Foreign bots meddle in US midterms, criticism of the Qatar World Cup is ‘Orientalist,’ and exploiting the data void
Boasting on VK the Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin admitted to having interfered and continuing to interfere in the U.S elections. A day before the U.S. goes to the polls, Prigozhin, long suspected of having links to the Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll factory, gleefully claimed, “We will remove both kidneys and the liver at once.”
On cue, various mainstream news organizations in the U.S. have been reporting on Russian efforts to sow discord before the midterms. Voting day, of course, is today and Russian bots have been reactivated in part to persuade Republican voters to register their anger at the United States’ expensive involvement in Ukraine’s defense against Russian aggression.
Since 2016, it has been apparent that U.S. elections are vulnerable to foreign manipulation. New research from the Election Integrity Partnership shows that Twitter recently disrupted five Chinese and Iranian-linked networks that similarly sought to sow disagreement and division online, with bots amplifying talking points on both the right and the left.
The question in the wake of Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter and his decision to slash staff numbers by half is: Can Twitter continue to effectively disrupt such election-related disinformation? Already Twitter has had to postpone its plans to roll out its “blue tick” verification check marks to anyone willing to pay around $8 a month until after the midterm elections.
Edward Perez, a former director at Twitter who led its civic integrity efforts, told Wired that it was unclear that “Musk fully understands the degree of social responsibility that rests on his shoulders, and the very real harm, political harm, political violence, and division that can come from social media platforms.”
As the likes of Prigozhin celebrate their ability to manufacture lies and chaos on social media, independent journalism is being shut down around the world. At Coda, we’ve recently reported on how journalism has been destroyed in both Nicaragua and Syria, while propaganda is permitted to flourish. Now the military junta in Myanmar has officially shut down independent news outlet The Irrawaddy for allegedly disturbing “public tranquility.” What the junta might describe as tranquil, others might describe as comatose. Of course, the military is frightened the patient might wake up. As independent newsrooms fall around the world, we are reminded of their value when the alternative appears to be the lies and distortions of social media.
NON-ENGLISH SPEAKERS TARGETED WITH MALICIOUS DISINFORMATION
Among the easiest targets for misinformation are non-English speaking communities in the U.S., new research from the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, D.C. shows. I spoke to the Center’s Aliya Bhatia about her findings. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How would you summarize your findings?
Election disinformation in languages other than English has the potential to micro-target vulnerable audiences. Many of these communities exist within what we call data voids — with a high demand for accurate information but a low supply of information in that specific language. There is high demand for questions like, “Where can I vote?” or “What’s the polling station near my house?” It’s hard to find this information in Spanish or, for example, Bengali. So they go on Facebook or other platforms where information is not fully verified.
The second, compounding effect is that false information is not equally addressed. So examples of untruthful information in languages other than English are not taken down. This means that an individual seeking that information not only has a hard time finding it, but they are more likely to encounter falsehoods that have stayed up or have not been modified with a warning label.
Can you give me an example of such disinformation?
A lot of the malicious disinformation that’s targeted on these communities is like, “Oh, you can’t vote if you speak a different language” or “Your vote doesn’t matter.” There is a law in the U.S. that if a specific language community makes up 5% of a population, county officials are expected to make information available in those languages. But because more and more communities speak different languages and are less than 5% of the population, they can’t find accurate information about where to vote, on which days to vote and so on.
How do bad actors manage to “micro-target” such specific groups?
Research groups working in this space are saying that one way to curb the spread of election disinformation is to stem the tide or limit the availability of mass data collection. Social media companies have levers that you can pull which allow advertisers to target individuals who speak a different language, or target a specific race, or people who like a certain page on Facebook, or are within a particular age range on Twitter. That data availability allows bad actors to share disinformation with an accurate veneer.
CRITICS OF THE QATAR WORLD CUP ARE ‘ORIENTALIST’
The organizers of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, which begins later this month in Qatar, have been accusing the media, particularly in Britain, of a disproportionate, maybe even racist focus on human rights abuses in the Gulf emirate. Writing in The New Arab, a London-headquartered website owned by a Qatari media company, Marc Owen Jones argued that all negative coverage of Qatar was linked to its hosting of the World Cup, unlike negative coverage of Russia in the runup to its hosting of the 2018 World Cup, which was treated as separate.
On the same website is another op-ed titled “Qatar World Cup and the weaponization of human rights.” Meanwhile, just last month the chief executive of the Qatar World Cup, Nasser al-Khater told the Qatar-based Al Jazeera that “lazy journalism” was responsible for “bringing Qatar into disrepute.” Even if you accept that the Western press, particularly in the U.K., can be patronizing and Orientalist in its approach to the Qatar World Cup, it would have been nice to hear less whining from the organizers about “unjust” media attention. Maybe Qatar could pay more attention instead to the workers who built the stadiums in unspeakable conditions for paltry wages, thousands of whom have reportedly lost their lives in the process.