Social media and misinformation: It’s a game of whack-a-mole
By BARBARA ORTUTAY
AP Technology Writer
Tuesday, December 18
NEW YORK (AP) — It’s a high-stakes game of whack-a-mole with no end in sight.
Social media companies are fighting an expensive and increasingly complex battle against Russian trolls who are using catchy memes, bots and fake accounts to influence elections and sow discord in the U.S. and beyond.
This week, two reports released by the Senate Intelligence Committee gave strong evidence that Moscow’s sweeping online disinformation campaign was more far-reaching than originally thought, with agents working to divide Americans by race, religion and ideology and erode trust in U.S. institutions.
It is also clear that the culprits are learning from one another and quickly adapting to sophisticated countermeasures taken against them.
Here are some questions and answers about the efforts to combat misinformation.
WHAT ARE THE TROLLS DOING?
When it comes to election meddling, much of the focus for the past two years has been on the biggest internet platforms, especially Facebook, where agents in Russia (as well as Iran and elsewhere) have used phony accounts to spread fake news and divisive messages.
But the latest reports offer more proof that the Russians went beyond the social media giant, taking advantage of smaller services like Pinterest, Reddit, music apps and even the mobile game Pokemon Go. Instagram, Facebook’s photo-sharing app, was also found to have played a far bigger role than previously understood.
In many ways, the Russian operation works like a corporate branding campaign, except in this case, the goal is not to sell running shoes but to sway elections. On Facebook, agents might post links to fake news articles, or slogans pitting immigrants against veterans or liberals against conservatives.
One image showed a ragged, bearded man in a U.S. Navy cap. It urged people to like and share “if you think our veterans must get benefits before refugees.” Another post had a photograph of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the words “Enough dreaming, wake your ass up.”
On Instagram, the post with the most interactions was a photo showing a row of women’s bare legs, ranging from pale white to dark brown, with the caption “All the tones are nude! Get over it!” The image had over a quarter-million likes.
Many of the posts and memes were not incendiary and didn’t contain anything that could get them promptly banned from social networks for violating their standards against hate speech or nudity, for example. Instead, they looked like the ordinary sorts of things regular people might share on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
WHAT ARE THE COMPANIES DOING?
Caught off guard by Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections, giants like Facebook, Google and Twitter 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.
They are using artificial intelligence to root out fake accounts or to identify bots that post divisive content. For example, while a human might post at random moments and needs sleep, a bot may give itself away by tweeting at all hours of the day, at fixed times, such as on the hour.
Of course, malicious actors are learning to sidestep these countermeasures. Bots are being designed to act more like humans and stop sending tweets out at fixed intervals. Or users who are operating fake accounts change their identities rapidly and delete their tweets to cover their tracks.
Some companies have made progress. Facebook’s efforts, for example, appear to have reduced trafficking in fake news on its platform since the 2016 election.
But some of these efforts go against these companies’ business interests, at least in the short term. In July, for example, Facebook announced that heavy spending on security and content control, coupled with other business shifts, would hold down growth and profits. Investors reacted by knocking $119 billion off the company’s market value.
Smaller platforms have fewer resources to throw at the problem, and that is one reason the trolls have moved on to them.
WHY AREN’T THE COMPANIES DOING MORE?
Created to sign up as many users as possible and have them posting, liking and commenting as often as possible, social networks are, by design, easy to flood with information. And bad information, if it’s catchy, can spread faster than a boring but true news story.
Companies like Facebook and its competitors have also built their business on letting advertisers target users based on their interests, where they live and a multitude of other categories. Trolls sponsored by malicious governments can do the same thing, buying ads that automatically target people according to their political leanings, ethnicity or whether they live in a swing state, for example.
Some companies have taken countermeasures against that. But critics say that unless companies like Facebook change their ad-supported business models, the exploitation is not going to stop.
Filippo Menczer, a professor of informatics and computer science at Indiana University, said the problem is a very difficult one to solve.
Facebook, for example, has focused a lot of its efforts on working with outside fact-checkers to root out fake news and suppress the spread of information that has been deemed false. But those items are only a part of the problem. Fact-checking doesn’t necessarily screen out memes and other more subtle means of shaping people’s opinions.
“A lot of the stuff is not necessarily false, but misleading or opinion,” Menczer said.
WHEN WILL THIS END?
According to one of the Senate-released reports, 2016 and 2017 saw “significant efforts” to disrupt elections around the world.
“We cannot wait for national courts to address the technicalities of infractions after running an election or referendum,” the Oxford researchers warned. “Protecting our democracies now means setting the rules of fair play before voting day, not after.”
There are also new threats, already seen in countries such as Myanmar and Sri Lanka, where messaging apps like Facebook’s WhatsApp have been instrumental in spreading misinformation and leading to violence. With these apps, the messages are private, and even the platforms themselves can’t get access to them as they try to combat those trying to spread havoc, Menczer said.
Menczer said the cost of getting into the misinformation game is low. The entire campaign by Russia, he said, might have involved a few dozen employees and an advertising budget in the tens of thousands of dollars.
