How Lady Gaga’s fans are using Twitter to bend realityOctober 3, 2018
One of our core concerns around here is the way social networks are vulnerable to coordinated influence campaigns that can distort the nature of our reality, with negative consequences for our country. I write about this most often in in conjunction with state-sponsored campaigns, like the ones that Facebook caught Russia and Iran promoting this summer.
Today I want to talk about a different kind of coordinated influence campaign. It’s a campaign to promote the recording artist and actress known as Lady Gaga.
Exhibit 1 comes from Brett Esposito in BuzzFeed. An unknown Gaga fan organized a conspiracy on a message board in which fans are encouraged to create “soccer mom” accounts, in which they represent themselves as older women, and tweet song requests at radio stations around the country. The scheme reads in part:
“Trick the radio hosts into thinking the GP [general population] loves it.
”If you have qualms about using someone’s picture and ‘impersonating’ them on twitter, use a stock photo of a middle-aged woman/man. This way it’s completely legal and you can’t get in trouble for it but you will be helping radio DJ’s all over the world think that the GP is actually living for the song, therefore playing it more often.”
Exhibit 2 comes from Rachael Krishna, also in BuzzFeed. Gaga has a movie coming out Friday, A Star Is Born, that will compete with the superhero movie Venom. Her fans are reportedly flooding Venom with negative reviews in the hopes that it will drive people to A Star Is Born:
On Tuesday, a number of people accused fans of A Star Is Born and Lady Gaga of being bots and posting negative reviews of Venom.
For what it’s worth, this behavior isn’t exactly unusual for Gaga fans. The Little Monsters, as they’re known, have been behind a number of online troll campaigns; they were part of a group that trolled Ed Sheeran off Twitter and regularly fight with other fandoms. The fandom were supportive of troll account Uma Kompton and have been accused on multiple occasions of spreading racist and sexist abuse. The singer has in the past asked her fans to change their behavior, but a lot of it is rooted in online stan culture.
Some of the reviews are clearly satirical.
I saw #Venom last night and had to leave halfway through, my children wouldn’t stop crying at how bad it was. Luckily a second pre screening of #AStarIsBorn was about to start, and now we are all crying, tears of amazement. Please pray for my eldest he is still in a coma.
— Anne Harrison (@AnneHarrisonMom) October 2, 2018
But plenty of them look real enough to make you doubt yourself.
Earlier this year, Charlie Warzel spoke to the researcher Aviv Ovadya about the concept of “reality apathy”:
Beset by a torrent of constant misinformation, people simply start to give up. Ovadya is quick to remind us that this is common in areas where information is poor and thus assumed to be incorrect. The big difference, Ovadya notes, is the adoption of apathy to a developed society like ours. The outcome, he fears, is not good. “People stop paying attention to news and that fundamental level of informedness required for functional democracy becomes unstable.”
On one hand, most of us probably care very little how many times Lady Gaga’s new song gets played, or how much money her new movie makes. On the other, her fans are showing us how easily they can manipulate reality by exploiting anonymous Twitter accounts, viral mechanics, and a willingness to bend the truth.
It would be easy to make too much of this. But it’s easier to make too little of it. The cynicism about reality required to be truly apathetic toward it can only manifest over time. And whether the campaigns are sponsored by states or deranged fans, they’re now fully underway — and quite effective.
The Dublin-based data protection authority could announce its investigation within the next 48 hours, Mark Scott and Lauren Cerulus report.
Craig Silverman has an important and complex story about Facebook and Singapore. Singapore’s press freedoms are all but nonexistent, but the country is still looking to pass a law targeting fake news. Somewhat incredibly, Facebook’s head of policy in the region, Alvin Tan, is also a Singaporean politican:
“This guy is actually running the Southeast Asia policy [for Facebook] and yet he is affiliated with the ruling party in Singapore,” said Terry Xu, who runs the Online Citizen, an independent website covering Singapore politics and society that’s often critical of the government.
MPs in Singapore are part-time, which means many hold down other jobs, some with big companies, while serving in parliament. But the prospect of an MP also leading public policy for the dominant social platform in Singapore could be a new and potentially conflicting precedent — especially given that the new law will place more responsibility on Facebook and other platforms to quickly remove content at the government’s behest.
Twitter is accelerating its fight against spam, Selina Wang reports:
The company said it removed about 50 accounts in August that misrepresented themselves on the social-media site as members of various state Republican parties. It’s also taken action on Tweets sharing news about elections and political issues with misleading or incorrect party affiliation information, Twitter said Monday in a blog post.
California Gov. Jerry Brown has signed a bill that requires social media accounts to identify when they’re automated, an effort to force bots out into the open. Still unclear: how is this going to be enforced?
Issie Lapowsky looks at Facebook Login’s vulnerabilities in light of last week’s hack. Services that use the platform, including Spotify, Tinder, and Airbnb, could do a much better job protecting their own users from the fallout of breaches like these, researcher Jason Polakis tells her:
Polakis and his team also analyzed a subset of the sites to see what happens when you change the user’s email address or password on those third-party sites. They found that out of 29 sites, 15 allow attackers to change an account’s email without entering a password; of those, six allow the password to be set without entering the old password. The rest require the attacker to conduct a formal password reset. But if the attacker has already reset the email address on that site, they’re just routing the password reset email to themselves.
Facebook’s Dormer says the company advises developers on “best practices,” and is currently “preparing additional recommendations for all developers responding to this incident and to protect people going forward.”
For its part, Facebook says it has found no evidence yet that attackers used their ill-gotten user tokens to mess with users’ other accounts that used Facebook Login.
