Social media’s misinformation battle: No winners, so far
By BARBARA ORTUTAY
AP Technology Writer
Monday, November 5
NEW YORK (AP) — Facebook and other social platforms have been fighting online misinformation and hate speech for two years. With the U.S. midterm elections just a few days away, there are signs that they’re making some headway, although they’re still a very long way from winning the war.
That’s because the effort risks running into political headwinds that Facebook, Twitter and Google find bad for business. Some even argue that the social networks are easy to flood with disinformation by design — an unintended consequence of their eagerness to cater to advertisers by categorizing the interests of their users.
Caught embarrassingly off-guard after they were played by Russian agents meddling with the 2016 U.S. elections, the technology giants have thrown millions of dollars, tens of thousands of people and what they say are their best technical efforts into fighting fake news, propaganda and hate that has proliferated on their digital platforms.
Facebook, in particular, has pulled a major reversal since late 2016, when CEO Mark Zuckerberg infamously dismissed the idea that fake news on his service could have swayed the election as “pretty crazy.” In July, for instance, the company announced that heavy spending on security and content moderation, coupled with other business shifts, would hold down growth and profitability. Investors immediately panicked and knocked $119 billion off the company’s market value.
The social network has started to see some payoff for its efforts. A research collaboration between New York University and Stanford recently found that user “interactions” with fake news stories on Facebook, which rose substantially in 2016 during the presidential campaign, fell significantly between the end of 2016 and July 2018. On Twitter, however, the sharing of such stories continued to rise over the past two years.
A similar measure from the University of Michigan’s Center for Social Media Responsibility dubbed the “Iffy Quotient ” — which gauges the prevalence of “iffy” material on social networks — also shows that Facebook’s “iffiness” has fallen from a high of 8.1 percent 1n March 2017 to 3.2 percent on Monday. Twitter iffiness has also fallen slightly, from 5.6% in November 2016, to 4.2 percent on Monday.
Even at these levels, fake news remains huge and may be spreading to new audiences. A team led by Philip Howard, the lead researcher on Oxford’s Computational Propaganda effort, looked at stories shared on Twitter during the last 10 days of September 2018 and found that what it called “junk news” accounted for a full quarter of all links shared during that time — greater than the number of professional news stories shared during that time.
The team defined junk news as sources that published deceptive or incorrect information, often in an ideological or conspiratorial way, while failing to meet criteria such as professionalism, bias, credibility and style.
While the Oxford analysis didn’t produce similar figures for Facebook, the researchers did map out how junk news circulates on the social network and found that conspiracy theories and other misinformation once confined to a “hard right” audience are now shared more freely among mainstream conservatives as well. (Left-leaning users have also developed a taste for junk news, the Oxford team found, but it represents only a small fraction of the material they share on Facebook.)
Such studies offer imperfect pictures of what’s actually happening on social networks, since the services typically don’t offer researchers untrammeled access to their data. Twitter, for instance, takes issue with the Oxford study, noting that it used a public feed of tweets that doesn’t reflect the filtering Twitter does to remove malicious or spammy material.
Tamping down misinformation, of course, is anything but easy. Adversaries are always finding new ways around restrictions. It can also be hard to distinguish misinformation and propaganda from legitimate news, especially when world leaders such as President Donald Trump are regularly disseminating falsehoods on social media.
Politics also complicates matters, since the social-media companies are anxious to avoid charges of political bias. When Facebook, Google’s YouTube and, eventually, Twitter all banned the conspiracymonger Alex Jones for various violations of their terms of service, Jones and his allies immediately claimed he was being censored. President Trump chimed in a few weeks later with a parallel charge, claiming without evidence that Google and other companies were “suppressing voices of Conservatives and hiding information and news that is good.”
Twitter, in fact, charges that researchers such as the Oxford team define “junk news” too broadly. The group, for instance, classes conservative sites such as Breitbart News and the Daily Caller as “junk” by its criteria. Twitter argues that banning “media outlets that reflect views within American society” would “severely hinder public debate.”
