The Sift: Bloomberg tests social media rules | Censorship in China | Climate bots

  News Literacy Project
The innovative and aggressive digital strategy of Michael Bloomberg’s presidential campaign is testing the limits of newly established political advertising policies at social media companies.

Earlier this month, the campaign paid people behind highly influential accounts on Instagram to post humorous memes supporting Bloomberg’s candidacy. In response, Facebook — which owns Instagram — said that it would allow such posts, but only if they adhered to its disclosure guidelines, prompting the accounts involved in the Bloomberg meme promotion to do so retroactively. Facebook also said the resulting memes are not subject to approval like other political ads, but that unlike posts by candidates and campaigns, they will be subject to its third-party fact-checking program.

More recently, the Bloomberg campaign hired hundreds of “deputy field organizers,” ordinary people who agree to promote Bloomberg as a candidate on their personal and online networks. The organizers are paid $2,500 a month and are sent pre-approved campaign messaging to use (or adapt) in text messages and social media posts. But the strategy resulted in dozens of identical posts that resembled automated messages posted by bots. After the Los Angeles Times asked Twitter about the posts, the platform last week announced that the practice violated its platform manipulation and spam policy and said it was suspending 70 pro-Bloomberg accounts.

Finally, the campaign on Thursday published a video composed of clips from last week’s Democratic debate that added a long, awkward pause, baffled looks from the other candidates and cricket sound effects after Bloomberg said, “I’m the only one here that, I think, that’s ever started a business, is that fair?” The post touched off an online debate about the line between manipulated and satirical content and how social media platforms should respond to the video. Twitter — which confirmed last week that it is working on a new policy to address misinformation after a demonstration of new features was leaked — said the video would likely violate its new policy against manipulated media, but that it wouldn’t retroactively apply a disclaimer. Facebook said the video would be protected under the platform’s existing exemption for parody or satire.
Note:  Some of the tactics employed by the Bloomberg presidential campaign were also used by Russian disinformation agents in 2016.
Discuss:  Is the Bloomberg campaign’s social media strategy savvy and smart, or misleading and unethical? Do you agree with the ways Twitter and Facebook (including Instagram) have handled the issues that have arisen? Do the memes that the campaign paid influential Instagram users to make qualify as “sponsored content”? What about the posts and text messages from the campaign’s “deputy field organizers”?
Related:  “Bloomberg News’s Dilemma: How to Cover a Boss Seeking the Presidency” (Michael M. Grynbaum, The New York Times).

NO: You cannot catch the new strain of coronavirus (COVID-19) from the air in bubble wrap.

Note: This rumor is surprisingly widespread on Twitter.

NO: This map does not show day-to-day levels of sulfur dioxide (a toxic gas) in Wuhan, China. YES:, a company that provides interactive weather forecasting services, created this image using a NASA forecast based on past data. NO: It does not show levels of sulfur dioxide on a particular day. NO: This is not evidence that mass cremations are being carried out in Wuhan.
NO: This photo does not show President Donald Trump’s arrival at the Daytona 500 on Feb. 16, 2020. YES: It shows President George W. Bush’s departure from* the 2004 Daytona 500. YES: Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale, tweeted this photo; he later deleted it and replaced it with an authentic photo of Trump’s 2020 arrival in Daytona Beach, Florida.
NO: Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has not proposed a 52% income tax on “anybody making over $29,000 per year,” as this viral meme claims. YES: Sanders has proposed a progressive income tax rate of 52% “on income above $10 million.”
NO: Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Amari Cooper was not shot Feb. 19 in a Dallas parking garage. YES: A Twitter account named The Offseason (@TOffseason), which described itself as providing sports news with fewer than 100 followers, tweeted this, citing no evidence or source. YES: The Dallas Police Department on Twitter, and Cooper himself on Instagram, confirmed that the tweet was false. YES: The @TOffseason account was deleted shortly after this incident.
CORRECTION (Feb. 29, 2020): This sentence has been corrected. As initially published, it incorrectly stated that the photo showed Bush’s arrival at the Daytona 500 in 2004. It actually shows the departure of Air Force One from Daytona Beach after Bush attended the race.
The Chinese government is censoring news and social media posts about the outbreak of the new coronavirus there, but a growing group of citizens is fighting back by republishing censored reports and archiving social media posts before authorities can take them down, according to a Feb. 23 New York Times video.

The Chinese government also recently expelled three Wall Street Journal reporters in retaliation for what it said was a racist headline on a Feb. 3 opinion piece by columnist Walter Russell Mead about the economic impact of the government’s mishandling of the outbreak. (The expelled reporters were not involved in the writing or editing of the opinion piece, and Mead wrote only the piece, not the headline.) The expulsions were announced the day after the U.S. State Department said that it would begin treating five Chinese state-run media outlets — which a department official, speaking on condition of anonymity*, called arms of the government’s “propaganda apparatus” — the same as foreign embassies.

The expulsions of the Journal reporters, and the newspaper’s refusal to apologize or “correct” the headline, have sparked concerns in the newsroom. A letter sent Feb. 20 from Jonathan Cheng, the Journal’s China bureau chief, to William Lewis — Dow Jones chief executive officer and Journal publisher — and Robert Thomson — chief executive of News Corp., which owns Dow Jones — urging them “to consider correcting the headline and apologizing to … readers, sources, colleagues and anyone else who was offended by it” was signed by 53 of the newspaper’s reporters and editors. In a Feb. 19 statement, Lewis expressed “regret” that the headline “caused upset and concern amongst the Chinese people,” and noted that the Journal’s news and opinion departments operate separately and independently. Lewis requested that the news reporters’ visas be reinstated.

