Troll farms: Not the stuff of fairy tales

When you think of the term troll farm, what comes to mind? Maybe a scene in a sci-fi book or a game to download onto your phone. But don’t be fooled: the dangerous consequences of troll farms are real and serious.

Those behind troll farms spread misinformation through fake profiles and accounts that appear to belong to real people. Some are designed to amplify bogus support for political ideas; others create confusion and distrust of democratic institutions. Still others do it for personal gain or notoriety.

While most Americans became aware of troll farms upon learning that Russia used them to try to mislead voters during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, trolling goes back farther than that. And this phenomenon is in no way exclusive to Russia. Troll farmers can be individuals, political parties or governments.

Social media platforms have tried to curb the proliferation of these fake accounts, with mixed results. In March, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram — which Facebook owns — disabled dozens of accounts tied to a Russian-linked troll network based mostly in Ghana, The Verge reported. The accounts, which fueled racial divisions, attracted more than 300,000 followers. Yet, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

The Institution for the Future researched state-sponsored trolling in a 2018 report. Researchers found that while the impact of fake accounts and sites could actually be classified as human rights abuses, almost no infrastructure exists for punishing creators. They suggested using international human rights laws to “require social media platforms to detect and, in some cases, remove hate speech, harassment, and disinformation; and implement such requirements in a transparent and accountable manner that respects due process and reinforces human rights.”

A recent article by the New York Times examined the content Russian troll accounts produced in 2016 versus 2020. A side-by-side comparison of posts revealed that trolls have gotten smarter at hiding their true identities. Accounts from 2016 tended to be filled with spelling errors or have an unrealistically high number of followers. Now, trolls copy and paste chunks of text to reduce such obvious errors.

Without these tell-tale signs, internet users must be even more cautious. A November 2019 segment from NPR affiliate WBUR offers advice from Clemson University researchers Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren: Question why you are seeing certain information from a particular account. Be wary of a flurry of inspiring, uplifting content because trolls don’t want to antagonize a community, they want to be part of it. Use caution when encountering content from accounts you don’t know.

Keep that advice in mind, particularly regarding information related to COVID-19, racial justice protests and the 2020 U.S. presidential election. The stakes are high, as misinformation pushed by troll farms can endanger our public life and health and the functioning of our democracy.

Astroturfing: As fake as it sounds

Have you ever come across a product online with thousands of five-star reviews and thought to yourself that something just doesn’t seem right?  You scroll through the comments and they appear to be written by real people. But it can be hard to tell for sure, because businesses and political groups are known to employ a tactic called “astroturfing.”

Named for the brand of artificial grass known as AstroTurf®, the term refers to the mimicking of grassroots support in an attempt to push forward a particular product or political agenda. Political, business or special-interest groups disguise themselves online by posting comments or publishing blogs and letters to the editor. This seemingly independent content gives the impression that there’s genuine widespread support for a movement, issue or product.

For example, in mid-April, when protests began in some states to object to stay-at-home orders aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19, the events were covered widely, and initially framed as locally grown, organic uprisings.

However, The Washington Post reported that social media calls to action didn’t actually come from the grassroots. They were funded instead by an initiative called Convention of States, a conservative network of groups and individuals working to amplify the protests to serve an anti-lockdown agenda.

While frustration with business and school closures were real, astroturfing brought money and momentum to the movement in a way that made opposition to stay-at-home orders seem  stronger and more widespread than polling suggested. Other conservative groups, such as FreedomWorks and Tea Party Patriots, also worked behind the scenes to initiate and promote local demonstrations that were anything but impromptu, The New York Times reported.

It’s important to note that astroturfing happens on both sides of the political aisle, and is nothing new in politics or business. For example, in the 1990s, cigarette maker Philip Morris’ public relations firm created a seemingly grassroots pro-smoking group called the National Smokers Alliance. The group paid hundreds of young people to recruit members in bars and bowling alleys, according to Tobacco Tactics, a nonprofit organization based at the United Kingdom’s University of Bath that investigates the tobacco industry. However, social media has given astroturfing a reach and impact it didn’t have in the past.

So before you get caught up in a cause or persuaded to buy a product, investigate the source. Do some digging to find out what group or which individuals might really be behind it. Check to see if organizers or reviewers might have a larger agenda. For more tips, check out our Sanitize before you share advice.

