A “handful” versus a hundred in Houston

A “handful” versus a hundred in Houston

There’s a good chance you’ve already seen this story about Russian trolls behind a “Stop Islamization of Texas” protest in May 2016: “Organizers behind armed white supremacist protest in Houston revealed as Russian,” from ThinkProgress.

The original CNN story referred to in that piece is here (“Stoking Islamophobia and secession in Texas — from an office in Russia”); a link to a local Houston TV station’s video from the protest is here.

I read the original story last night (and the Twitterverse’s reaction to it), read it again this morning, and also took a look at the original CNN story and the video.

That’s when I thought something was off.

First, the lede to the ThinkProgress story:

Last May, nearly 100 demonstrators gathered around the Islamic Da’wah Center in downtown Houston, squaring off against one another in competing camps.

I can’t be the only person who quickly glanced at this story and immediately thought something like “wow, “the Russians” got 100 armed white supremacists out via one of these dumbass Facebook groups – that’s better than a dozen.” Actually, in chatting with a few other journos, I know I’m not.

But take a look at the lede to the original CNN story (emphasis mine):

On May 21 2016, a handful of people turned out to protest the opening of a library at an Islamic Center in Houston, Texas. Two held up a banner proclaiming #WhiteLivesMatter. A counter-protest began across the street; video shows a noisy but non-violent confrontation. 

OK. Now take a look at the actual video from the protest. You can see the white supremacist protesters at around 0:12 and 0:13 in front of the brick building; the counter-protesters are the larger group across the street.

That’s a handful, not a hundred. And phrasing your lede in a way that many readers will interpret as ‘a hundred’ armed white supremacist protesters is….yeah.

Listen, the Kremlin (or ‘the Russians,’ however we want to obsequiously phrase it) meddled in the 2016 election, just as they have and continue to do in other countries. But there’s this wave of coverage coming out of the US these days that’s hard to stomach, a wave that either assumes every single little thing they did has had a real impact – or worse, conveniently never bothers to ask the question in the first place. We can sex up our stories to ride the Russia wave, but it’s not going to make any of us look cooler once we get back to shore.

 

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Twitter’s ‘Block Brigade’ is a Real Problem

Twitter’s ‘Block Brigade’ is a Real Problem

A piece co-written with Bradley Jardine, a Scottish journalist based in Moscow.

“I am now ‘the most dangerous pundit in America’” U.S. lobbyist, consultant and self-described information warfare expert Molly McKew tweeted after her Congressional testimony on Sept. 14. “Keep tweeting guys! I’m sure your next check [sic] will show dividends.”

In Twitter’s new hyper-partisan climate, self-proclaimed information warriors like McKew are accusing their sceptical peers, falsely, of ties to the Kremlin. Calls for nuance, in their view, are tantamount to treason.

In this growing conflict, Twitter’s block feature is gaining particular notoriety.

The block function is far from airtight. Users can continue to view their blocker’s newsfeed using Google’s incognito function; some even use multiple Twitter accounts. There isn’t much that can escape the Twitterati grapevines.

Most people use the block to feel safe. It can potentially provide protection from the whole gamut of invasive forces, from prying relatives and spurned lovers to unsolicited dick pics. On its own, it’s largely benign.

But like all benevolent tools, the block can be abused. When used by the new, intrepid class of information warriors, the block is autocratic by nature. For this new generation of dam-builders, it’s a way to cut off contrarian information-flows and stifle debate.

It means shutting out journalists, researchers, analysts and students. The result is not only that they refuse to listen to informed opinion, but that they seal this information off from their thousands of followers too. Like the autocrats they purportedly combat, the information warriors are susceptible to their methods.

collage-2017-09-23
A small sample.

The blocked journalist is by and large apathetic toward the blocker. The realisation of having been blocked is often a source of amusement – a bizarre social ritual of the online community. The blocked and the blocker, trapped in a constellation of social ties, will continue to dance around one another, regardless of whether one another’s existence is acknowledged. In this context, the block is no more anonymising than a Venetian mask at a village orgy.

