There is now an impeachment inquiry underway against the president of the United States, and today we read a credible complaint from a whistleblower alleging that the president had sought the aid of a foreign nation in interfering with the 2020 election. (We also heard some threatening audio of him discussing the whistleblowing with his staff.) The whistleblower further alleged that the White House had covered it all up by moving the transcript of the request for foreign interference into “a separate system reserved for classified information that is especially sensitive,” as the New York Times described it. That’s a pretty good tech-and-democracy story, but it’s not really our kind of tech-and-democracy story, and so here we are with a newsletter about our kind of tech-and-democracy stories on a day when you could be forgiven for only wanting to read about the whistleblower’s kind.
That’s a long way of saying that I forgive you if you’d like to skip today’s news and instead just read nothing but explainers and Twitter threads about impeachment. It’s kind of the biggest story in the world right now, and it will all play out in new and exciting and probably terrifying ways across all our big social platforms, and if you want to read some speculation on how I’d point you to this savvy Kevin Roose piece on the subject (further excerpted below).
But say you’ve finished your impeachment reading for the day and are eager to luxuriate in a good old-fashioned tale of platform-based information warfare. In that case may I please recommend a new report from researchers at Oxford University on the usage of disinformation campaigns by governments around the world. And usage is ... well, I bet you can guess!
The researchers compiled information from news organizations, civil society groups and governments to create one of the most comprehensive inventories of disinformation practices by governments around the world. They found that the number of countries with political disinformation campaigns more than doubled to 70 in the last two years, with evidence of at least one political party or government entity in each of those countries engaging in social media manipulation.
In addition, Facebook remains the No. 1 social network for disinformation, the report said. Organized propaganda campaigns were found on the platform in 56 countries.
You can read the report yourself here. Personally I found it useful to just read a straightforward guide to the varieties of state-sponsored information attacks — most of which have long been in use, of course, by more garden-variety trolls.
Cyber troops use a variety of communication strategies.
We have categorized these activities into four categories:
(1) the creation of disinformation or manipulated media;
(2) mass-reporting of content or accounts;
(3) data-driven strategies;
(4) trolling, doxing or harassment;
(5) amplifying content and media online.
The creation of disinformation or manipulated media is the most common communication strategy. In 52 out of the 70 countries we examined, cyber troops actively created content such as memes, videos, fake news websites or manipulated media in order to mislead users. Sometimes, the content created by cyber troops is targeted at specific communities or segments of users. By using online and offline sources of data about users, and paying for advertisements on popular social media platforms, some cyber troops target specific communities with disinformation or manipulated media.
Most of these strategies are fairly cheap to employ, which is what can make them so effective. As the Times reporters note, governments around the world are using them for the most obvious of purposes: spreading positive stories about the governments and quashing dissent. Which raises the question: Why aren’t more governments doing this?
I suspect they will soon, if they’re not already. As security researcher Thaddeus E. Grugq wrote about the Oxford study: “120 countries are lying.”
Today in news that could affect public perception of tech platforms.
Trending down: Facebook has raised nearly $1.6 million from SPLC-designated hate groups since May 2018, an investigation found. (Tom McKay / Gizmodo)
Trending down: Part 2 of a Guardian investigation into TikTok’s content moderation policies found that they go much farther than legally required in some countries, banning nearly all depictions of LGBT issues in Turkey. (Alex Hern / The Guardian)
Trending down: Uber stopped its own special investigations team, which fields rider and driver complaints, from reporting crimes to the police. The team also couldn’t advice victims of crimes to seek legal counsel. (Sean O’Kane / The Verge)
⭐ On Tuesday, House Democrats announced they were launching an impeachment inquiry into President Trump. A disinformation campaign started shortly after. Kevin Roose reflects on the first impeachment of the social media era at The New York Times:
As impeachment looms, disinformation experts are bracing for a fresh cyclone of chaos, complete with fast-twitch media manipulation, droves of false and misleading claims, and hyper-polarized audiences fiercely clinging to their side’s version of reality.
“We’ve seen quite a surge in disinformation in the last two days, most of it from trolls and bots, to a degree we haven’t seen in a while,” said Yoel Grinshpon, vice president of research at VineSight, a start-up that detects disinformation on social media. “We assume that this will last a few days, and then come back in waves, whenever a new development in the Biden story or the impeachment process comes to light.”