Sarah Kuranda profiles Pedro Canahuati, a vice president of engineering at Facebook who leads the company’s technical response to security and data privacy incidents. She had begun her reporting before last week’s hacking was announced. The story covers how Canahuati works with Guy Rosen, who polices speech, spam, harassment and disinformation; and Nathaniel Gleicher, who is in charge of cybersecurity policy:
All three work closely together, including on the response to the recent security breach. If a Facebook user posts a misleading image—a meme with false information about voting procedures, say—Mr. Rosen’s team turns to Mr. Canahuati’s engineers to determine how widely the image has spread on Facebook. Mr. Rosen then uses that information to link pages or groups with posts containing the disinformation. Mr. Gleicher’s team determines the legal and policy implications of any actions Facebook takes in response, like removing the material.
To keep his team prepared, Mr. Canahuati began simulating likely security events on a regular basis, describing to workers a fictional data breach or other incident. He forces them to practice their responses, including setting up conversation threads in Facebook’s Messenger service to stay in contact. Every drill is followed by a post-mortem, in which members talk about what could be improved. The number of people in Mr. Canahuati’s organization is believed to be in the hundreds.
Charlie Warzel bought a credible fake Facebook profile for $13. And he found a lot more like them:
Across Facebook there are countless others just like Audrey — dummy accounts with partially written backstories, a small posting history, and a photo gallery of real people taking real selfies. They trade hands in a vast web of fake-account marketplaces, where, for a small sum, any interested marketer, scammer, or troll can amass a legion of seemingly human profiles capable of outwitting Facebook’s detection. […]
“There must be millions [of accounts for sale],” one Facebook account seller based in Europe speculated to BuzzFeed News regarding the size of the fake accounts market. “I go to these big marketplaces and see they have several thousand [profiles] in stock at all times. I couldn’t say if it was tens of millions or hundreds of millions but Facebook deletes some and people keep making them. Always.” Similarly, when asked how many fake accounts I could purchase from them at one time, the seller told me, “I could send 5,000 accounts right away.”
Jake Swearingen points out that older industrial giants employed many more people than the tech giants that are now eating their lunch:
What the article didn’t mention is that GE, even with that paltry $100 billion valuation, employs about 313,000 people per its 2017 10-K report. Facebook, per its own 2017 10-K, employs just 25,105.
This isn’t a new insight. The Wall Street Journal did an excellent piece in 2016 noting that the one thing lacking from the new tech boom were jobs. In 2016, the Information gave Facebook the honor of being the company able to generate the most stock value with the fewest number of employees — far, far outdistancing companies like GE, Verizon, or AT&T.
Kara Swisher talks to Jessica Powell about her new novel and her time at Google:
“Internally in these companies, they should continue to celebrate all this stuff they’re building and continue to encourage this mentality of build and think big, and what are these big problems, because some of that stuff is really inspiring,” Powell said. “But you should also be able to say, ‘Okay. We’re getting rid of the middleman, and that’s great for all these reasons. That means we’re getting rid of a person, right?’ Or, ‘Oh, we’re building a platform where anyone can say anything they want. That means that we’re building a platform where anyone can say anything they want.’”
Robert Safian profiles Priscilla Chan and CZI, and talks to Zuckerberg about their working partnership:
“We used to go out to dinner to talk about CZI one night a week,” Zuckerberg says, “but that felt weird over time, because we also go out on dates. I just think psychologically, you want to have different places. So now we carve off time, like our one-on-ones. And then when we’re at the kitchen table with our kids, it’s not like we’re not talking about what’s going on in our lives—that’s weird too, you’re not going to turn things off that are important and emotional—but we try not to go through logistics and details and stuff like that.”
As on Instagram, you can now prevent certain keywords from showing up in your Facebook comments. You can also report that a friend is being bullied for the first time.
You can now upload a pre-recorded video to Facebook and publish it as a “live” event.
Incredible timing on this Facebook test of a Snap Map clone, spotted by Jane Manchun Wong:
Nearly 10-year-old Foursquare, which once promised to build a new social network around location, has transformed itself into a creepy surveillance operation and announced Tuesday that it has raised another $33 million to support it.
Here’s Ben Thompson, who is deeply skeptical of GDPR and other European moves to regulate tech giants, with some constructive ideas about more effective approaches. His big idea: let people see not just the data they put into platforms like Facebook, but also what Facebook gets out of it:
The most important thing that regulators could do is force Facebook and Google — and all data collectors — to disclose their factory output. Give users the ability to see not simply what they put in — which again, Google and Facebook do (and which GDPR requires), but also what comes out after all of the inputs are mixed and matched.
And finally …
When I started this newsletter 51 weeks ago, I set a goal for myself of hitting 5,000 subscribers by the midterm elections. As of today, I’m at 5,011, with just over 30 days to go. I wouldn’t be able to devote so much time to The Interface if it weren’t for all of you subscribing, sharing, and writing back with your tips, well wishes, and criticisms. Please keep them coming.
I want to give special thanks to my boss, Nilay Patel, for giving me the room to try this thing. I also want to thank some of the people who offered me crucial early support in sharing The Interface with their own readers and followers: Walt Mossberg, Kara Swisher, Ben Thompson, Charlie Warzel, Taylor Lorenz, Kevin Roose, Farhad Manjoo, Sarah Frier, Deepa Seetharaman, and Sheera Frankel. It helped a ton.
Lastly, thanks to all the great journalists — including all of those I just mentioned — whose work I feature here every day. I started writing this newsletter in part because I felt like all the amazing journalism investigating the intersection between social networks and democracy wasn’t getting enough attention. I’m grateful to everyone who helps me understand social networks better every day.
Here’s to the next 5,000.
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