“Clearly, they will continue,” he said. “There is no reason why they wouldn’t.”
The Institute for New Economic Thinking
When the Middle Class Lost Its Wealth
By Moritz Schularick
Nov 15, 2018 | Income & Wealth | Race | United States
Until 2008, rising home values gave the middle class a cushion amid growing income inequality. But following the financial crisis, that wealth has failed to return.
We live in unequal times. The causes and consequences of widening disparities in income and wealth are a defining debate of our age. Recent research by Thomas Piketty and his co-authors has made major inroads into documenting trends in either income or wealth inequality. But we still know little about how the two evolve together, and why wealth inequality is so much higher than income inequality.
In a paper with my co-authors, “Income and Wealth Inequality in America” (Kuhn, Schularick and Steins 2018), we exploit a unique new dataset that allows us to track the joint distributions of income and wealth in the U.S. since 1949. The dataset builds on historical waves of the Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF), conducted by the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan from 1948 to 1977. We linked the historical survey data to the modern SCFs that the Federal Reserve redesigned in 1983.
What do we find? Most importantly, we show that rich and poor households have very different assets. Middle-class households prominently own houses, while the top-10% predominantly own shares and business equity. This gives rise to a race between the housing market and the stock market in shaping the wealth distribution. Housing booms lead to wealth gains for leveraged middle-class households and tend to decrease wealth inequality. Stock market booms primarily boost the wealth at the top of the wealth distribution. Asset price changes can therefore lead to major changes in the wealth distribution. Over extended periods in postwar American history, such portfolio valuation effects have been key drivers of shifts in the U.S. distribution of wealth.
Moreover, asset price changes can decouple trends in income and wealth inequality for long time periods. This was predominantly the case in the four decades before the financial crisis when the middle class rapidly lost ground to the top 10% with respect to income but, by and large, maintained its wealth position thanks to substantial gains in housing wealth. Incomes of the top 10% more than doubled since 1971, while the incomes of middle-class households (50th to 90th percentile) increased by less than 40%, and those of households in the bottom 50% stagnated in real terms. Our data confirm a strong trend toward growing income concentration at the top.
However, when it comes to wealth, the picture is different, at least until the financial crisis. For the bottom 50%, wealth doubled between 1971 and 2007 despite zero income growth. For the middle class (50%-90%) and for the top 10%, wealth grew at approximately the same rate, rising by a factor of 2.5. As a result, wealth-to-income ratios increased most strongly for the bottom 90% of the wealth distribution.
Price effects accounted for the dominant part of the wealth gains of the middle and the lower middle class before the global financial crisis. For the bottom 50% virtually all wealth growth over the 1971-2007 period came from higher asset prices. From a political economy perspective, it is conceivable that these large wealth gains for the middle and lower middle class helped to dispel discontent about stagnant incomes for some time.
When house prices collapsed in the 2008 crisis, the same leveraged portfolio position of the middle class brought about substantial wealth losses, while the quick rebound in stock markets boosted wealth at the top. The bottom 50% lost 15% of wealth relative to 2007 levels, mainly because of lower house prices. By contrast, the top 10% were the main beneficiaries from the stock market boom and were relatively less affected by the drop in residential real estate prices. Substantial wealth losses at the bottom and in the middle of the distribution, coupled with wealth gains at the top, produced the largest spike in wealth inequality in postwar American history between 2007 and 2016.
We also study another central dimension of inequality, namely the racial income and wealth gap between black and white households. We show that income disparities between black and white households are as large today as they were in the pre-civil rights era. In 1950, the income of the median white household was about twice as high as the income of the median black household. In 2016, the median white household still has double the income of a black household. The racial wealth gap is even wider, and is as large as it was in the 1950s and 1960s. The median black household persistently has less than 15% of the wealth of the median white household, and the typical black household remains poorer than 80% of white households. Over the past seven decades, next to no progress has been made in narrowing black-white income and wealth differences. Designing policies to address these persistent racial inequalities more successfully than in the past thus remains an urgent policy priority.
Professor of Economics, University of Bonn
When the next generation looks racially different from the last, political tensions rise
February 14, 2018
Author: Manuel Pastor, Professor of Sociology, University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences
Disclosure statement: For the research on which this book is based, Manuel Pastor received funding from Ford Foundation, The California Endowment, the California Wellness Foundation, and the James Irvine Foundation.
Partners: University of Southern California — Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
The election of Donald Trump may have surprised some observers, but many Californians felt a sense of déjà vu.
Just over 20 years ago, the state passed Proposition 187. The campaign around this ballot initiative, later deemed unconstitutional, portrayed undocumented immigrants as criminal invaders and sought to ban them from using nonemergency public services, including even primary and secondary education.
The anti-immigrant sentiment occurred against a backdrop of wrenching economic change. Nearly half of the country’s net job losses in the early 1990s occurred in California, with a decline in manufacturing as steep as what would later occur between 2007 and 2010 in auto-heavy (and Trump-sympathetic) Michigan.