But it’s insidious. For the well-connected information-warrior, each of whom has upwards of 30,000 followers sharing their opinions, it is a tool of social manipulation. Followers are deprived of debate, and the cult of the charlatan grows unchecked.

Opposing narratives still emerge on the newsfeeds of other users, sure. But what’s missing is interaction. In its place are gated communities, thumb-tapping into the void. Block by block they construct digital fortresses.

But remember, these information warriors aren’t just Twitter personalities. These are people who get invited to conferences, write op-eds and testify before Congressional committees. These are people who have real influence and real power, and a real tendency to wall themselves off from their peers.

And the besieged fortress demands discipline in the ranks. The people outside it are enemies, bloated out of all proportion into grotesque caricatures. “Useful idiots!” the charlatan declares, “Kremlin trolls,” their most resolute disciples chirp in. The chambers echo because they are hollow.

The real problem is that prominent politicians, think-tankers, ambassadors and military leaders are being swept up into the conflict. Without accurate information it’s no wonder there’s a dearth of rational actors.

In this partisan atmosphere, legitimate concerns are said to be motivated by the most crass considerations. They’re doing it for money. They’re in league with the Kremlin. They’re all biscuit-arsed “bros” who don’t like outsiders butting in on their turf. In this cacophony, informed Western journalists are painted as no better than their RT and Sputnik counterparts.

Alarmingly, there are also toxic, xenophobic undertones to the discussion. A discussion that argues “guilt by association,” that journalists in Moscow are somehow tainted by their engagement with Russian culture.

“It’s the soft on Russia model” McKew said during her Congressional hearing. “You especially see it among this middle rank, these Western journalists sort of hanging out in Moscow and others who propagate this narrative of ‘Ok Russia is bad, but America is worse.’”

Rightly, informed analysts separate Russia’s autocratic institutions from its people. Informed analysts acknowledge the problems of fake news and Kremlin-backed meddling. But unlike information warriors, informed analysts rely on verifiable claims and call for caution against botched sourcing and outlandish conclusions.

Information warriors follow a different logic. These are people who are committed to varying degrees to fighting fake news, disinformation and nefarious Kremlin influence in Europe and beyond. But they’re also people who have a vested interest in a few of the highest-profile efforts, whether it’s an anti-fake news centre or a fact-checking website that gets 12,000 hits a month. They’re the people committed to building a niche brand for themselves as the go-to paid consultant for all your (dis)information warfare needs. They’re the people convinced we are on a war footing, where any criticism of a western anti-disinformation effort, whether the recent Committee to Investigate Russia or the Hamilton 68 dashboard, is seen as an almost treasonous act of apparent Kremlin-abetting.

Twitter is not the real world. But it’s an important talk-shop where policymakers, policy-wonks, public officials and pundits gather. It’s where opinions are made, shared and canonized.

But it’s also a place where mirror-image Putinization is being born, where swathes of dissenting voices are being literally blocked out of the discussion, unmasked as apparent traitors and dismissed.  

The world doesn’t need more warriors. The world needs people to stop and think about what they’re doing. 

Michael Colborne is a Canadian journalist in Prague. His work has appeared in Foreign PolicyCoda Story, Haaretz and CBC. 

Bradley Jardine is a Scottish journalist in Moscow. His work has appeared in the Guardian, Moscow Times, and Eurasianet among others. Follow him

“Study: [Czech/Slovak] conspiracy sites sell millions in ads annually” – my thoughts

“Study: [Czech/Slovak] conspiracy sites sell millions in ads annually” – my thoughts

This afternoon the Nadace Open Society Foundations (OSF) released a study (Czech only right now – Google Translate is your friend) outlining how 122 Czech and Slovak disinformation websites, by their analysis, make anywhere from €920,000 to €1.24 million a year in advertising revenue.