Don’t let confirmation bias narrow your perspective

When we come across an interesting news item online, it’s no surprise that we want to share it with others who also may find it interesting. A Gallup/Knight Foundation survey of more than 19,000 Americans, conducted in the summer and fall of 2017, found that 64% percent of respondents said they “frequently” (27%) or “occasionally” (37%) share such items with their families, their friends or their followers on social media.

According to the report of the survey results (American Views: Trust, Media and Democracy, published in early 2018), more than two-thirds (68%) share information with people who hold views similar to theirs. Fewer than a third (29%) do so with those who hold differing views.

Maybe we really just value familial accord, but when we share something that simply supports our existing views, we aren’t exactly challenging what we — or our loved ones — think. It’s human nature to seek out information that reflects and upholds our view of the world. But when we do so, we may be engaging in confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret and recall information in a way that supports what we already believe. As a result, we’re likely to dismiss credible information that calls our beliefs into question.

When confirmation bias influences how we find and share information, we risk getting an incomplete and inaccurate picture of an issue, event or topic. It can also exacerbate the spread of misinformation. For example, when a social media post strongly resonates with our emotions, we’re more inclined to “like” or share it without verifying that it’s actually true.

The first step in countering confirmation bias is to recognize it in ourselves. Then we can guard against it by getting our news from a wide range of credible sources, reading opinion columns from a variety of viewpoints, and including these varied perspectives in our social media posts.

So remember to gut-check your own biases and seek out information from diverse sources. Then you can weigh in with confidence.

Social media use drives false COVID-19 beliefs

DYK Reboot social media study

A recent survey by The Reboot Foundation indicates that social media plays a large role in promoting myths about COVID-19, according to the organization’s April 2020 report.

Going Viral: How Social Media Is Making the Spread of the Coronavirus Worse noted that containment of the virus depends on individual actions based on credible, factual information. But the “infodemic” around the virus can interfere with the American public’s efforts to access reliable content, particularly on social media. And some content can leave consumers feeling indifferent toward the pandemic or overconfident in their knowledge about it.

The findings from the foundation, a Paris-based nonprofit that supports efforts to integrate critical thinking in daily life, are based on a representative 30-question survey of more than 1,000 people across the country, and the tracking of individual COVID-19-related social media posts.

Key takeaways

  • 29% were misinformed on at least one aspect of the virus.
  • 26% believed that COVID-19 will likely die off in the spring.
  • 10% thought regularly rinsing their nose with saline will help prevent the virus.
  • 12% believed that people created COVID-19.
  • Approximately 20% believed that the outbreak was not a serious issue.


In addition, respondents thought they were more knowledgeable about COVID-19 than they were:

  • More than 55% of respondents claimed that they were “very informed” or “extremely informed” about COVID-19.
  • 42% said that they were “somewhat informed.”
  • 3% felt “not very informed” or “not at all informed.”

Also note

Another recent study examined COVID-19 misinformation on Twitter and found that 25 percent of virus-related tweets contained wrong information. Another 17 percent of tweets spread unverifiable information, according to the study.

Also, the Reboot Foundation funded a study that delivered similar results regarding false health news on social media. Released as a preprint, the study looked at all health-related posts on one of the most popular Facebook groups in Europe. They found that 28 percent of the group’s posts related to health were inaccurate.

Deepfakes: When you can’t believe your own eyes

Remember when you could watch a video and feel fairly confident that the people in it were actually saying and doing what you were hearing and seeing? And if someone had manipulated the video to alter its meaning or context, the fingerprints of fabrication were probably pretty easy to spot.

Those days are long gone.

Digital technology allows just about anyone to create deepfakes — videos that have been digitally manipulated to make a person appear to say or do something that the person never said or did. You may have seen some of the more infamous ones, such as a of Jennifer Lawrence and Steve Buscemi. While that video is largely harmless, it demonstrates how the technology can be used to deceive audiences (and potentially cause harm).

A less sophisticated manipulation, known as a “cheapfake,” targeted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in May 2019. A video of her remarks at the Center for American Progress was slowed down, making her speech sound slurred (and giving rise to false claims that she was drunk).

Some media experts believe that in this presidential election year, cheapfakes will turn out to be a bigger problem than deepfakes. As three current and former Harvard University researchers argued in a piece for Nieman Lab, crude cheapfakes will likely serve the purposes of propagandists better — and are just as likely as more sophisticated videos to draw in those who are inclined to believe.

