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Voter manipulation on social media now a global problem, report finds

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New research by the Oxford Internet Institute has found that social media manipulation is getting worse, with rising numbers of governments and political parties making cynical use of social media algorithms, automation and big data to manipulate public opinion at scale — with hugely worrying implications for democracy.

The report found that computational propaganda and social media manipulation have proliferated massively in recently years — now prevalent in more than double the number of countries (70) vs two years ago (28). An increase of 150%.

The research suggests that the spreading of fake news and toxic narratives has become the dysfunctional new ‘normal’ for political actors across the globe, thanks to social media’s global reach.

“Although propaganda has always been a part of political discourse, the deep and wide-ranging scope of these campaigns raise critical public interest concerns,” the report warns.

The researchers go on to dub the global uptake of computational propaganda tools and techniques a “critical threat” to democracies.

“The use of computational propaganda to shape public attitudes via social media has become mainstream, extending far beyond the actions of a few bad actors,” they add. “In an information environment characterized by high volumes of information and limited levels of user attention and trust, the tools and techniques of computational propaganda are becoming a common – and arguably essential – part of digital campaigning and public diplomacy.”

Techniques the researchers found being deployed by governments and political parties to spread political propaganda include the use of bots to amplify hate speech or other forms of manipulated content; the illegal harvesting of data or micro-targeting; and the use of armies of ‘trolls’ to bully or harass political dissidents or journalists online.

The researchers looked at computational propaganda activity in 70 countries around the world — including the US, the UK, Germany, China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Argentina, Brazil and Australia (see the end of this article for the full list) — finding organized social media manipulation in all of them.

So next time Facebook puts out another press release detailing a bit of “coordinated inauthentic behavior” it claims to have found and removed from its platform, it’s important to put it in context of the bigger picture. And the picture painted by this report suggests that such small-scale, selective discloses of propaganda-quashing successes sum to misleading Facebook PR vs the sheer scale of the problem.

The problem is massive, global and largely taking place through Facebook’s funnel, per the report.

Facebook remains the platform of choice for social media manipulation — with researchers finding evidence of formally organised political disops campaigns on its platform taking place in 56 countries.

We reached out to Facebook for a response to the report and the company sent us a laundry list of steps it says it’s been taking to combat election interference and coordinated inauthentic activity — including in areas such as voter suppression, political ad transparency and industry-civil society partnerships.

But it did not offer any explanation why all this apparent effort (just its summary of what it’s been doing exceeds 1,600 words) has so spectacularly failed to stem the rising tide of political fakes being amplified via Facebook.

Instead it sent us this statement: “Helping show people accurate information and protecting against harm is a major priority for us. We’ve developed smarter tools, greater transparency, and stronger partnerships to better identify emerging threats, stop bad actors, and reduce the spread of misinformation on Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. We also know that this work is never finished and we can’t do this alone. That’s why we are working with policymakers, academics, and outside experts to make sure we continue to improve.”

We followed up to ask why all its efforts have so far failed to reduce fake activity on its platform and will update this report with any response.

Returning to the report, the researchers say China has entered the global disinformation fray in a big way — using social media platforms to target international audiences with disinformation, something the country has long directed at its domestic population of course.

The report describes China as “a major player in the global disinformation order”.

It also warns that the use of computational propaganda techniques combined with tech-enabled surveillance is providing authoritarian regimes around the world with the means to extend their control of citizens’ lives.

“The co-option of social media technologies provides authoritarian regimes with a powerful tool to shape public discussions and spread propaganda online, while simultaneously surveilling, censoring, and restricting digital public spaces,” the researchers write.

Other key findings from the report include that both democracies and authoritarian states are making (il)liberal use of computational propaganda tools and techniques.

Per the report:

  • In 45 democracies, politicians and political parties “have used computational propaganda tools by amassing fake followers or spreading manipulated media to garner voter support”
  • In 26 authoritarian states, government entities “have used computational propaganda as a tool of information control to suppress public opinion and press freedom, discredit criticism and oppositional voices, and drown out political dissent”

The report also identifies seven “sophisticated state actors” — China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela — using what it calls “cyber troops” (aka dedicated online workers whose job is to use computational propaganda tools to manipulate public opinion) to run foreign influence campaigns.

Foreign influence operations — which includes election interference — were found by the researchers to primarily be taking place on Facebook and Twitter.

