Jewish Americans and other minority social and religious groups are likely to be the primary targets of disinformation and computational propaganda campaigns leading up to the 2020 United States presidential election, according to new research by the Institute for the Future (IFTF).
The research, “The Human Consequences of Computational Propaganda,” released last week, reveals how these groups were specifically targeted during the 2018 midterm elections. It also shows why the targeting of these groups will continue, and potentially worsen, in 2020.
“In 2020, what we hypothesize is that social groups, religious groups and issue-voting groups will be the primary target” of this kind of activity, Samuel Woolley, director of IFTF’s Digital Intelligence Lab, told the online news website Buzzfeed.
IFTF originally shared the report, which is now available online and was reviewed by The Jerusalem Post, exclusively with BuzzFeed.
The research, informed by qualitative field work and quantitative social media data analysis into the tactics used to attack and disenfranchise groups, included eight case studies: Muslim Americans, Latinos, moderate Republicans, black women gun owners, environmental activists, pro-choice and pro-life campaigners, immigration activists and Jewish Americans.
The team used the Botometer tool to identify likely automated accounts, and gathered and examined millions of tweets based on hashtags. Then, it combined this data with interviews from members of the eight communities. A Botometer checks the activity of Twitter accounts and scores the likelihood of their being run by bots.
The researchers said they aimed to answer the question: What are the human consequences of computational propaganda?
“The results range from chilling effects and disenfranchisement to psychological and physical harm,” said Woolley and Katie Joseff, the lab’s research director, in their executive summary.
“Computational propaganda does not simply aim to make unpopular opinions appear to be more popular in social media conversation. It silences and splinters under-represented groups integral to the functioning of democracy,” Woolley explained. “It is important to quantify the magnitude of disinformation and bot-driven trolling; but to truly understand the repercussions on the democratic process, we must also focus on the detrimental effects these tactics have on particular social groups and issue voters.”
Specifically, the tactics used in 2018 included targeted political trolling campaigns, bot-driven censorship and intra-group harassment.
Disinformation campaigns were popular against Jewish Americans. These campaigns leveraged age-old stereotypes, such as conspiracies about governmental manipulation of the public and cabals running the world. Jewish Americans told researchers that online conversations about Israel were nothing short of venomous, and that they experienced “coordinated misinformation campaigns conducted by Jewish organizations, trying to propagandize Jews.”
Furthermore, several Jewish Americans reported having been “doxed.” Doxing is the publishing of private or identifying information about a particular individual on the Internet, typically with malicious intent.
The researchers explained that this release of personal information “enables harassers to have an outsized impact on the security and comfort of activists on social media. Doxing can lead to torrents of hate on all social media platforms, private phone numbers and email addresses. It can also facilitate in-person stalking and offline violence.”
Many of the Jewish Americans interviewed said that when they had reported being doxed to social media companies, they received little support. Some interviewees mentioned hiring their own personal security or cybersecurity firms.
Jewish Americans also said they experienced the worst harassment on Facebook, in comparison to Twitter, Reddit or YouTube.
Further, even though bot attacks made up the minority in the studies of Jewish Americans, Muslim Americans, Latinos and moderate Republicans, the researchers found that when bots were used, “they worked to significantly amplify highly partisan or harassing content.”
In 2018, a separate group of researchers cited by IFTF found that automated bot accounts generated one-fifth of the entire conversation about the election on Twitter.
The platforms, meanwhile, mainly met complaints by members of these minority groups with inaction or ineffective action. Through in-person interviews, the research found dozens of people who reported to social media giants incidents of harassment, and received no support. Others said they understood there was so much harassment that it would be almost impossible to block and/or report so many harmful users.
Woolley and Joseff offered recommendations, some of which could be put in place before the US election in November 2020, and some which could have longer-term impact. For starters, they said, the social media giants must start taking responsibility for the content on their platforms.
“Facebook, Twitter, Google and others might have originally envisioned their products as technologies and not media, but they can no longer avoid the fact that the algorithms they have constructed have curated the news and information people use to form understandings of the world,” Woolley and Joseff said. “These companies may argue that they are not the arbiters of truth, but they are certainly mediators and curators of information – and they should be held accountable as such.”
Additionally, they called on policy makers to work closely with these social networks, social scientists and security experts to craft laws that challenge computational propaganda holistically rather than its symptoms.
“It is not feasible to simply ban bots on a site like Twitter or across the web,” the researchers explained. “These tools are infrastructural and play myriad roles online beyond those that are political. A reasonable law might advocate for clear tagging of potentially automated social media profiles in order to mitigate attempts to manipulate, but it should not aim to eradicate the use of automated software on these platforms writ large.
“There will be few easy fixes and quick solutions to this issue,” they continued. “It is time for the US FEC, FTC and FCC to more effectively regulate digital political communications during elections.”
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