The spread of misinformation online

I’ve recently come across some interesting scientific papers which attempt to identify and quantify the scourge of misinformation on the Internet. What? You didn’t know that this a real, bonafide thing? This concern, which is increasingly being taken up by some pretty powerful movers and shakers, might be beneficial if it weren’t so terrifying. It’s not that the premise is in dispute, because even the most naive person couldn’t possibly believe everything they read online. The thing which makes it more than a little disturbing (you can read one of the papers here), is that their justification for studying (undefined) misinformation centers around the notion that:

“Massive digital misinformation is becoming pervasive in online social media to the extent that it has been listed by the World Economic Forum (WEF) as one of the main threats to human society.”

Irony alert: The World Economic Forum thinks that the spread of misinformation, and, bizarrely, even the spread of just badly-timed, yet accurate, information is dangerous. Dangerous to whom? Or to what? Well, there are a few examples given (although this WEF report doesn’t even refer to valid dangers by those spreading disinformation about climate change or global warming – the only existential-level threat posed by disinformation), such as an accurate, but “ill-timed” online rumor about Google’s earnings report which caused their stock to lose $22 billion dollars of market capitalization (forcing the NASDAQ to halt trading on it); or the example of the musician who wrote a song (which went viral) about how United Airlines’ baggage handlers had broken his guitar and then rejected his claim for the damage they’d done (apparently United Airline’s stock plunged 10% because of the video, costing shareholders $180 million dollars – but the story about the guitar being damaged and the musician’s claim being rejected was absolutely true); or there was one about an anonymous Tweet about the floor of the NYSE being flooded by Hurricane Sandy (this one wasn’t true, but it apparently was about to disrupt trading – so, $$$). There are some references to “public safety,” and the requisite analogy to screaming, “fire!” in a movie theatre, but, frankly, I’m not buying it.

Of course, they (as in WEF’s own report, and the scientific paper I mentioned at the beginning of this post, which, again, can be read here) cover their bases by saying that even the mere mention of monitoring and patrolling the Internet for “false claims,” half-truths, or ill-timed announcements will undoubtedly trigger an uproar that there is a conspiracy or some sort of Big Brother-type of censorship blah blah circular logic, blah blah infinite feedback loops – waaaa! So they’ve covered their bases (said only them).

The World Economic Forum wants the media, industry, and stakeholders (?) to begin “the dialogue” necessary to execute monitor enforce explore the context and conditions needed for any government or business intervention to be effective and sustainable.” Yeah. Right. Those good old boys over at WEF are banging the panic drum right out of the gate, saying:

“The global risk of massive digital misinformation sits at the centre of a constellation of technological and geopolitical risks ranging from terrorism to cyber attacks and the failure of global governance.”

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Do you think Dick Cheney typed that? I dunno. Just sayin’.

But anyway, the WEF, which created the framework for the discussion to begin (how do you like that bullshit-speak? I made that up myself) is made up of THESE people corporations and groups (far too many to list here, but I’ve put a sampler below):

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Strategic Partners
The Strategic Partners comprise 100 leading global companies representing diverse regions and industries. They are selected for their alignment with the Forum’s mission, provide essential support and are the driving force behind the Forum’s activities and the work of its communities.

At the centre of the Forum’s knowledge generation activities Strategic Partners benefit from and contribute to the global knowledge base through working closely with the Forum to set the intellectual agenda of Forum meetings, driving the insight agenda of its publications and steering the impact of its initiatives

Strategic Partners make a tangible impact on global issues and society by contributing to better policy-making, informing business decisions, sharing best practices and engaging stakeholders beyond commercial objectives..

And, not to be left out (with some overlap), are these players:.

Industry Partners
Industry Partners are select Member companies of the World Economic Forum that are actively involved in the Forum’s mission at the industry level. With privileged access to the Forum’s multistakeholder networks and experts, partnership brings visibility and insight to strategic decision-making on the most important industry and cross-industry related issues. This access and insight allows Industry Partners to contribute to leading positive change across these issues to engage in action to support corporate global citizenship.