We’ve reached out to Twitter for comment and will update this article with any response. Update: A spokesperson told us: “Platform manipulation, including spam and other attempts to undermine the integrity of our service, is a violation of the Twitter Rules. We’ve significantly stepped up our efforts — investing in people, policies, and tech — to catch this behavior at scale. Additionally, we’re the only company to disclose every account and piece of content that we can reliably link to state-backed activity on the service. Research like this is the reason we’ve made this choice. We believe that full transparency empowers public understanding of these critical issues.”

A year ago, when Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was questioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee, he said it was considering labelling bot accounts on its platform — agreeing that “more context” around tweets and accounts would be a good thing, while also arguing that identifying automation that’s scripted to look like a human is difficult.

Instead of adding a ‘bot or not’ label, Twitter has just launched a ‘hide replies’ feature — which lets users screen individual replies to their tweets (requiring an affirmative action from viewers to unhide and be able to view any hidden replies). Twitter says this is intended at increasing civility on the platform. But there have been concerns the feature could be abused to help propaganda spreaders — i.e. by allowing them to suppress replies that debunk their junk.

The Oxford Internet Institute researchers found bot accounts are very widely used to spread political propaganda (80% of countries studied used them). However the use of human agents was even more prevalent (87% of countries).

Bot-human blended accounts, which combine automation with human curation in an attempt to fly under the BS detector radar, were much rarer: Identified in 11% of countries.

While hacked or stolen accounts were found being used in just 7% of countries.

In another key finding from the report, the researchers identified 25 countries working with private companies or strategic communications firms offering a computational propaganda as a service, noting that: “In some cases, like in Azerbaijan, Israel, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, student or youth groups are hired by government agencies to use computational propaganda.”

Commenting on the report in a statement, professor Philip Howard, director of the Oxford Internet Institute, said: “The manipulation of public opinion over social media remains a critical threat to democracy, as computational propaganda becomes a pervasive part of everyday life. Government agencies and political parties around the world are using social media to spread disinformation and other forms of manipulated media. Although propaganda has always been a part of politics, the wide-ranging scope of these campaigns raises critical concerns for modern democracy.”

Samantha Bradshaw, researcher and lead author of the report, added: “The affordances of social networking technologies — algorithms, automation and big data — vastly changes the scale, scope, and precision of how information is transmitted in the digital age. Although social media was once heralded as a force for freedom and democracy, it has increasingly come under scrutiny for its role in amplifying disinformation, inciting violence, and lowering trust in the media and democratic institutions.”

Other findings from the report include that:

  • 52 countries used “disinformation and media manipulation” to mislead users
  • 47 countries used state sponsored trolls to attack political opponents or activists, up from 27 last year

Which backs up the widespread sense in some Western democracies that political discourse has been getting less truthful and more toxic for a number of years — given tactics that amplify disinformation and target harassment at political opponents are indeed thriving on social media, per the report.

Despite finding an alarming rise in the number of government actors across the globe who are misappropriating powerful social media platforms and other tech tools to influence public attitudes and try to disrupt elections, Howard said the researchers remain optimistic that social media can be “a force for good” — by “creating a space for public deliberation and democracy to flourish”.

“A strong democracy requires access to high quality information and an ability for citizens to come together to debate, discuss, deliberate, empathise and make concessions,” he said.

Clearly, though, there’s a stark risk of high quality information being drowned out by the tsunami of BS that’s being paid for by self-interested political actors. It’s also of course much cheaper to produce BS political propaganda than carry out investigative journalism.

Democracy needs a free press to function but the press itself is also under assault from online ad giants that have disrupted its business model by being able to spread and monetize any old junk content. If you want a perfect storm hammering democracy this most certainly is it.

It’s therefore imperative for democratic states to arm their citizens with education and awareness to enable them to think critically about the junk being pushed at them online. But as we’ve said before, there are no shortcuts to universal education.

Meanwhile regulation of social media platforms and/or the use of powerful computational tools and techniques for political purposes simply isn’t there. So there’s no hard check on voter manipulation.

Lawmakers have failed to keep up with the tech-fuelled times. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given how many political parties have their own hands in the data and ad-targeting cookie jar, as well as pushing fakes. (Concerned citizens are advised to practise good digital privacy hygiene to fight back against undemocratic attempts to hack public opinion. More privacy tips here.)

The researchers say their 2019 report, which is based on research work carried out between 2018 and 2019, draws upon a four-step methodology to identify evidence of globally organised manipulation campaigns — including a systematic content analysis of news articles on cyber troop activity and a secondary literature review of public archives and scientific reports, generating country specific case studies and expert consultations.

Here’s the full list of countries studied:

Angola, Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Brazil, Cambodia, China, Colombia, Croatia, Cuba, Czech Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Honduras, Guatemala, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Iran, Israel, Italy, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Macedonia, Malaysia, Malta, Mexico, Moldova, Myanmar, Netherlands, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Philippines, Poland, Qatar, Russia, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Syria, Taiwan, Tajikistan, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe.