For background, I’ve touched on the world on Czech disinformation here (a better breakdown from 2015 on both Czech and Slovak disinformation is here). This is an interesting analysis that confirms what a lot of us already know – that some disinformation websites can make decent money from ads.

But before it breaks further in English, I’ve got a few observations and thoughts.

1) The ad revenue is ridiculously concentrated among the big players

According to Nadace OSF’s analysis the total ad revenue per month of all these sites combined is 3,357,393 Czech crowns (~€128,700).

But take a look at how much the five biggest sites take up – and, particularly the first. the popular Breitbart-esque Parlamentní listy (figures from report, calculations mine):

Website Estimated monthly income (CZK) % of all disinfo websites
Parlamentnilisty.cz 1,505,542 44.8%
Expres.cz 788,532 23.5%
Eurozrej.cz 534,972 15.9%
hlavnespravy.sk 142,633 4.2%
Ac24.com 98,098 2.9%
Total, Top 5 3,069,777 91.4%
Total, All sites 3,357,393

I think it’d be more effective to point out how much ad revenue a few specific Czech and Slovak disinformation websites take in, rather than lump them all together to get a higher dollar/Euro value. Also, not all these websites have the same reach and, it has to be noted, some of them even have ad revenue – Slovakia’s Slobodný vysielac (Free Transmitter) and Zem a Vek (Earth and Time, though that translation’s always sounded wonky to me) among them.

But another website in that list threw me…

2) Why is Expres.cz included?

I’m not asking this in a snarky way – I’ve always considered it more likely a sleazy Daily-Mail-esque tabloid than a disinformation website like the others here. I see the inclusion of Expres.cz was sourced from http://www.konspiratori.sk, who I assume have a good argument for including them here. (Not sarcasm – I really assume they do.)

3) Careful with the scary, sexy-sounding higher figure

OK, this is a relatively minor data wonk quibble, but the report gave an estimated range of how much ad revenue these sites can pull in over the course of a year – from €900K to €1.2m. The range is there for a reason – it could be that high.

If you’re tweeting about this I think it’s important to state that this €1.2m is the high end of the estimate.

4) Advertising boycotts won’t make these sites go away

Presumably the point of this study is to try and build pressure to get advertisers to pull their ads from disinformation websites (i.e., like Breitbart’s advertisers fleeing in droves). I think this is a worthwhile endeavour, but anyone promoting this in CZ/SK and beyond should recognize that:

a) some of the websites, like PL, seem like they have enough financial resources behind them that a dent in ad revenue won’t cripple them much at all.

b) some of these websites (i.e., most of the smaller ones) are so low-grade and piecemeal they either don’t have any ad revenue or don’t need it, since some of them are literally a guy or two in a basement somewhere doing this stuff on the side.

c) some sites, like the aforementioned Slobodný vysielac and Zem a Vek don’t have any ad revenue at all, so obviously they couldn’t care less about an ad boycott.

Want to promote an ad boycott of disinformation websites? Go ahead, but don’t expect to choke these websites out. At best, expect it (and aim) to raise awareness of why people shouldn’t bother with these kinds of websites (e.g., “hey, if [insert company X] thinks it’s wrong to advertise on PL maybe there’s a good reason why”) and use it as a tool to talk even more about disinformation and the “fake news” phenomenon.

My $0.02/Kč0.44

Recent Czech survey data + elections = a disinformation site’s dream

Recent Czech survey data + elections = a disinformation site’s dream

The most recent round of Eurobarometer stats just came out, and they’re bad news for pretty much anyone in Czech politics right now.

Only 18% of Czechs trust their government right now, a decline of 10% from autumn 2016 – by far the sharpest decline in the EU – and only Greeks, Italians and Spaniards distrust their government as much as Czechs do.

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Oy.

Still, this isn’t nearly as ugly as the table for the question on trust in parliament…

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Double oy.

Nobody in the EU distrusts their country’s parliament more than Czechs do right now, all thanks to the Czech government’s farcical three-part comedy act/political crisis over the past few months (yeah I linked to a Wikipedia article I don’t care).