In another eerie parallel to today, profiting from political polarization was the order of the day: Rush Limbaugh arrived on the national stage in the late 1980s after perfecting his style hosting a talk radio show in Sacramento.
This toxic trio of immigration concerns, economic shocks and political blood-letting may be more than enough to demonstrate the parallels between California in the 1990s and the U.S. today. But there’s another important indicator: the “racial generation gap.” This is a straightforward measure of the relationship between the share of seniors who are white and the share of youth who are of color. But its interplay with public will and public policy is complex and consequential.
Understanding the gap
The racial generation gap is technically measured as the difference between the percent of those 65 or older who are white, minus the percent of those aged 17 and younger who are white. The bigger the gap, the more demographically distinct the generations.
Such gaps can emerge for several reasons, including new immigrants having children and an overwhelming white boomer generation living longer lives. But the problem is that when seniors have trouble seeing themselves in children and young adults, social cohesion is at risk, as are investments in the future.
Take Arizona, for example. It’s the state with the largest racial generation gap in the U.S., where snowbirds arrive from elsewhere to retire even as young people of color are remaking the state. It’s also known for its fractious politics (and pot-stirring politicians) around immigration and state legislation banning the teaching of ethnic studies in schools. And in a clear sign of retreating from the future, Arizona also made the largest cuts in K-12 state spending per student between 2008 and 2015.
In research published in September, several colleagues and I looked at factors that predict state expenditures on students, such as median household income, home ownership levels, and the underlying age and race makeup of the population. Even when you take all those other factors into account, the larger the racial generation gap, the less the state spends per student.
In California, the racial generation gap was just about the same in California in 1970 as it was in the U.S. in 1990. In effect, the nation lags the Golden State by 20 years (something proud Californians often insist is true in a number of ways!).
The peak of the racial generation gap occurred in California around 1994 to 1998. During this era, Proposition 187 passed, followed by a series of “racial propositions” that ended affirmative action, banned bilingual education and stepped up the incarceration of young men of color.
In the U.S., according to projections, the gap peaks around 2016. And much like in California in the 1990s, we have seen a racialized “whitelash” which in this case brought the election of Donald Trump, the racist violence in Charlottesville, and the revocation of DACA, the program designed to protect undocumented youth brought to this country at an early age.
This too shall pass?
When the racial generation gap peaked, the damage to the California Dream was deep – and the state is still trying to work its way back from the wreckage.
California fell from among the top spending states on education to become one of the stingiest. Our state prison population increased by more than sixfold between 1980 and 2006, twice as fast as in the rest of the country. And we went from being roughly in the middle of the pack in terms of income inequality back in the glory days of the late 1960s to the sixth most unequal state in 2012.
As the demographics continued to shift in California, the politics eventually moved in the direction of the needs and politics of a younger and more diverse generation. California once wanted to strip immigrants of services. Now, it’s declared itself a “sanctuary state.”
California once launched a nationwide grassroots revolt with a tax-slashing Proposition 13 – a measure tinged with a sense of an older and whiter generation drawing up the fiscal drawbridges just as a younger and more diverse generation arrived. Now, a very different grassroots revolt has helped to rebalance the books with progressive tax hikes in 2012 and 2016. And, although public schools are still languishing, a local control funding formula passed in 2013 is steering dollars to those students and schools that are most in need.
Would California have gone through the same turmoil had the generational gap been narrower? It’s hard to know for sure, but it’s also not prudent to wait around for elders to come to their political senses or for the younger generation to age into power. We need a national game plan that can accelerate what the slower pace of demographic change might push along.
Making our future
California still has far to go, of course. Housing is too expensive, income divides are too wide and good-paying jobs are too scarce. But the state no longer seems to be tearing at the seams over issues of race and representation.
In my new book, “State of Resistance: What California’s Dizzying Descent and Remarkable Resurgence Mean for America’s Future,” I suggest that the U.S. can draw lessons from California’s political and social shifts.
Term limits, for example, opened up opportunities for new politicians of color. Easier voter registration helped lower the barriers for new and young voters. The power to “redistrict” – to draw the lines for state and congressional seats – was taken from a state legislature eager to protect incumbents and given to a citizen commission less invested in the past.
However, such structural reforms are only effective if there is a citizenry ready to take advantage of them. To make that happen, a new generation of community-based organizers became more adept at linking together communities, mobilizing voters and promoting winnable policy change.
This same strategy of combining structural shifts with grassroots organizing and pragmatic policy may help restore the American Dream as well. But to get there, the nation will need to overcome the tension between what journalist Ron Brownstein has called the “coalition of restoration” – older Trump voters seeking a way back to what they see as American greatness – and a “coalition of transformation” that consists of younger and more diverse constituents.
Closing that social distance will be crucial. The California Dream was never just about one person (or one generation) and their route to individual success. It was about the promise of a state that welcomed newcomers, confidently invested in its children and looked forward to its future. That’s a recipe for progress in the Golden State and America alike.