content that triggers their tribal instincts. They may not notice that it comes from a website that has a ‘satire’ disclaimer. 

Manipulated Images  

Images have a more immediate impact than text, making them an effective tool in disinformation. Manipulation of images is easy with freely available online tools, or Photoshop, and can look very convincing.

Genuine images can be used in misleading contexts, such as during the Westminster Bridge terrorist attack of 2017.

In this case, a Twitter account later attributed to the Kremlin shared an image of a woman wearing a hijab. The tweet included a hostile caption claiming that the woman was ignoring injured victims.

Designed to trigger anti-Muslim sentiments, alt-right influencers shared the tweet. It garnered thousands of retweets and likes. But although the image was genuine, the context was not.  

Deepfakes

As a new form of disinformation, deepfakes have attracted a lot of hype in the last couple of years. These AI-generated images are a type of synthetic media where one person’s face and/or voice replaces the face/voice of another.

A deepfake can make it look like a person is saying something they’re not. This has many obvious use cases for disinformation. So far, porn has been the main area where deepfakes are being used. But in a handful of cases they’ve played a role in disinformation efforts.  

We may have overstated the immediate risk of deepfakes. But they do have potential to upend the information environment. My biggest concern is that deepfakes would destroy the notion of absolute truth.

Once upon a time a taped voice recording would hold up in court (e.g. Watergate). In later years, CCTV footage became the absolute truth. But a world in which deepfakes are prevalent would no longer have an absolute truth. It would cast doubt on every possible form of recorded evidence.

Shallowfakes and Cheapfakes

In addition to deepfakes, we need to consider shallowfakes, also known as ‘cheapfakes’. People create these doctored videos without the help of fancy AI tools, using simple video editing software.

Shallowfakes are far more common than their AI-generated cousins. And social media platforms seem to overlook them. Facebook, for example, only bans doctored videos made with AI, i.e. deepfakes.

In February 2020, shallowfakes caused quite a stir. A video circulated on social media showing Nancy Pelosi shredding a copy of Donald Trump’s speech during his state of the union address.

Memes

The word ‘meme’ has become synonymous with random humorous cultural images superimposed with chunky white text. Below, a small selection of my recent COVID-19-related favourites.

Distracted boyfriend antivaxxer disinformation meme
Hannibal Lecter in mask COVID-19 meme
Meme about failed plans in 2020

In fact, the word ‘meme’ can refer to any piece of cultural content (video, image, song, article, etc) that social media users spread virally. (That typical chunky text/image combo that we all call a meme is actually known as an ‘image macro’).

Meme creators often use the image macro format to convey partisan political sentiments. Both sides of the political spectrum shared inflammatory memes during the 2016 US presidential campaign.

Alt-right supporters also used the same format to spread some highly offensive views, such as racism and anti-semitism in ‘Pepe the Frog’ memes.

Image macro political memes are generally hyper-partisan in nature and play a role in perpetuating conflict between opposing groups (e.g. Democrats and Republicans).

Image macro meme of Hillary Clinton disinformation

Memes are totally devoid of any nuanced explanation. The viewer gets a quick hit of emotion that has a triggering effect. This taps into an oversimplified outrage that has become a core feature of today’s political life online. 

AI-Generated Voiceovers 

These are a bit weird and random. During a recent project for YouTube, I discovered some strange videos spreading false information about COVID-19.

The voiceover didn’t sound human at all. It was robotic and monotone, as if reading from a text. I don’t know their official name, if they have one at all, but perhaps something to keep an eye on.

From Disinformation to Misinformation (and back again?)

In closing, I’ve been thinking about this question: Does content shift from disinformation to misinformation as it travels across the internet? 

Malicious intent defines disinformation. Could a piece of content shift between definitions according to the intention of the most recent individual who shared it?  

For example, a person shares a narrative in their local Facebook group, claiming COVID-19 is curable with megadoses of bleach. It’s been debunked, of course, but (somehow) the person doesn’t know.

They innocently think they’re helping their network by passing on ‘valuable’ health information that might help cure the virus. They don’t intend to deceive. So shouldn’t we class it as misinformation?

Let’s say that same piece of content originated in a troll farm. Its creators intended it to deceive populations and compromise public health efforts. It started life as disinformation

We could say the same for conspiracy theories. These are often spread by ‘true believers’ – genuinely invested in their mission to enlighten the ‘sheeple’ and save the world.

Are they being malicious if they believe it’s all true? Does that still count as disinformation? It would be easier to make this distinction if we could reliably trace the content back to its source. But that’s not always easy to do. 

Those who create disinformation know how to take advantage of natural human biases and triggers. In many cases, it’s enough to simply ‘seed’ harmful disinformation into the social media stream. Ordinary social media users will then do the heavy lifting. Therein lies much of the danger. 

Social Proof and Online Manipulation

What is social proof?

Every day, countless online sources compete for our attention. The concept of social proof can help us cut through the noise. In this post, I’ll explain how it works, and discuss how it can be gamed.

To avoid information overload and possible burnout, it’s essential to zero in on the important parts and sort them into categories that make sense. But how do we know which parts are important?