Facebook faces (!) a new antitrust investigation from the Justice Department, after prodding from Attorney General William Barr). The Justice Department’s case will focus on separate conduct from what the FTC is examining. (David McLaughlin / Bloomberg)
YouTube said it will remove content from politicians if it violates the company’s standards, with the exception of videos that are considered to have educational, news, scientific or artistic value. The move comes after Facebook announced it won’t take down posts from politicians, even if they’re factually inaccurate or violate company guidelines. (Julia Alexander / The Verge)
The Texas attorney general’s office is lawyering up for its probe into possible antitrust violations by Google. They’ve hired a Microsoft veteran and an economist who worked with Google competitors to join the investigation. (Paresh Dave and Diane Bartz / Reuters)
Microsoft is challenging a “secrecy order” from a federal judge that prohibits the company from telling a large corporate customer that the government issued a warrant for their data. The case is part of a years-long battle between Microsoft and the government over “sneak and peek” searches in which the subject of a federal inquiry doesn’t know their data has been requested or turned over. (Dina Bass / Bloomberg)
The young women leading the climate movement — many of them teenagers — are experiencing what seem to be coordinated online harassment, including threatening messages, doxxing and hacking. Greta Thunberg, the 16-year old Swedish activist, is getting the worst of it.
⭐ TikTok’s efforts to localize content moderation has resulted in the app banning content that’s supportive of the gay community, even in countries where homosexuality has never been illegal. The new rules were applied on top of general content moderation guidelines, which included bans against some political speech in China (those guidelines were updated in May). Here’s Alex Hern from The Guardian:
As well as the general moderation guidelines, described as the “loose version” to moderators, TikTok ran at least two other sets.
One, the “strict” guidelines, were used in countries with conservative moral codes, and contained a significantly more restrictive set of rules concerning nudity and vulgarity, which ban, for instance, “partially naked buttocks”, exposed cleavage with “a length of more than 1/3 of the whole cleavage length”, and lengthy depictions of sanitary pads.
The other was a set of guidelines for individual countries, which introduced new rules to deal with specific local controversies – but also further restricted what can be shown. For instance, the Guardian has seen Turkey-specific guidelines in which TikTok explicitly banned a swathe of content related to Kurdish separatism, and adds the country’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and its president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to the list of political leaders who cannot be criticised, defamed or spoofed on the platform.
TikTok’s parent company ByteDance is trying to sell its Western news app, called TopBuzz. The sale could allow ByteDance to focus on growing TikTok even more. (Juro Osawa, Shai Oster, and Carleton English / The Information)
Facebook announced this week that it is developing LiveMaps, a 3D, augmented reality version of the world that could allow users to access virtual assistants and view relevant information about the artificially generated landscapes around them. But if it succeeds, will users be able to opt out of this new (virtual) reality? (Jessica Conditt / Engadget)
Facebook, following Instagram before it, will test hiding Like counts on posts. Facebook’s first test will be in Australia, to start. It began hiding Like counts on Instagram in April, first in Canada, and now in six other countries. (Josh Constine / TechCrunch)
Google removed at least 46 apps from the Play store from iHandy, a major Chinese developer, but won’t say why they did it. Google’s crackdown on Chinese developers is raising concerns about advertising and privacy practices of the Android developers who are based there. (Craig Silverman / BuzzFeed)
Match.com is being sued for allegedly connecting non-paying daters to fake accounts to get them to subscribe. The lawsuit filed against the Match Group — parent company of Tinder and Hinge — alleges Match.com notified daters of messages even after the company detected that the account sending the message was fraudulent. (Ashley Carman / The Verge)
Twitch rebranded for the first time, with a series of colorful new logos that showcase its various identities, and the identities of its users. The new looks runs from a traditional and slightly corporate logo to one that’s an ever-changing rainbow. (Mark Wilson / FastCompany)
Bloomberg’s Zheping Huang was playing the popular new reboot of online multiplayer game World of Warcraft, known as WOW Classic, on its Taiwan server, and noted that the game’s virtual world of Azeroth had become a rallying point for Hong Kong protesters:
Last weekend, as I was leveling up my character in the hyena-occupied Barrens region of Azeroth, I heard the over-and-back rallying cry commonly chanted by Hong Kong protesters:
“Liberate Hong Kong,” a thief shouted.
“Revolution of our times,” replied a sorcerer.
Huang reached the same conclusion I did. “When there’s room for dialogue, there’s more scope for understanding,” he writes. “Even if it can only take place in Azeroth.”