‘Source hacking’, distraction-driven misinformation, and the psychology of disinformation

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Edited by Marco Nurra


The US protests have shown just how easily our information ecosystem can be manipulated. Following the killing of George Floyd, who died after three Minneapolis police officers kneeled on his handcuffed body, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets around the world. At the center of their demands was justice for Black people who have died in police custody, and alternative criminal justice systems. In the US, several accompanying narratives and false rumors were heavily discussed online. But focusing on protest attendees who do not care about addressing police brutality distracted from the demands of organizers who do. Misinformation researchers have coined the term “source hacking” to describe the process by which “media manipulators target journalists and other influential public figures to pick up falsehoods and unknowingly amplify them to the public.” The nature of the news cycle and the way news is reported mean many outlets could not avoid covering these narratives. Internal and external pressures, both financial and professional, would not allow it. As online conversations become increasingly difficult to navigate, news outlets need to be extra cautious about narratives they’re reporting on.

Why do people share misinformation about Covid-19? Partly because they’re distracted. “By demonstrating the role of inattention in the context of Covid-19 misinformation (rather than politics), our results suggest that partisanship is not, apparently, the key factor distracting people from considering accuracy on social media. Instead, the tendency to be distracted from accuracy on social media seems more general. […] The finding that people are inattentive to accuracy even when making judgments about sharing content related to a global pandemic raises important questions about the nature of the social media ecosystem,” writes researchers led by Gordon Pennycook in their last paper.

How does our psychology make us more vulnerable to misinformation? The psychology of misinformation — the mental shortcuts, confusions, and illusions that encourage us to believe things that aren’t true — can tell us a lot about how to prevent its harmful effects. Our psychology is what affects whether corrections work, what we should teach in media literacy courses, and why we’re vulnerable to misinformation in the first place. It’s also a fascinating insight into the human brain. First Draft explains the major psychological concepts that relate to misinformation, its correction, and prevention.

The little things — pop-ups, notifications, warnings — work to fight fake news, new evidence shows. In 2017, Facebook released a set of “Tips to spot false news.” Developed in collaboration with First Draft, the tips were “promoted at the top of users’ news feeds in 14 countries in April 2017 and printed in full-page newspaper advertisements in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Mexico, and India. “These tips are therefore almost surely the most widely disseminated digital media literacy intervention conducted to date,” write the authors of a study published this week in PNAS. The researchers tested the effectiveness of these tips on audiences in the U.S. and India — and found that they worked.

Top Brazil newspaper in pro-democracy drive as unease grows about Bolsonaro. One of Brazil’s leading newspapers has launched a major pro-democracy campaign as unease grows about the threat many fear Jair Bolsonaro and his most militant supporters pose to the country’s political future. Unveiling the initiative on Sunday, the Folha de São Paulo said systematic attacks from pro-Bolsonaro extremists were putting Brazilian democracy through its greatest “stress test” since the return of civilian rule in 1985.

Brazilian fact-checkers warn their country’s ‘fake news’ bill will do more harm than good. Brazilian fact-checkers said a bill passed Tuesday intended to combat disinformation will create a massive surveillance network and make it more difficult to do their work. “The Brazilian Law on Freedom, Responsibility and Transparency on the Internet” would require messaging platforms like WhatsApp to keep a database of highly forwarded messages for up to three months. The database would be accessible by a court order, and proponents argue it’s key to both tracking the spread of disinformation and holding disinformers accountable. The bill also requires Brazilians to show photo identification to access their social media accounts. “If you’re a researcher, if you are a politician, if you are a regular person who wants to engage with verified content … you might be targeted for engaging in whatever an authority feels that might be against its honor,” Tai Nalon, founder of Brazilian fact-checking organization Aos Fatos, said.

Iran sentences journalist to death for fanning unrest. Ruhollah Zam was found guilty of “corruption on earth”, one of the country’s most serious offences, a judiciary spokesman said. He ran the Amadnews website, a popular anti-government forum which Iran accuses of inciting the nationwide protests of 2017-18. The news network, which has around 1.4m followers on encrypted messaging app Telegram, shared videos of protests and damaging information about Iranian officials. Zam had been living in exile in France, but was arrested last year. It is unclear how Zam came to be arrested. He had been granted political asylum in France, having been imprisoned in Iran after the disputed 2009 presidential election.

Why news organizations’ move to capitalize ‘Black’ is a win. On June 19, AP became the latest media organization to change its policy to capitalize “Black” when the word is used in “a racial, ethnic or cultural context.” The shift in sensibilities over time is significant. In the past century, references to people of African descent have gone from “negro” to “colored” to “Afro-American” to “black” and “African American.” And those are just the more widely accepted terms.

Citizen journalists are documenting COVID in the world’s conflict zones to stop disinformation. In conflict zones, fake news is rife. A new project uses citizen journalists to report vital coronavirus stories and technology to help identify misleading sources of information. The project will use team of journalists in the U.S and Europe, connected with a growing network of citizen journalists on the ground, who are the key to finding nuanced stories and reporting in “nonpermissive” places where it’s hard for Western journalists to report, due to ongoing violence, war, terrorism, geopolitical crises, or generally inhospitable environments.

In COVID-19 coverage, female experts are missing. “Not only are women being passed over and ignored, but also we’re getting people that don’t know what they’re doing supporting decision makers,” said Caroline Buckee, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “By having these very loud, usually male, voices in the media touting expertise when they don’t have it,” she added, “that risks undermining the public trust in science itself.”

The New York Times is opting out of Apple News. A giant potential audience isn’t good enough on its own anymore: “It’s time to re-examine all of our relationships with the big platforms,” New York Times COO Meredith Levien told Ken Doctor. “And we’re reexamining them on three axes that are all interrelated, but different with each of the players.” Levien’s three questions are: What role does the company play in helping bring audiences to the Times?; What role does this company play in helping us do the main thing we’re trying to do? Which is scale direct relationships with people and get them to form a habit and ultimately pay; What’s the value equation? “All three of those things really matter,” says Levien. “At this moment, it doesn’t make sense for us to participate in Apple News anymore.”

(Image via Pixabay)