Others have expressed concern about the idea of the Journal complying with the Chinese government’s demands for an apology, and about the government “limiting the flow of news and information” during “a global health emergency.”
*CORRECTION (Feb. 29, 2020): This sentence has been corrected. As initially published, it incorrectly attributed the description of the companies as “arms of the government’s ‘propaganda apparatus’” to the U.S. State Department. The quote was actually made by a department official speaking with reporters on condition of anonymity.
Note: The Journal’s Chinese website has been blocked since at least 2014.
Also note: Distrust in information provided by Chinese government sources has played a role in fueling ongoing misinformation about the current strain of coronavirus.
Discuss: Do you think The Wall Street Journal should apologize for the headline, “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia”? What is the history of that phrase? How should the Journal balance calls from its staff to apologize with the pitfalls of complying with the demands of an authoritarian regime known for censorship and jailing journalists?
Idea: Have students explore the Committee to Protect Journalists dashboard showing the state of press freedoms in China.
Resource: Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Systems Science and Engineering is maintaining a live dashboard for confirmed cases of the current coronavirus.
Bots were responsible for a quarter of tweets about climate change posted around June 2017, according to researchers at Brown University. The study — which The Guardian has reviewed, but Brown has not yet published — sampled 6.5 million tweets. They were posted in the days leading up to President Donald Trump’s June 1, 2017 announcement that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change, and continued into July. During that same period, 38% of tweets about climate change that mentioned “fake science” came from bots, while only 5% of tweets in support of taking action against climate change showed signs of automation.
Note:  The authors of the study used a free online tool called Botometer to identify likely bot accounts. Developed by Indiana University’s Observatory on Social Media, Botometer checks the activity of a Twitter account for bot-like patterns such as high-volume, continuous posting. It is one of a suite of free social media data tools from the university.
Discuss: Are conversations on social media platforms a good indicator of public opinion about a subject? Why might someone want to use automated social media accounts (bots)? Are there ethical uses of bots, or is automation on social media always unethical?
Idea: Use the Brown University findings to teach students about “astroturfing” and the “illusory truth effect.”
Longtime ABC News Washington correspondent Sam Donaldson sparked controversy last week by publicly expressing support for Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg. Before retiring in 2013, Donaldson was known for his tough but fair reporting from the White House — and, like many journalists, never registered with a political party to avoid the appearance of bias.

But as he told The Washington Post, he believes he’s “not restrained by the ethics and procedures of a business I’m no longer a part of.”

Others disagreed. Former Washington Post editor Leonard Downie Jr., now a journalism professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, said Donaldson went too far in the endorsement, which was published on “Since he covered presidents in particular, well and aggressively, such an endorsement does appear to be a misuse of his considerable journalistic credibility and reputation,” Downie told the Post.

Others wondered whether Donaldson’s statement might be used to cast aspersions on today’s media. Tom Jones, a senior media writer for the Poynter Institute of Media Studies, said he wasn’t sure Donaldson’s endorsement “helps Bloomberg as much it hurts journalism."
Discuss:  Should former journalists endorse or campaign for a political candidate? Why or why not? Should journalists — either working or retired — decline to vote, as Downie did while at the Washington Post, as part of their commitment to remaining fair and impartial?
A woman who lost her baby after being determined to have had a home “freebirth” — a largely unassisted childbirth without help from a medical or health professional — took comfort in online groups that encouraged her to continue with her plan, even as she approached her 45th week of pregnancy, according to a Feb. 21 NBC News report. Medical and birth professionals recommend inducing women who have not gone into labor by 42 weeks.

“Judith,” 28, spent months receiving online validation for her freebirth plan, from podcasts, people in private Facebook groups, and algorithms that directed her toward unverified information and sources. “I think I brainwashed myself with the internet,” she said. After 10 hours of labor at home, Judith sought help at a nearby hospital, where her baby was found to be without a heartbeat.
Discuss:  Do you think social media platforms should make more efforts to prevent medical misinformation and echo chambers — places where one’s own views are supported by like-minded people — and encourage users to seek varying points of view? Why or why not? If you think platforms should do more, what steps do you think they could take? Which platforms are doing the best job fighting the spread of medical misinformation?
Followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory are engaging in “information warfare” to try to influence the 2020 presidential election, according to a Feb. 17 report in Wired magazine.

While the number of QAnon followers is thought to be small, their influence is exaggerated on social media, particularly on Twitter. There were more than 22.2 million tweets with QAnon-related hashtags last year, compared with more than 5.2 million #MeToo tweets or 7.5 million #climatechange tweets, according to the report.

QAnon followers coordinate these efforts on fringe online message boards, monitoring political communications, developing content and memes, compiling lists of hashtags to target, and giving advice about how to make false social media accounts that appear to be real. “The goal, broadly speaking, is to flood social media with pro-Trump, pro-Republican, and anti-Democrat narratives or, failing that, to simply hijack and derail conversations,” Elise Thomas wrote in the report. Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, told Wired that QAnon “and others are blowing up our shared reality."
Discuss: Are you concerned about coordinated efforts to influence political discussions and the presidential election? Why or why not? How can social media platforms distort our understanding of the level of support for a particular policy, idea or movement? Should social media platforms allow accounts to engage in this kind of coordinated activity? Why or why not? What attracts people to conspiracy theories?
Your weekly issue of The Sift is put together by Peter Adams (@PeterD_Adams) and Suzannah Gonzales of the News Literacy Project.
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