“They don’t self-regulate,” said Dora Kingsley Vertenten, a professor of public policy at the University of Southern California and CEO of research consulting firm Trenton West. “They just want to make a profit, and what they have done to date is not nearly enough.”
Really fixing the misinformation problem might require big changes to how these services work. Users started spending less time on Facebook after it made changes to make its service more “meaningful” to users, involving less scrolling through posts and more interactions with friends, the company said.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has hinted that he is open to drastic changes , but he hasn’t yet said what they might look like. And there haven’t been any obvious shifts since he made that statement in August.
This Veterans Day, BBB Warns of Scams that Target Military Personnel
Columbus, OH (November 5, 2018) – Approximately 1.3 million Americans are active duty service members, another 800,000 are in the reserves, and nearly 20 million are military veterans. While these people have one obvious thing in common, there is one other prevalent similarity between them – these people and their loved ones are at a higher risk of being the targets of a scam.
Certain aspects of a service member’s job may make them more vulnerable to scams, like:
They have a guaranteed and steady income that is attractive to scammers
They are frequently deployed and move around often, which makes staying on top of red flags in bills and credit reports more difficult
Service members are often young and may be financially inexperienced
Common military related scams include:
Military Loans: Too good to be true loans offered to members of the military or veterans such as “no credit checks” or “all ranks approved” with an upfront fee.
Charity Scams: There are fake charities that use similar names of well-known veterans’ charities to try and fool donators. Remember, scammers can easily create websites and accounts similar to credible charities.
Someone posing as the Veterans Administration (VA) under the guise of asking veterans to update credit card, bank or other financial records with the VA to steal your personal information.
Someone posing as government contractors recruiting veterans and then asking for a copy of the job applicant’s passport, which can lead to identity theft.
Wiring Money: Using social networks or dating services to get victims to wire money to help what they are led to believe is a deployed service member.
Phishing Emails: Targeting military spouses with phishing emails.
BBB recommends the following tips for military, their families and veterans:
Be leery of too-good-to-be-true offers, whether it’s for a vehicle, a loan or housing. Don’t give out your personal or financial information over the phone or by email to someone you don’t know in a dialog you did not initiate.
For anyone considering giving to a charity solicitation, always make sure to do your homework first. Research the organization at give.org where there are more than 11,000 charity reports from the U.S. and Canada.
If you’re on active duty, BBB recommends putting an “Active Duty alert” on your credit report to limit the risk of identity theft.
BBB Institute of Marketplace Trust runs the BBB Military Line program to help military families and veterans avoid scams and fraud. BBB Military Line is tailored to military consumers and their families and provides consumer education resources both online and through local outreach.
If you or someone that you know has been affected by a scam, report it to BBB Scam Tracker to warn others.
For more information, follow your BBB on Facebook, Twitter, and at bbb.org.
For more than 100 years, Better Business Bureau has been helping people find businesses, brands and charities they can trust. In 2017, people turned to BBB more than 160 million times for BBB Business Profiles on more than 5.2 million businesses and 11,000 Charity Reports, all available for free at bbb.org. There are local, independent BBBs across the United States, Canada and Mexico, including BBB Serving Central Ohio, which serves 21 counties.
Voters raise concerns about voting machines, poll access
By CHRISTINA A. CASSIDY and ALINA HARTOUNIAN
Saturday, November 3
ATLANTA (AP) — Political activist Leah McElrath was reviewing her electronic ballot at a polling place in Houston when she was shocked to find Republican Ted Cruz listed as her choice in Texas’ high-profile U.S. Senate race.
McElrath had voted a straight ticket for Democrats, but the machine had switched her vote in the Senate race to Cruz, the incumbent. She snapped a quick photo, which she later posted on social media after seeing others making similar complaints.
“The main thing isn’t why it’s happening — if it’s malice, malfunctioning or poor design,” McElrath said. “It just needs to stop.”
The vote changes in Texas are just one example in a long list of concerns about the voting process that have surfaced in the run-up to Tuesday’s election.