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What can ChatGPT do?

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ChatGPT Explained

ChatGPT is a large language model developed by OpenAI that is trained on a massive amount of text data. It is capable of generating human-like text and has been used in a variety of applications, such as chatbots, language translation, and text summarization.

One of the key features of ChatGPT is its ability to generate text that is similar to human writing. This is achieved through the use of a transformer architecture, which allows the model to understand the context and relationships between words in a sentence. The transformer architecture is a type of neural network that is designed to process sequential data, such as natural language.

Another important aspect of ChatGPT is its ability to generate text that is contextually relevant. This means that the model is able to understand the context of a conversation and generate responses that are appropriate to the conversation. This is accomplished by the use of a technique called “masked language modeling,” which allows the model to predict the next word in a sentence based on the context of the previous words.

One of the most popular applications of ChatGPT is in the creation of chatbots. Chatbots are computer programs that simulate human conversation and can be used in customer service, sales, and other applications. ChatGPT is particularly well-suited for this task because of its ability to generate human-like text and understand context.

Another application of ChatGPT is language translation. By training the model on a large amount of text data in multiple languages, it can be used to translate text from one language to another. The model is able to understand the meaning of the text and generate a translation that is grammatically correct and semantically equivalent.

In addition to chatbots and language translation, ChatGPT can also be used for text summarization. This is the process of taking a large amount of text and condensing it into a shorter, more concise version. ChatGPT is able to understand the main ideas of the text and generate a summary that captures the most important information.

Despite its many capabilities and applications, ChatGPT is not without its limitations. One of the main challenges with using language models like ChatGPT is the risk of generating text that is biased or offensive. This can occur when the model is trained on text data that contains biases or stereotypes. To address this, OpenAI has implemented a number of techniques to reduce bias in the training data and in the model itself.

In conclusion, ChatGPT is a powerful language model that is capable of generating human-like text and understanding context. It has a wide range of applications, including chatbots, language translation, and text summarization. While there are limitations to its use, ongoing research and development is aimed at improving the model’s performance and reducing the risk of bias.

** The above article has been written 100% by ChatGPT. This is an example of what can be done with AI. This was done to show the advanced text that can be written by an automated AI.

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Google December Product Reviews Update Affects More Than English Language Sites? via @sejournal, @martinibuster

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Google’s Product Reviews update was announced to be rolling out to the English language. No mention was made as to if or when it would roll out to other languages. Mueller answered a question as to whether it is rolling out to other languages.

Google December 2021 Product Reviews Update

On December 1, 2021, Google announced on Twitter that a Product Review update would be rolling out that would focus on English language web pages.

The focus of the update was for improving the quality of reviews shown in Google search, specifically targeting review sites.

A Googler tweeted a description of the kinds of sites that would be targeted for demotion in the search rankings:

“Mainly relevant to sites that post articles reviewing products.

Think of sites like “best TVs under $200″.com.

Goal is to improve the quality and usefulness of reviews we show users.”

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Google also published a blog post with more guidance on the product review update that introduced two new best practices that Google’s algorithm would be looking for.

The first best practice was a requirement of evidence that a product was actually handled and reviewed.

The second best practice was to provide links to more than one place that a user could purchase the product.

The Twitter announcement stated that it was rolling out to English language websites. The blog post did not mention what languages it was rolling out to nor did the blog post specify that the product review update was limited to the English language.

Google’s Mueller Thinking About Product Reviews Update

Screenshot of Google's John Mueller trying to recall if December Product Review Update affects more than the English language

Screenshot of Google's John Mueller trying to recall if December Product Review Update affects more than the English language

Product Review Update Targets More Languages?

The person asking the question was rightly under the impression that the product review update only affected English language search results.

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But he asserted that he was seeing search volatility in the German language that appears to be related to Google’s December 2021 Product Review Update.

This is his question:

“I was seeing some movements in German search as well.

So I was wondering if there could also be an effect on websites in other languages by this product reviews update… because we had lots of movement and volatility in the last weeks.

…My question is, is it possible that the product reviews update affects other sites as well?”

John Mueller answered:

“I don’t know… like other languages?

My assumption was this was global and and across all languages.

But I don’t know what we announced in the blog post specifically.

But usually we try to push the engineering team to make a decision on that so that we can document it properly in the blog post.

I don’t know if that happened with the product reviews update. I don’t recall the complete blog post.