The human brain uses many shortcuts to understand the complex world around us. In social proof, we use the approval of others as a shortcut. We evaluate the significance and quality of a piece of information based on how many other people like it.

Social proof is part of the psychology of persuasion, used to great effect by marketers and PR specialists. We rely on it all the time when making consumer decisions.

On Amazon, for example, customer reviews are a shortcut to guide us when choosing between a large number of possible products to purchase.

A quick glance at the reviews allows us to avoid wasting time and energy conducting our own research on various products.

We also rely on social proof when judging the importance of a message on social media.

Almost instinctively, we tend to evaluate a post with many likes or shares more favourably. We assume a lot of other people have already approved of it, so we’re happy to jump on the bandwagon.

But relying too heavily on these shortcuts may leave us vulnerable to the risk of them being manipulated.

Manipulating Social Proof

Social engagement

It’s easy to convey social proof on social media. Liking, favouriting or upvoting is the quickest and most basic form of online social proof.

When we see a post with lots of likes, we instinctually view that information as important.

The act of online sharing also taps into social proof. If other people believe a post is worth sharing, then it must be of value. We may decide to share it too. This can easily lead us into the trap of sharing disinformation.

Example of social proof in a false tweet about Britney Spears
Hackers break into Sony Music account and tweet falsely about death of Britney Spears

But online likes and shares are also pretty easy to game. On Twitter, for example, a few lines of code can produce a bot that can automatically favourite a tweet containing a particular keyword (which can be anything).

A large network of automated accounts can then mass favourite (or mass retweet) any tweet, giving it a false appearance of significance, via artificial social proof.

Another way to convey social proof is via the user profile itself. Twitter is the most obvious example of this. We perceive users with more followers as being more important than those with fewer followers. The followers provide social proof, like an exclusive club.

In contrast, when an account has many friends (accounts it has followed) but few followers, it diminishes the effect of social proof. Again, you can use automated accounts to game this.

By mass following an account and then following each other back, it is possible to create the illusion of an account being popular.

Amazon reviews

Social media isn’t the only place where gaming social proof happens. It also happens across the web, in areas such as online shopping. Take Amazon, which has hundreds of options for anything we want to buy.

How do we know which ones are worth buying? We rely on the ratings and reviews from other buyers.

Ratings and reviews are a form of social proof for products, acting as an essential shortcut for navigating through the mass of available options.

You can even filter search results by the number of rating stars each product has gained. Ratings directly affect the seller’s bottom line. For Amazon’s third-party sellers, ratings can make or break their business.

This random product has great ratings. It looks enticing, but how many are actually genuine?

This is prime territory for gaming. And Amazon’s fake review economy is massive and growing.

Trending topics

Trending topics are another major area where social proof holds sway. The trending topics list shows whatever keywords or hashtags people are tweeting most widely at any point in time.

Whenever big news breaks – such as a terrorist attack, plane crash or celebrity death – it usually appears immediately in Twitter’s trending topics, often before the mainstream media can produce coverage.

There’s a strong incentive to game trending topics. For individual tweeters, tweeting using a keyword or hashtag from the trending list makes their tweet more visible.

It’s common to see Twitter accounts for brands ‘hashtag-jacking’ (or ‘trend-jacking’). This is where brand managers (or spammers) shoehorn the trending hashtag into the tweet, to get their brand in front of a larger audience.

Hashtag-jacking can be done skilfully, if the hashtag is relevant to the brand, but it tends to be the domain of spammers.

This is gaming trending topics on a relatively small scale. But things become more insidious when you take into account bot armies. In these cases, a large number of artificial accounts, perhaps controlled by just one person (the ‘bot herder’), tweet coordinated messages around the same hashtag.

Done properly, this can push the hashtag into the trending topics list, where human users will engage with it, giving it further mileage. It’s an effective way to mainline disinformation into the public arena.

The ultimate goal of gaming social proof in tweets is for mainstream media to pick up the false story. With so many journalists using Twitter to find potential stories, this is not so difficult to achieve.

Google search results

Lastly, we’ll take a quick look at the effects of social proof in Google search results. When searching for something, most internet users don’t click beyond beyond the first page of Google.

So the higher your link shows up, the more likely it is to be influential. SEO experts make a lot of money out of getting client links onto the first page of Google results. What’s more, we are more likely to trust links that show up higher in search results.

Google’s PageRank algorithms work in mysterious ways. The company is constantly adapting to make them harder to manipulate. But it’s still possible to game Google search.

For example, reputation management companies create a large amount of positive content, to help clients push negative articles off the first page of Google.

This happens in politics too. In the run-up to the UK’s general election of 2019, people speculated that Boris Johnson’s campaign team may have gamed Google by seeding bizarre stories about him to make negative coverage less prominent in searches.

In 2016, extremist websites manipulated Google search to make their hate filled propaganda, such as Holocaust denial, rank highly in search. Although Google later fixed this, savvy disinformation purveyors can still find ways to leverage its power to deceive vast swathes of the population.

Social proof: Key takeaways

We should not ignore social proof. It is both a cornerstone of how we navigate the online environment and a prime factor for manipulation.