Agriculture
Food & Beverage
Automotive
Aviation & Travel
Banking & Capital Markets
Chemistry & Advanced Materials
Electronics
Energy Technologies
Energy Utilities
Energy: Oil & Gas
Global Health & Healthcare
Information Technology
Infrastructure & Urban Development
Institutional Investors
Insurance & Asset Management
Media, Entertainment & Information
Mining & Metals
Private Investors
Professional Services
Retail, Consumer Goods & Lifestyle
Supply Chain & Transport
Telecommunications

.And, of course, WEF didn’t forget these folks corporations:

The Global Agenda Councils
The Global Agenda Councils are a network of invitation-only groups that study the most pressing issues facing the world. Each council is made up of 15-20 experts, who come together to provide interdisciplinary thinking, stimulate dialogue, shape agendas and drive initiatives. Council Members meet annually at the Summit on the Global Agenda, the world’s largest brainstorming event, which is hosted in partnership with the government of the United Arab Emirates.

The World Economic Forum’s Network of Global Agenda Councils is the world’s foremost interdisciplinary knowledge network dedicated to promoting innovative thinking on critical global issues, regions and industries, and incubating projects, campaigns and events for the public good.

The Network convenes the most relevant and knowledgeable thought leaders from academia, government, business and civil society to challenge conventional thinking, develop new insights and create innovative solutions for key global challenges. In a global environment marked by short-term orientation and siloed thinking, the Network fosters interdisciplinary and long-range thinking on the prevailing challenges on the global agenda.

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Well, as long as there are “thought leaders,” it should all be okay.

You can find a list of the biggest, most powerful organizations and corporations at the bottom of this page on the WEF website

Here’s the thing – the scientific paper, which appeared in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences, warns that:
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“Users tend to aggregate in communities of interest, which causes reinforcement and fosters confirmation bias, segregation, and polarization. This comes at the expense of the quality of the information and leads to proliferation of biased narratives fomented by unsubstantiated rumors, mistrust, and paranoia.”

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Umm, well, to put it as gently as possible, the “powers that be” should be damn grateful that those users tend to merely aggregate in communities of interest, because if we all got our acts together and united,  the power brokers would have a revolution on their manicured hands.
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quote-i-m-the-decider-and-i-decide-what-is-best-george-w-bush-64-47-33
And it would get so damn ugly, so fast (as I’m sure Bernie Sanders knows all too well by now) that most of our institutions would be burned to the ground, because that’s what they deserve. Lest we forget, the ones who want to be the Deciders, and who have maneuvered their way into positions of authority over the rest of us schmucks are just human. They’re fallible, weak, and corruptible like everyone else. Don’t forget that our brains are still stuck in a world as complex as 10,000 or so years ago since evolution is pretty damn slow, and our gray matter hasn’t caught up. None of us are even remotely equipped to deal with what transpires around us. Some people are able to pretend better than others. That’s it. Put any person, or group of people, who think they’re more capable of making far-reaching decisions than the next Neanderthal next door, and mistakes will be made and bad choices will ensue. As Holly Hunter’s character says in Batman vs. Superman, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” And here’s the thing: we all suspect that we’re not being governed by people who are doing what’s in anyone’s best interests other than their own. Even pretending otherwise is nonsense.


Deciders making bad decisions, Example #1: Flint, Michigan

In Michigan, thanks to Governor Rick Snyder decision that the residents of Flint were so incapable of making their own decisions that Emergency Managers needed to step in and do it for them, some very bad choices, spanning almost five years, were ploddingly and methodically made. Along the way, those much maligned, so-called conspiracy theorists cried foul, suspecting much darker goings-on were afoot in Michigan. Crazy, rumor-mongering arm-wavers said that Governor Rick Snyder was corrupt, devious, financially-motivated, and controlled by large corporations and dark money. And they were right. About this conspiracy fruitcakes…the PNAS paper disparages them (and their websites) by lumping them all together and saying:

“The first category (conspiracy theories) includes the pages that disseminate alternative, controversial information, often lacking supporting evidence and frequently advancing conspiracy theories.”

“Controversial” information damns people to being conspiracy theorists, huh? Say that out loud and tell me you don’t get shivers up your spine.

Of course, people (and not corporations) like investigative reporter Curt Guyette, pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha and Virginia Tech researcher Marc Edwards tried to sound the alarm that Flint was being poisoned by its own leaders and the whole (and real) cover up was being orchestrated by Governor Rick Snyder. They were savagely discredited and mocked as crackpots, lunatics, and/or conspiracy theorists by those same exact bunch of crooks doing the poisoning. Boom. The people of Michigan had uncovered a conspiracy.