But it’s… from my point of view it seems like something that we could be doing in multiple languages and wouldn’t be tied to English.

And even if it were English initially, it feels like something that is relevant across the board, and we should try to find ways to roll that out to other languages over time as well.

So I’m not particularly surprised that you see changes in Germany.

But I also don’t know what we actually announced with regards to the locations and languages that are involved.”

Does Product Reviews Update Affect More Languages?

While the tweeted announcement specified that the product reviews update was limited to the English language the official blog post did not mention any such limitations.

Google’s John Mueller offered his opinion that the product reviews update is something that Google could do in multiple languages.

One must wonder if the tweet was meant to communicate that the update was rolling out first in English and subsequently to other languages.

It’s unclear if the product reviews update was rolled out globally to more languages. Hopefully Google will clarify this soon.

Citations

Google Blog Post About Product Reviews Update

Product reviews update and your site

Google’s New Product Reviews Guidelines

Write high quality product reviews

John Mueller Discusses If Product Reviews Update Is Global

Watch Mueller answer the question at the 14:00 Minute Mark

[embedded content]

Searchenginejournal.com

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Survey says: Amazon, Google more trusted with your personal data than Apple is

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survey-says:-amazon,-google-more-trusted-with-your-personal-data-than-apple-is-–-phonearena
 

MacRumors reveals that more people feel better with their personal data in the hands of Amazon and Google than Apple’s. Companies that the public really doesn’t trust when it comes to their personal data include Facebook, TikTok, and Instagram.

The survey asked over 1,000 internet users in the U.S. how much they trusted certain companies such as Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, WhatsApp, YouTube, Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon to handle their user data and browsing activity responsibly.

Amazon and Google are considered by survey respondents to be more trustworthy than Apple

Those surveyed were asked whether they trusted these firms with their personal data “a great deal,” “a good amount,” “not much,” or “not at all.” Respondents could also answer that they had no opinion about a particular company. 18% of those polled said that they trust Apple “a great deal” which topped the 14% received by Google and Amazon.

However, 39% said that they trust Amazon  by “a good amount” with Google picking up 34% of the votes in that same category. Only 26% of those answering said that they trust Apple by “a good amount.” The first two responses, “a great deal” and “a good amount,” are considered positive replies for a company. “Not much” and “not at all” are considered negative responses.

By adding up the scores in the positive categories,

Apple tallied a score of 44% (18% said it trusted Apple with its personal data “a great deal” while 26% said it trusted Apple “a good amount”). But that placed the tech giant third after Amazon’s 53% and Google’s 48%. After Apple, Microsoft finished fourth with 43%, YouTube (which is owned by Google) was fifth with 35%, and Facebook was sixth at 20%.

Rounding out the remainder of the nine firms in the survey, Instagram placed seventh with a positive score of 19%, WhatsApp was eighth with a score of 15%, and TikTok was last at 12%.

Looking at the scoring for the two negative responses (“not much,” or “not at all”), Facebook had a combined negative score of 72% making it the least trusted company in the survey. TikTok was next at 63% with Instagram following at 60%. WhatsApp and YouTube were both in the middle of the pact at 53% followed next by Google and Microsoft at 47% and 42% respectively. Apple and Amazon each had the lowest combined negative scores at 40% each.

74% of those surveyed called targeted online ads invasive

The survey also found that a whopping 82% of respondents found targeted online ads annoying and 74% called them invasive. Just 27% found such ads helpful. This response doesn’t exactly track the 62% of iOS users who have used Apple’s App Tracking Transparency feature to opt-out of being tracked while browsing websites and using apps. The tracking allows third-party firms to send users targeted ads online which is something that they cannot do to users who have opted out.

The 38% of iOS users who decided not to opt out of being tracked might have done so because they find it convenient to receive targeted ads about a certain product that they looked up online. But is ATT actually doing anything?

Marketing strategy consultant Eric Seufert said last summer, “Anyone opting out of tracking right now is basically having the same level of data collected as they were before. Apple hasn’t actually deterred the behavior that they have called out as being so reprehensible, so they are kind of complicit in it happening.”

The Financial Times says that iPhone users are being lumped together by certain behaviors instead of unique ID numbers in order to send targeted ads. Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg says that the company is working to rebuild its ad infrastructure “using more aggregate or anonymized data.”

Aggregated data is a collection of individual data that is used to create high-level data. Anonymized data is data that removes any information that can be used to identify the people in a group.

When consumers were asked how often do they think that their phones or other tech devices are listening in to them in ways that they didn’t agree to, 72% answered “very often” or “somewhat often.” 28% responded by saying “rarely” or “never.”

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