This level of (dis)trust shows up in recent Czech Public Opinion Research Centre (CVVM) survey data too – their numbers also show that trust in President Miloš Zeman , the government (“Vláda”) and the Chamber of Deputies (“Poslanecká sněmovna,” the lower house of the Czech parliament) has completely tanked.

may 2017
“Table 1a: Population’s confidence in constitutional institutions (%) – comparison over time”

Worse, look at the way Czech satisfaction with the current political situation has driven right off the cliff after a slow recovery from 2013’s scandals.

political cvvm
“Graph 4: Satisfaction with the current political situation from 2011-2017 (Satisfaction Index 0-100)”

And, as if you needed another graph to show how bad it is, look at the drop for both president and government here (the blue and red lines, respectively).

cvvm trends
“Graph 3: Confidence in institutions 2011-2017 (confidence index)”

Numbers like this should be worrisome for a country at any time, but remember the Czechs are going to the polls in just under four months to elect a new parliament – and at the polls again not long after to vote for president.

If I were, say, part of a government of an unnamed country’s efforts to interfere and meddle in other countries’ elections, I’d be all over the Czech Republic this summer.

…to that end, another set of numbers I’ve had kicking around for a few weeks from two previous Eurobarometer surveys (both autumn 2016) show just how said unnamed country’s efforts could actually work.

One, Czechs seem to trust social media more than most other Europeans. While it’s still a minority (40% disagreeing that “information on political affairs from online social networks cannot be trusted,” which is a mouthful of a double negative but yeah), it’s also more than any other EU country.

cz

Eurobarometer’s data is free to download for losers like me, so I took a look in more detail at who exactly in the Czech Republic thinks information on politics from social media can be trusted (to the extent the data can tell me – the sample size is ~1,000, so it can’t be parsed all that much, and Eurobarometer IMO doesn’t have the best questions about education level and essentially not much useful on income or a proxy for income).

As shouldn’t be any surprise, it’s the young: 60% of Czechs aged 15 to 24 disagreed that “information on political affairs from online social networks cannot be trusted” compared to 48% of those 25 to 39, 44% of those 40 to 54 and 27% of those 55 and older. Also interesting are the “don’t knows” – only 5% of 15 to 24 year olds compared to 19% of those 40 to 54 and 39% of those 55 and older.

The same trends show up in different questions about social media – in this one below, for example, Czechs are among the most likely in the EU to think social media is reliable.

social media

Interestingly, 49% of those 15 to 24 years old, 50% of those 25 to 39 and 46% of those 40 to 54 think social media is reliable – in other words, a similar if not identical proportion – but only 31% of those 55+ think social media’s reliable.

One of these Eurobarometer surveys, coincidentally, happened to ask people their attitudes about various countries, including Russia (my mention of Russia is, of course, purely hypothetical and definitely, definitely not related to the “unnamed country” above).

Run what Czechs think about social media (i.e., the agree/disagree question on whether it’s reliable) against what they think of Russia and the results are pretty interesting – Czechs who think social media is reliable also tend to be more positive towards Russia.

   Total “positive” towards Russia   Total “negative” towards Russia
 Social media reliable?  49% 49% 
 Social media unreliable?  35% 64% 

Caveat, though. This question about being positive/negative towards Russia isn’t necessarily a proxy for what they think about the Kremlin or, for that matter, anyone else in the world. It doesn’t necessarily mean the respondent is some sort of zombie “radicalized by Russian propaganda” or even necessarily positive towards the Kremlin or Russia’s foreign policy, etc. Also, some respondents may well have interpreted the question as being positive/negative towards Russian people in general. Still, it’s interesting that the data falls out this way – and falls out this way across many other EU countries – and merits a hell of a lot more study than it’s getting.