Outdated equipment, confusion among election workers, polling place closures and efforts in some states to make voting eligibility more rigorous are among the reasons for many of the complaints. Another factor: Early voting across the country has been heavier than during the previous midterm election, in 2014.
The election also comes amid heightened concern over potential cyberattacks following Russian efforts in 2016 to target state election networks. There have been no indications so far of any significant problems revolving around election security, although state and federal officials say they remain vigilant.
“With the highly anticipated midterm elections nearing, my colleagues and I have worked non-stop to secure election systems and protect our democracy,” Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos, who serves as president of the National Association of Secretaries of State, said in a statement Friday.
In California, Secretary of State Alex Padilla and Attorney General Xavier Becerra on Friday urged voters to make sure they know their rights, including the ability to cast a provisional ballot that can be counted later once a voter’s eligibility is determined.
In the Texas example, the problem has affected both parties, with Cruz supporters also reporting their votes were switched. State officials said the problems can occur when voters complete and submit ballots too quickly. The vote-changing also is connected to a certain type of all-electronic voting machine that does not provide a paper trail, something voting experts say is a major concern because there is no way to verify later that an electronic ballot correctly captured the voter’s intent.
Five states — Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, New Jersey, and South Carolina —use such machines exclusively.
A handful of voters in Guilford County, North Carolina, have reported problems similar to those in Texas. County officials there have attributed the issue to old technology and been encouraging voters to double check their choices before submitting their ballots.
In Georgia, civil rights groups have filed several lawsuits over voter access in the weeks leading up to the election as Republican Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams face off in a close contest for governor.
The groups say Kemp, who oversees elections as secretary of state, has been too aggressive in removing people from the voter rolls and implementing the state’s “exact match” law, which flagged some 53,000 voter registration applications. They say the policy disproportionately affects black, Latino and Asian-American applicants.
The law requires information on the forms to match certain state and federal records. Kemp has said the concerns are overblown because those on the list can still vote if they bring a valid photo ID that substantially matches the information on file, something already required under the state’s voter ID law.
Also in Georgia, a high rate of absentee ballots rejected by election officials in a suburban Atlanta county triggered lawsuits by the ACLU and other groups. They said voters are not being given enough time to fix problems with their ballots.
A judge ruled that voters should have until the Monday after the election, when results are certified, to verify their ballot when it’s been flagged for a mismatched signature.
In Kansas, groups are raising alarm about physical access to polling places. Voters in Dodge City will have to travel outside the city limits to visit their polling place on Tuesday. Election officials moved the city’s lone polling place, citing construction at the previous site.
Concerns of voter confusion stemming from last-minute court rulings have arisen in a handful of states, while fliers with inaccurate information about deadlines for absentee ballots have circulated in Missouri and Montana.
The good government group Common Cause is monitoring voting concerns around the country. Its president, Karen Hobert Flynn, said most of the problems reported to date are fairly typical.
“We are waiting to see what else will come out,” she said.
Hartounian reported from Phoenix. Associated Press writer Will Weissert in Austin, Texas, contributed to this report.
Follow Christina Almeida Cassidy at http://twitter.com/AP_Christina and Alina Hartounian at https://twitter.com/ahartoun
Obama praises Donnelly, says voters don’t want ‘a yes man’
By BRIAN SLODYSKO and SARA BURNETT
Monday, November 5
GARY, Ind. (AP) — Former President Barack Obama praised Indiana Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly on Sunday for being willing to break with his party, telling a roaring crowd at a rally in the state that “you don’t want just a yes man.”
Donnelly has sounded more like President Donald Trump while trying to persuade voters in the conservative Midwestern state to grant him a second term. He’s angered some Democrats by tacking to the right in recent weeks and embracing some of Trump’s pet priorities, such as building a border wall with Mexico.
But Obama told voters during the rally in Gary that Donnelly “tries to do right by people” — not just his party — and noted he supported the Affordable Care Act, the health care overhaul passed under Obama.