Lawmakers in California reacted to such concerns by passing legislation that makes it illegal to distribute deepfakes of a candidate for public office within 60 days of an election. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, signed the measure into law in October 2019. Candidates can sue to stop the spread of videos and can seek financial damages, although the law imposes no criminal penalties.

Technology companies are also taking action against the alarming potential of synthetic video and audio technologies to provoke or confuse voters — or to give politicians a way to dismiss an authentic but potentially damaging video as “fake.” The New York Times reported in November 2019 that Google is developing automated tools to detect deepfakes (an episode of The Weekly, the Times’ investigative journalism television series, featured similar work). Google hired actors to create its own synthetically engineered deepfakes and then used those fakes to train an algorithm to detect those methods of video manipulation. The company is making its collection of fakes available to other researchers trying to build similar tools.

Press freedom isn’t only for reporters, and neither is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Just as the public is the reason that press freedom matters — so that people know what those in power are doing — FOIA, enacted in 1966, gives everyone the right to ask federal agencies for records about what they do.

States have their own open records laws, and the National Freedom of Information Coalition even walks people through the document-request process. “Protecting your right to open government” is the motto of the group, which began as an initiative to support First Amendment organizations with the goal of protecting the public’s right to know.

FOIA doesn’t mean that the public can know everything, though: The law includes nine exemptions from disclosure, meaning that certain categories of information will not be released. They include information that is classified to protect national security and information that might invade someone else’s privacy.

The government’s answers to frequently asked questions about FOIA include: yes, you need to make requests in writing; no, you don’t need a special form; and if a request will take the agency longer than a month, it has to let the person or organization know.

Lack of communication can signal disregard for the law. In March, NBC 7 in San Diego broadcast a report, based on leaked documents, about a secret government database that kept tabs on people, including journalists, who were involved in some way with a caravan of Central American migrants making their way north.

Soon thereafter, seeking to learn more about the database (and the tracking of journalists), the station and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press sent FOIA requests to the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Citizenship and Immigration Services. On April 22, the Reporters Committee and NBC 7 sued the department and the three agencies, accusing them of withholding information from the public.

Our right to documents on demand is thanks to John Moss, a California legislator, who said in 1956 when he started his push: “The present trend toward government secrecy could end in a dictatorship. The more information there is made available, the greater will be the nation’s security.”

The First Amendment: What do we know?

It’s good news/bad news when it comes to Americans and the First Amendment.

The good news: Three-quarters of the respondents to a survey about the First Amendment said they support that essential part of the U.S. Constitution and the rights and freedoms it guarantees.

The bad news: Only one (yes, one) out of the 1,009 adults surveyed could name all five of the rights and freedoms it grants.

This is according to the 2018 State of the First Amendment survey conducted last May by the First Amendment Center at the Freedom Forum Institute.

In honor of World Press Freedom Day, let’s review those rights and freedoms, starting with the least-known. Explanations come from the Freedom Forum Institute.

Right to petition: 2% could name this. This is the right to ask the government, at any level, to right a wrong or correct a problem. Its roots can be found the Declaration of Independence: “In every state of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms.” (The original draft of the First Amendment included only “assembly” and “petition.”)

Right of assembly: 12% could name this. This is the right to “peaceably assemble,” even when a majority is opposed to the viewpoints expressed by those who gather.

Freedom of the press: 13% could name this. Decisions by the Supreme Court over the years have given shape to the fact that the government can neither stop information deemed newsworthy from being published nor punish those who criticize the state and its officials.

Freedom of religion: 15% could name this. Thomas Jefferson called this freedom a “bold” and “novel experiment” that defied the Western European assumption and practice of the state’s supporting a particular denomination of Christianity.

Freedom of speech: 56% could name this. “Speech” includes expression such as burning the American flag or engaging “in countless other forms of expression that would be outlawed in many nations but are regarded as constitutionally protected here.”

Actually, this survey is good news on another front as well: Even if it also showed that 40% of those surveyed could not name any of these rights, the best news is, of course, that — know them or not — people can exercise them without fear of government threat.

Is press freedom eroding in the U.S.?

What makes a country free?