Deciders being bought and paid for by the ones they decide about, Example #2: The US Supreme Court

And how about all those crackpots who, for years, suspected that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was nothing more than a corporate shill, furthering their greedy power grabs while shielding big business from prosecution and penalties? How extremely paranoid and crazy for anyone to even say out loud that the US Supreme Court is prone to being influenced by big business, or even that the whole institution is corrupt and political. Sacre bleu! Except that they were absolutely right.

Since Scalia’s untimely (for the multinational corporations who were counting on his support), bizarre, and 100% dodgy demise at a private hunting club (I’m not even touching that one), certain things have come to light. I’ll use an astronomy analogy to explain this.

In the case of Scalia, you have to look for Wall Street perturbations to understand what’s really going on:

perturbation

Despite the plodding, glacial speed that the Supreme Court operates, such perturbations have become very quickly apparent. Money does have that affect. As reported in the Wall Street Journal this past weekend:

The death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has cast a cloud over the outcome of class-action lawsuits that target businesses, leading Dow Chemical Co. to pay $835 million to settle a case rather than risk an appeal without the conservative justice.

Deepak Gupta, a plaintiffs’ attorney who specializes in Supreme Court and appellate litigation, said he didn’t expect Dow to be the only company with pending class-action litigation to reverse course, predicting a ripple effect on cases that span consumer complaints to securities lawsuits.

“You can think of this as the canary in the coal mine,” Mr. Gupta, said, “the first casualty on the business side.”

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Such bad timing, Scalia! Shame on your crazy ass soul.

And Dow Chemical isn’t the only one panicking that their horse pooped out during the race. Apparently, Dow’s case, which involved a $1.2 billion dollar fine for price fixing (which had been negotiated down to $835 million with them hoping to bring it down further with help from the Supreme Court) comes because of Tyson Foods panic that because Scalia died, decades-long attempts by corporate America to scale down the definition and limit of punitive amounts in class action lawsuits (an effort which depended on Scalia being on the bench) will also lead to them losing (certain aspects) of their case. And more cases involving corporations depending on Scalia being on the bench are anticipated to be dropped by their attorneys. Perturbations galore. Conspiracy theorists’ suspicions about Scalia? I’d say they’ve been totally vindicated.

Deciders and astroturf, aka sometimes it’s okay when we say it’s okay, Example #3: The World Economic Forum

Imagine the blatant hypocrisy of the World Economic Forum, which is made up almost entirely of multinational corporate interests, decrying (in their report about disinformation online) the dangers of astroturfing on the Internet.

Pot, meet kettle.

People in glass houses…

Spade, please identify yourself.

Other papers and reports have chimed in on the scourge of astroturfing as well, and the World Economic Forum definitely thinks that only their members should be doing it. Err. Or maybe it’s that only those allowed to do it (lying, disseminating false information, rumor mongering, etc.) should be those who benefit their members. No, wait. That’s not what they’re saying, is it?

One of the most egregious examples I’ve ever seen of astroturfing was done exactly for the benefit of multinational corporations. Funny how they didn’t get around to calling out stuff like that. For those who are unfamiliar with the term astroturf, here’s what the WEF has to say about it:

“Astroturfing”, Satire, “Trolling” and Attribution Difficulties

While it is certainly possible for a digital wildfire to start accidentally, it is also possible for misinformation to be deliberately propagated by those who stand to reap some kind of benefit. Some examples:

In politics, the practice of creating the false impression of a grassroots movement reaching a group consensus on an issue is called “astroturfing”. During the 2009 Massachusetts special election for the US Senate, a network of fake Twitter accounts successfully spread links to a website smearing one of the candidates.

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Sounds nasty, right? Sounds dishonest, and shady and deceptive and like it should be exposed, no matter where or how it happens in order to stop these dangerous “digital wildfires.”

How about when President Obama does it himself for the benefit of multinational corporations to push the TransPacific Partnership, which, by the way, is going to benefit virtually all of WEF’s members and partners? How about then? Is it still repugnant? And should those same high-level government officials who are doing the astroturfing be “in on” the policing and spanking of those on the Internet that they don’t approve of (poor people? the uneducated and underemployed masses? minorities?), because it definitely wouldn’t include white, tech savvy, rich people rolling in money.

Here is the most blatant example of, and piece of, astroturf-ed bullshit you’ll practically ever see in real time. It’s called the Progressive Coalition for American Jobs (PCAJ). It’s not progressive. It’s not a coalition. The only jobs it’s going to create are potentially for people in poor countries, like Vietnam and other TPP signatories, and those people are going to end up worse off than when they started – I guarantee it. A la NAFTA, jobs are going to go overseas at an almost unbelievably fast pace, so the only word in their astroturf moniker which is not a bald-faced lie is, “for.” As in “for” multinational corporations. Not “for” you.

