Editor of the Monday Note
When fake news will be made by pros
Storyful employees debunking fake news using cutting edge technologies. (Photo: Nasa)
A funny game. A scary conclusion: today’s social tools, put in capable hands, make false information very hard to detect and extraordinarily damaging.
On November 8–9 in Phoenix, AZ, Google held its annual Newsgeist “unconference” a gathering where 200+ guests have the opportunity to put any topic up for discussion. It’s a productive and inclusive way to engage conversations on burning issues. Sometimes fun, always instructive.
One session in particular piqued my interest: “Let’s build (then break) a disinformation campaign.” Sixteen of us found themselves in a room at the Arizona State University to play this evil game. Mandy Jenkins was the moderator. She is the head of news at Storyful, a social news, and verification service. Newsgeist operates under Chatham House Rule, which means the content can be mentioned, but without attribution to any person or organization (I asked Mandy the permission to recount the little exercise she submitted us to, but I won’t name the participants).
We made four groups of four people and were given the following assignment: “You are going to propagate a disinformation campaign claiming former vice-president Joe Biden had been embroiled in a sexual harassment case that was secretly settled”. The goal: being the most efficient possible at spreading the news; making it long lasting and remanent to cause a maximum damage before a likely debunking.
With these four groups in the room, it became a fun exercise — and a scary one. Twenty minutes later, we debriefed.
In random order, here are some of the tactics that emerged. A team came up with the idea of writing the story about Biden’s secret settlement on an obscure blog, unlikely to be surfaced by Google or anyone else, and leave it there for six months or so. The benefit is to be in a position to say later, “Look! The story was there; it was willfully ignored by the mainstream media!…” A guaranteed delight for right-winger conspiracy theorists, a tasty morsel sure to land in every Facebook page.
Another group focused on Twitter, the vector of choice for such a campaign. It suggested the spread of an enigmatic statement: “If the victim hadn’t been a woman of color, the story would have come out…”. This was aimed at rallying groups like Black Lives Matter or the ACLU, hoping to (even briefly) add confusion. Hashtags were to be launched, hijacking #metoo and mixing with #IwasBidened, or #CreepyUncleJoe distributed with scores of pictures (found by all teams), of senator, then VP Joe Biden in ambiguous situations with women.
My favorite ploy was relying on classic journalistic techniques, concocted by a remarkably creative young woman in my group: “…What if the settlement had been done in bitcoins to ensure its anonymity”, she suggested. “Then we call every crypto-currency specialist as well as sexual harassment lawyers to "naively" ask how it could be done in practice, if they had heard of precedents where sexual predators used bitcoins, etc. Tech reporters inevitably hear about our inquiries, they swallow the bait and, soon, everyone jumps on the story, which spreads super fast…” Such defamation always causes a lot of damage to the subject’s reputation before it can be shot down. That’s how slander works.