“Joe Donnelly and I didn’t agree all the time. But Joe always let me know where he stood and I knew what he believed in and that he always was focused on: ‘What’s the best thing for the Hoosiers that he served?’” Obama said. “He was honest and he was direct. So you can count on that. That’s what you want. You don’t want just a yes man all the time.”
Obama’s stop was sandwiched between his successor’s trips to the state Friday and Monday on behalf of GOP Senate candidate Mike Braun.
For Braun, a businessman who has campaigned as a steadfast Trump ally, the current president’s appearances in Indianapolis and Fort Wayne are no-brainers in a state he won two years ago by 19 points. But for Donnelly, who frequently touts how often he votes with Trump, the Obama rally was a little more complicated.
“If he does need to inoculate himself from some of his firmer conservative rhetoric, it’s a pretty effective way to do it,” said Christina Hale, a former state lawmaker and the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor in 2016.
Obama has proven a polarizing figure with independent and Republican voters and is credited with some of Indiana’s rightward political shift, even though he won the state in 2008. To win in Tuesday’s election, Donnelly not only needs high turnout from his party’s base but also must peel off some moderate Republicans and independents.
That’s why Sunday’s rally in Gary, a heavily African-American city that has more in common with the Democratic stronghold of nearby Chicago than deep red parts of the state, could prove strategic. The northwest Indiana region supported Hillary Clinton in 2016, and driving turnout there on Tuesday will be critical for Donnelly.
A spokesman for Braun, Josh Kelley, said Donnelly was “doubling down on the liberal resistance movement” by campaigning with Obama.
Obama criticized Republicans for passing a tax bill that benefited the wealthy, and for trying to end protections for pre-existing conditions provided through the Affordable Care Act. And without mentioning Trump’s name, he told the crowd they could return the country to a kinder, less divisive kind of politics.
“On Tuesday you can vote for politics that is decent and honest and lawful and tries to do right by people like Joe Donnelly does,” he said, adding at one point that his voice was growing hoarse from all his campaigning in recent days.
Trump was keenly aware of Obama’s visit, which he mentioned Friday during an event at an Indianapolis-area high school.
“It’s no surprise that Joe Donnelly is holding a rally this weekend with Barack H. Obama,” Trump said as the crowd jeered. He later added: “We don’t want to go back to the Obama days.”
As a red-state Democrat, Donnelly has had a target on his back ever since he unexpectedly defeated Republican Richard Mourdock in 2012, when the former state treasurer said a woman who gets pregnant from her rapist is carrying a “gift from God.”
Donnelly has walked a delicate line since then, often frustrating his own party and Republicans alike with the votes he takes.
Trump was having none of it on Friday, tying Donnelly to “radical left” figures in the party who are widely reviled by the GOP base.
“This Tuesday I need the people of Indiana to send a message to Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, Maxine Waters and the radical Democrats by voting for Mike Braun,” Trump said as the crowd erupted in boos. “I’m really speaking more to the television cameras than to you because I don’t think we have too many Donnelly voters. Anybody going to vote for Donnelly in this room?”
The boos grew even louder.
Slodysko reported from Indianapolis.
Candidate chides Pete Davidson of ‘SNL’ over eyepatch joke
Monday, November 5
HOUSTON (AP) — A Texas Republican congressional candidate has chided “Saturday Night Live” comic Pete Davidson for poking fun at the eyepatch he wears because he was badly wounded during his third tour in Afghanistan as a Navy SEAL.
Davidson said during Saturday’s “Weekend Update” segment that Dan Crenshaw, whose photo was displayed, was “kinda cool” but that viewers might be “surprised he’s a congressional candidate from Texas and not a hit man in a porno movie.” He added, “I’m sorry, I know he lost his eye in war or whatever.”
Crenshaw, who is running against Democrat Todd Litton for an open suburban Houston district seat, replied in a tweet on Sunday, saying: “Good rule in life: I try hard not to offend; I try harder not to be offended. That being said, I hope nbcsnl recognizes that vets don’t deserve to see their wounds used as punchlines for bad jokes.”