The open and unfettered flow of information that keeps a country’s people informed is one measure — and for this, journalists are essential. But by that token, the U.S. is less free this year than it was a year ago, falling three spots to 48th in a ranking of 180 countries and regions by Reporters Without Borders (also known as Reporters Sans Frontières, or RSF).

In its 2019 World Press Freedom Index, RSF tracks how freely reporters are allowed to do their jobs, considering factors such as the number of abuses and acts of violence against journalists, the degree of self-censorship felt by journalists, and the independence of media outlets.

Threats against reporters are mounting worldwide. In the latest RSF report, only 24% of countries were rated as having a “good” or “satisfactory” climate for the practice of journalism. The international press freedom organization now classifies the United States as “problematic” for journalists, citing an increasingly hostile media environment: “Never before have U.S. journalists been subjected to so many death threats or turned so often to private security firms for protection.”

The lower U.S. ranking also takes into account President Donald Trump’s ongoing degradation of journalists, including his repeated declaration that the press is the “enemy of the people.” But that hostility didn’t just arise in the last two years, Sabine Dolan, RSF’s interim executive director, said on NPR: “Even before President Trump, the Obama administration was aggressively using the 1917 Espionage Act to prosecute more whistleblowers than any previous administration combined.”

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, which documents press freedom violations at the national, state and local levels, tracks journalist arrests, assaults, border stops, camera and equipment seizures, surveillance orders, subpoenas and more. This initiative brings together more than two dozen press freedom groups and journalism organizations to monitor assaults on press freedoms, and the statistics it collects are used in RSF’s annual report. As it states: “When journalists are obstructed, so is the public’s right to be informed and hold power to account.”

Which means less freedom for all.

Public trust in journalists is down, but in ‘media’ it’s up

“Below is a list of people,” the survey question began. “In general, when forming an opinion of a company, if you heard information about a company from each person, how credible would the information be — extremely credible, very credible, somewhat credible, or not credible at all?”

The global communications firm Edelman asked this question in late 2018 for its 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer (PDF), an online survey of more than 33,000 people in 27 markets worldwide. “Journalist” did not fare well. Only 36% of those asked said that they would call a journalist “extremely credible” or “very credible” as a source — down from 39% the year before.

The most trustworthy source for information, according to 65% of the respondents, was a “company technical expert.” “Government official” was deemed least credible, with barely a third (35%) trusting someone in that position. Between those two extremes, in descending order of trust, were “academic expert” (63%); “a person like yourself” (61%); “regular employee” and “successful entrepreneur” (tied at 53%); “financial industry analyst” (52%); “NGO representative” (48%); “CEO” (47%); “board of directors” (44%); and, as noted above, “journalist.”

Edelman’s annual trust and credibility survey broadly measures what people think of four major institutions in society: government, business, media and nongovernmental organizations. Interestingly, although trust in “journalists” is down globally, when asked about institutions, the responses show that trust in “media” (loosely described as the institution focusing on our  “information and knowledge” well-being) is up from the year before. The not-so-great news is that media remains the least-trusted institution, distrusted in 16 markets worldwide. The U.S. is one of those 16 markets, at a level of 48% “distrust.”

But trust and journalism can be tricky to consider, as Michael Schudson — a historian of the news media and a professor at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism — writes in Columbia Journalism Review. He acknowledges recent attempts to “engender distrust” in the press, but also notes this:

“Perhaps it’s not surprising to learn that journalism’s self-defined mission of ‘holding government accountable’ is hurting trust. In the past 40 years, ‘accountability journalism’ has come to assert itself as a defining feature of mainstream newsrooms. The news is much less deferential than it once was to institutions and people in power. That may be good, but it also means that a lot of people are going to distrust the media, particularly when their favorite politicians or the parties they identify with are critically appraised or openly confronted by journalistic investigation, information, or opinion.”

Restless public focuses more on staying (and keeping others) informed

There’s an explosion in the number of people paying attention to news, and researchers say that this “massive rise” shows an “urgent desire for change.”

In 2018, 72% of the public surveyed worldwide by Edelman, a global communications firm, said they read, watched or listened to news at least once a week — up a whopping 22 percentage points from 2017. The reason, Edelman says in its annual “trust barometer,” is that an increasing number of people are frustrated by their eroding trust in societal institutions. Determined to be involved and to effect change, people are reading, watching and listening more — and are sharing what they learn. 