There’s a ton more numbers I haven’t mentioned here (e.g., Czechs get more news from websites and trust the Internet more than most other Europeans) that, in all, paint a potentially very ugly picture – a population that increasingly distrusts its politicians and tends to trust social media and the web more than most other people. It’s a disinformation site’s dream.

A lesson on how not to fight disinformation

A lesson on how not to fight disinformation

In the wake of its annual Bratislava Global Security Forum at the end of May, Slovak think tank GLOBSEC released a report of what it called a “comprehensive analysis of public opinion surveys” from surveys in seven central and eastern European (CEE) countries.

Compared to ugly Word reports I’ve spit out in my time, this one’s got no shortage of big bold headlines, shiny graphics and sexy graphs. But as someone who writes a lot about pro-Kremlin disinformation in Europe, it’s probably no surprise which page caught my eye.

fakenews
You’ve got my attention.

“Almost 10% of people in the CEE trust online disinformation outlets as relevant sources of information on world affairs,” they say.

Well. I’m hooked.

The next page was even better…but it’s when I started asking questions.

media d and e
Wait…what?

According to their surveys a range of 1% of people in Croatia to 31% (?!) in Romania “consider online disinformation websites as relevant sources of information.”

This is where I started realizing how many pieces of the puzzle are missing here.

1) How exactly did you ask this question? You can’t just ask someone “do you consider online disinformation websites as relevant sources of information?”

So how did you ask it? Was it a proxy question, like the way that the International Republican Institute (IRI) asked in their recent Visegrad surveys (i.e., “Do you watch or read media outlets that often have a different point of view than the major media outlets?”) Was it a series of questions, or what? Without the actual questioning wording here it’s hard for me to take this seriously.

2) How many people were asked the question? This is so ridiculously basic and yet it’s nowhere to be found.

The methodology “section” is up at the front of the report and it’s about as long as a calm, decidedly-non-mega Twitter thread:

“The outcomes and findings of this report are based on public opinion surveys carried out in the form of personal interviews using stratified multistage random sampling from February to April 2017 on a representative sample of the population in seven EU and NATO member states…

For all countries, the profiles of the respondents are representative of the country by sex, age, education, place of residence and size of settlement. „Do not know“ responses were not included in data visualizations.”

So we don’t know how many people were asked the question – and we don’t know how many people responded “don’t know,” so we have absolutely no idea how large or small the base are for the numbers they’ve graphed up for us here. And we don’t even know exactly what questions were asked. Weak.

3) What the hell is going on with Romania’s number? Look, in the dozens upon dozens of surveys I’ve run in my life, if I see six of seven figures on the low end and then one of them almost three times higher I’m going to ask questions. Sometimes there’s an obvious, easy explanation. Sometimes it’s a more complicated explanation. Sometimes you don’t have one. And, sadly, sometimes it’s because you screwed something up running the numbers or, worse, the whole lot of you muffed something up administering the survey.

Doesn’t look like anyone’s asking questions here. We get no explanation of why Romania’s figure should be that much higher. No explanation of why, apparently, almost a third of Romanians “consider online disinformation websites as relevant sources of information” when only 1% of Croatians (i.e., basically no one) do. Surely that merits at least some attempt at an a explanation.

4) How exactly did you arrive at the conveniently round “10 million” figure? OK, part of this is obvious – you took the percentages in each country of who said (“said”) they trusted disinformation websites and divided into the population of each country.

But what population? 18+? 16+? Official population figures? Registered voters?Transparency is a lovely thing, especially with survey numbers that you use to make bold, attention-grabbing claims.

This “10 million people in CEE trust fake news and disinformation websites” headline has already buzzed around CEE/disinfo-busting social media for a week now. It’s since made it into the East Stratcom Task Force’s Disinfo Review, and surely it’s going to find its way into a few more articles and probably even a few speeches and still more conference panels.

It shouldn’t. It’s a questionable claim based on a completely non-transparent survey analysis, delivered as part of a think tank’s glossy PR exercise. Bullshit’s no way to win the (dis)information war, guys.