In Tampa Bay, Tech Trends, Web Security

In part one of our series on Social Engineering, we looked at how cognitive bias and social engineering are used to manipulate society, and ways to protect your social media data. So now let’s get a bit more in depth on the vehicle social media manipulation uses to travel through online society – misinformation. 

The Echo Chamber of the Algorithm 

A critical thing to understand about what you see on your social media feed is that it is driven by algorithms designed to focus more heavily on content that might intrigue you based on past interests and behaviors. In most cases these algorithms basically turn a firehouse of content that would be aimed your way into a manageable trickle.

The downside to this, is that we tend to end up in a bit of an echo chamber where the world we see on social media tends to skew towards opinions, ideas, and perspectives that we’ve expressed or shown agreement with in the past. Once misinformation gets into that mix, it can easily reverberate among our friends and followers and begin to have equal footing with credible information.

Manipulation by Misinformation

It is fairly easy for a nefarious person or group to utilize this social media echo chamber effect to inject misinformation (or disinformation) about a person, policy, idea, or organization into the online conversation at large. This spreading of misinformation can cause societal rifts, be used to attack individuals or institutions, further open political divisions, or just create confusion and uncertainty.

Since we are in the middle of an election season, you have undoubtedly seen friends, family, and maybe even yourself sharing a “news” story that may not have come from a familiar or credible source. But because it sounded somewhat plausible and fit a certain perspective, it was shared without much thought. Possibly a friend or two with similar perspectives shared it – also without vetting it. This is how misinformation spreads and warps the online social conversation at large away from fact or common sense.   

The 2016 U.S. election is a prime example of how misinformation was weaponized on a massive scale with the intent to inflame political divisions and steer the electorate towards candidates and policies that benefited another country – Russia. Perhaps you have read that this was all a hoax, but that is a prime example of the misinformation reverberating around social media. Russia did indeed interfere with our election.  

And it was very easy. Basically, it was done by creating massive amounts of fake social media accounts, fake websites, and fake news stories and then assaulting social media with this strategic campaign of misinformation. The majority of this misinformation originated from the “Internet Research Agency”, a troll farm located in Saint Petersburg with ties to both the Kremlin and Russian intelligence. At one time this troll farm was reported to have as many as one thousand employees.

In 2018, a U.S. grand jury indicted 13 Russian nationals and 3 Russian entities for interference in our elections. Among those entities was the Internet Research Agency.

What Social Media Platforms are Doing to Stop Misinformation

Unfortunately, policing the billions of posts, tweets, stories, comments, and shares is a nearly insurmountable task and always brings concerns of censorship and partisanship. Social platforms Facebook and Twitter have been at the center of this controversy and the approach they’ve both taken is very similar: remove or restrict visibility of new stories from sources that have consistently put out misinformation, and increase the visibility of news stories from proven, credible sources. 

A good example of the difficulty faced by social media companies happened at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak. Users were sharing news stories and medical reporting about the virus faster than Facebook could vet them. Many users found that the legitimate article they shared from a smaller web source was removed by the social platform. Due to the dire nature of the outbreak, the uncertainty of the times, and the importance of credible advice, Facebook understandably was quick to pull the trigger on any content they seemed remotely not credible.

What You can do to Fight Misinformation and Social Manipulation

Fortunately, fighting the spread of misinformation and social manipulation is easy, but requires an open mind and a concerted effort to let go of any cognitive bias. The tips below can arm you for that fight. 

  • Vet news stories, articles, and blog posts for accuracy and veracity before sharing. This is undoubtedly the most important thing you can do to stop the spread of misinformation. The best way to go about this is to verify the story with a non-partisan fact-checking website like Factcheck.org, Politifact, or Snopes. You can also use Google to compare the news story you found with the reporting of other major news networks.
  • Check the source of any news stories, articles, and blog posts before sharing. Anyone can start a website and post a news story these days. Just because it looks like an authentic news website doesn’t mean it is reputable. If you often share stories from a smaller news blog, it is wise to find out who owns the website and/or who they are supported by. These days “news” websites can be created for any number of nefarious reasons including changing public opinion on questionable policy and spreading misinformation to create a political divide.    
  • Check dates of news stories before sharing. Often a legitimate news story from the recent past can seem explosive and controversial when brought up in a current news cycle. Always check dates of news stories before posting. If the news story doesn’t have a date, Google the headline to find other articles on the news story that do have dates.
  • Don’t assume images and videos are undoctored. You’ve undoubtedly heard the expression, ”A picture is worth a thousand words”. Technology has unfortunately made this saying irrelevant in the modern age. And it is not just from images doctored in Photoshop. Deepfake videos are proliferating at a phenomenal rate, and the quality is increasing just as fast. If you’ve never heard of deepfake video technology, this video does a great job of explaining what it is. 
  • Consider the social/political viewpoint of others before sharing. While it might be tempting to share a controversial news story that upsets or delights you, it may have the opposite effect on your Facebook friends who share a different political viewpoint. A great way to get other perspectives on a news story before sharing or posting, is to check Allsides. This news website gives a quick right, left, and center political perspective on most of the current news headlines. Even if you do go ahead and post something that gets a rise out of your online friends, at least you will be better armed to follow the next tip…
  • Exercise civil discourse. For many people, social media is a diversion and a place to have fun, make new friends, and escape the harsh realities of life. But anyone can get mired in a heated discussion they would rather not be in or, worse yet, find themselves being insulted or put down. Be respectful of other viewpoints and debate thoughtfully. We can all learn from one another and the internet is a fantastic place to do that.
  • Decide what you want your personal social media space to be. In the end, your social media experience is not solely yours – you share it with your friends and followers. If you want to post lots of social or political viewpoints, not everyone may feel the way you do or want to engage with you – even when you post content that is meant to be light and fun. A good way to express yourself politically, while not alienating non-political friends or friends who feel differently is to divide your personas between two different social platforms. Many people who are very engaged politically will limit their political engagement to Twitter, while keeping it non-political and purely social on Facebook.    

We all share the internet and with a little bit of effort, we can make it a more civil, honest, and safe space. If you have any questions on social engineering or want to discuss it further, feel free to contact us below.

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