Social proof is not just on social media. People use it all over the internet, from Amazon reviews to Twitter trends. Even Google search results, which many people trust more than social media, can be gamed.

The best way forward is to keep the concept of social proof in mind when engaging with online content. In particular, think about who might have an incentive to make the article or post that you’re reading look popular.

psychology of disinformation

How Disinformation Hacks Your Brain

Today I’m going to explain how disinformation hacks your brain.

In our fast-moving online world, even the most aware of us can be taken in by disinformation. As humans, our minds work in certain ways that can leave us vulnerable to deception – and no-one is immune.

Our perceptions are not as reliable as we might like to imagine, and the online environment amplifies these flaws. In this post, I’ll discuss five important psychological traits that dictate how disinformation hacks your brain.

5 Ways Disinformation Hacks Your Brain

Confirmation Bias

Search engines give us access to all the world’s information simply by typing a few words into a search bar.

Because of confirmation bias, people tend to search only for information that reinforces their beliefs. Furthermore, even if what they find is disinformation, the effect of confirmation bias makes them less likely to question its veracity.

For example, let’s take someone who already dislikes Donald Trump. Perhaps they might search Google for “why is Trump still president?”

This search produces a slew of articles critical of Trump, feeding into the person’s existing beliefs. Consequently, this becomes a vulnerable moment during which disinformation can easily find a foothold in the mind.

Social Proof

The term ‘social proof’ was first used by Robert Cialdini in his seminal marketing book, Influence. It’s a way of building trust in a person, a product or a message, by demonstrating that many people approve of it.

The bandwagon effect is the motivating force driving social proof. It dictates that if something seems popular, people will feel compelled to join in.

Social proof is especially important in today’s environment of information overload. Because there are so many options available to us, we need a shortcut to help us cut through the noise and determine which ones to trust.

For marketers, social proof is an essential tool. It’s also a powerful weapon in the arsenal of disinformation. Devices such as bots play a major role in building social proof around certain messages, including false ones.

Liking, sharing and replying to these messages creates an illusion of widespread approval, which attracts more people to trust them. This may snowball, causing the message to go viral.

There’s a lot more to say about the role of social proof in disinformation. I’ll explore it in more detail in a follow up post. For now, remember that it’s easy to fake online popularity, so likes and retweets aren’t always a reliable indicator of grassroots public opinion.

The Consensus Effect

We like to think that many other people share our beliefs, preferences, values and habits, even when that’s not actually the case. Behavioural psychology calls this overestimation the false consensus effect. It relates to our self-esteem and the desire to conform as part of a social group, meaning we need to fit in.

Online, the false consensus effect is amplified in two main ways:

  • By means of algorithms that show us opinions reflecting our own (filter bubble effect),
  • By our habit of engaging only with others who support our views (echo chamber effect).

Disinformation that taps into the false consensus effect can find a fertile environment to take root, grow and mutate. Social media helps this happen. No matter how convinced you are of a certain view, you should never forget that other people may well think differently.

Tribalism

Humans are social animals. Consequently, gaining the approval of a likeminded group is important for boosting our self-esteem. We reinforce this sense of self-esteem by behaving in ways that favour our own group (known as the in-group).

For example, we might post on social media about the positive traits of our in-group, which is relatively harmless in itself. However, every in-group needs an out-group.

Furthermore, where there’s in-group loyalty there may also be out-group derogation – negative attitudes and behaviour towards the out-group. This conflict between groups of all kinds is a form of tribalism. It plays a huge role in how disinformation hacks your brain.

In emotive issues like politics, which tap into aspects of people’s identities, tribalism can morph into a force of dangerous power. Violence can easily follow. In fact, tribalism is the driving force behind many human conflicts.

Disinformation leverages the human tendency for tribalism by creating and disseminating adversarial narratives. These inflame existing divisions, creating a sense of ‘us vs them’. We can observe many cases of this in recent political events.

Examples include Trump supporters vs Clinton supporters in the US, Leavers vs Remainers in the UK, Muslims vs Buddhists in Myanmar, Han fans vs Tsai fans in Taiwan’s recent presidential election.

The Backfire Effect

You might expect people would stop believing in disinformation if they are told it’s untrue. This seems logical, however human psychology doesn’t always work that way. The root of the problem is found (once again) in our self-esteem.

Furthermore, when certain beliefs become embedded in our worldview, they also become part of our identity. If one of those beliefs is challenged, it’s as if someone is shaking up the very foundations of that identity.

Challenges to our identity can be psychologically painful. In response, we may cling tighter to the original belief, making it even stronger. The attempt to correct backfires, therefore this process is known as the backfire effect.

Summary: How Disinformation Hacks Your Brain

  • Human psychology makes us susceptible to disinformation
  • In a world of information overload, we seek shortcuts to help us navigate. However, these can be gamed, such as social proof.
  • Much of online behaviour has its roots in aspects of self-esteem and identity.
  • Simply ‘debunking’ disinformation may not be effective, due to the backfire effect.
  • Adversarial narratives are a common feature of disinformation, found in many situations worldwide. They can lead to tribalism, which risks real-life violence.