And around the world, as the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer (PDF download) shows, people also are growing more picky about the sources they turn to: According to the study, in the U.S. and Canada, 65% of the public said they trusted traditional media; only 34% trusted social media platforms as a news source. 

And worldwide, 73% worry about false information or fake news being used as a weapon.

This is a win for “quality news,” writes Steve Rubel, Edelman’s chief media ecologist, in an assessment of the study’s findings. Too many voices and too much opinion have left people craving real news, he says, adding that the numbers bear out the idea that “journalism is again a beacon of trust in a world of distrust.” (While celebrating the change in consumption, Rubel also notes the relatively low trust in news overall, which in the U.S. stands at 47%.)

Edelman’s annual trust and credibility survey broadly measures what people think about four major institutions in society: government, business, nongovernmental organizations and media. The 2019 study, released in January, links the increase in news engagement with a similar rise in advocacy. Protest marches and walkouts at work are driven, according to Edelman, by the feeling worldwide that “the system” is not working for most.

Regions that lose news outlets become more partisan

There’s a lot to dislike when a local newspaper shuts its doors. As members of the community, we’re less informed about what’s happening around the corner (hey, why is that building being razed? and who’s playing at the concert in the park?). Elected officials are freer to do as they please without the oversight of reporters making inquiries on our behalf.

But one surprising result of the decrease in local news coverage, according to three researchers who studiedthe media’s influence on voters, is how it affects the way people vote: The populace tends to become more polarized.

First, a look at the numbers: In 2006, the total weekday circulation figure (print and digital) for American daily newspapers was 52 million. By 2017, it was estimated to have dropped to under 31 million. And a 2018 study by a professor at the University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism noted that there are now almost 1,800 fewer local newspapers than there were in 2004.

Larger national outlets, such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today, continue to cover national news, and the internet provides a large stage for their reports. As a result, the three researchers found, national political news is inescapable, and it often focuses on partisan conflict.

So Joshua Darr of Louisiana State University, Johanna Dunaway of Texas A&M University and Matthew Hitt of Colorado State University followed what they called a “hunch”: “If people are consuming more nationalized news when their local newspapers decline, they might become more polarized themselves and vote accordingly.”

Focused on split-ticket voting (voting for candidates of different parties when multiple offices are on an Election Day ballot), the researchers compared patterns in the 2012 election in two types of counties: ones that had lost a newspaper and ones that had not. The result: “Voters were 1.9 percent more likely to vote for the same party for president and senator after a newspaper closes in their community, compared to voters in statistically similar areas where a newspaper did not close.”

The researchers ultimately attributed the increase in partisanship to people consuming more national news. They also noted how often such a seemingly small percentage can swing an election.

Their parting plea: Turn your attention, and your subscription dollars, from the “national spectacle” and back to local news, rather than have “political partisanship … inform political choices.”

Public wary of news, information from social media

Did you know? 62% of Americans say social media companies have too much control over the mix of news people see.

A majority of Americans say that social media sites have too much say in the news they consume online.

That’s according to the Pew Research Center, which published its assessment of public opinion in an October 2019 report, Americans Are Wary of the Role Social Media Sites Play in Delivering the News.

The report by the nonpartisan “fact tank” spells out the public’s worries: While 62% believe that social media companies have too much control over the news on their sites, 55% specify that the role of social media companies in delivering the news on their sites results in a worse mix of news for users.

Pew provides additional context for its findings: Yes, the largest platforms use algorithms that tailor what posts people see. But the same sites also allow users to customize their settings. Despite that, many Americans still aren’t sure why certain posts are included in their news feeds — and take little action to change their own settings.

In its survey, Pew asked about seven potential “problems with news.” Although censorship of the news by social media platforms — such as downranking or “hiding” posts with which a platform disagrees (called “shadow-banning”) — has been trumpeted as an issue, only 35% of respondents said they considered it a “very big problem.” The top two concerns were “one-sided news,” which 53% cite as a “very big problem,” followed by “inaccurate news,” cited by 51% as a “very big problem.”

Those concerns are well-placed: As Pew notes, Americans increasingly get their news from social media; more than half (55%) do so “often” or “sometimes” now versus 47% in 2018. About 28% get news on social media “often,” up from 20% in 2018.

Data in this Pew Research Center report are drawn from responses by 5,107 members of Pew’s American Trends Panel who were surveyed between July 8 and July 21, 2019.