So PCAJ, which is not a real grassroots group, not progressive, not anything good or wholesome, not real, not truthful, and which is basically everything those PNAS scientists and the World Economic Forum warn about, got created for Barack Obama and was “spun” by another shady, manipulative group of his supporters called 270 Strategies. For some backstory on this group, I suggest you read this article or this piece by Dave Johnson, who gives the shenanigans “four Pinocchios,” which is far too kind.

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When the Deciders do far more damage than all the rest of us could ever do, Example #4: 270 Strategies

And while we have scientific papers and other concerned folks in high places speaking out about the end of human society at the hands of people who lie or spread disinformation online, this organization, 270 Strategies, with the blessing of the White House, are actively creating gigantic webs of deceptive nonsense. As I’ve mentioned, 270 Strategies concocted, out of thin air, the Progressive Coalition for American Jobs, which, as you will recall, was made solely to create the appearance of grassroots/progressive support of the Trans Pacific Partnership (which Obama really, really wants to be passed by Congress).

But why stop there? On their 270 Strategies website, among their “services,” is this (I circled the part that really creeps me out):

270 strategies CREEPY circled

Can someone…can anyone, tell me what the hell is meant by them being in the business of, “Support[ing] candidates for heads of state all around the world?” 270 Strategies & PCAJ are instruments of deception and propaganda by the White House, so….WTF? Seriously, WTF?

The media manipulators over at 270 Strategies just flat out say that, in addition to their apparently shoving Hillary Clinton down our throats, and along with spinning the (non-existent) merits of the Trans Pacific Partnership, they’re also “supporting” people in other countries in their ambition to be heads of state. Who even says that? I don’t even know where to file that in my brain.

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In conclusion…

BUT WAIT FOR IT: There is too much dishonesty and manipulation of content on the Internet for those in charge the World Economic Forum 270 Strategies multinational corporations champions of truth and democracy to risk leaving it up to chance and the uncontrollable rantings of conspiracy theorists the unwashed masses the average person.

Conspiracy theories which sometimes aren’t wrong. Campaigns of half truths and outright lies perpetuated by the American government and multinational corporations. The Supreme Court used by those same multinational corporations to get out of penalties, convictions, and prosecution. Elected officials knowingly poisoning their own people and then covering it up until they just can’t get away with it any longer. As opposed to the heinous rumor-mongering online about Big Foot, UFO’s, vaccines causing autism, Monsanto’s Round Up devastating the bee population – wait, that’s true, Elvis being alive and well in Vegas, chemtrails (which may have roots in reality), yada yada.

So, who gets to be the Decider, when even those in positions of power and authority are lying and cheating their asses off? Who actually even does the most harm, and poses the biggest “threat to human society,” other than climate change deniers (most of the papers and reports I’ve read for this post do not even mention climate change or global warming, deniers. Only the PNAS paper refers to it a few times) , who truly are doing us harm and are driving us towards species wide extinction through disinformation.

I’m not sure who, or what, is worse. But I know that I’ll take this guy:

Fake elvis

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over this guy:
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Rick-Snyder

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ANY DAMN DAY.

 

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Some of the links within this post are provided below for easy access:

The spread of misinformation online, appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 2015;

Digital wildfires in a hyperconnected world, appearing on the World Economic Forum’s website, 2013;

Deval Patrick, Others To Advise Astroturf Pro-TPP/Fast Track Group, appearing on the Campaign for America’s Future website, 2015;

Detecting and tracking political abuse in social media, appearing on the International AAAI Conference website, 2011.

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3 comments

  1. Yep, i’ve been screaming this stuff from the rafters… But indifference is more of a threat than misinformation… 😦 we need more legit news reporters to report on stuff.. I have high hopes for vice…

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  2. Thank you so much! And TOTALLY – fuck them. The problem is that it’s so time consuming to get to the bottom of some of this, and even then, I get the feeling there are so many onion layers deeper to go, but it’s endless! Thank you again for your kind words, Sage.

    Like

  3. This is really really good. I’m sharing this on Facebook. You are such a talented thinker and writer. I have seen how Wikipedia is even controlled by industry. There are trolls in all the comment forums on the news articles about the agrochemical industry, and there are trolls on Wikipedia managing the “sum of human knowledge” there…. distorting things according to the desired industry point of view. It’s sickening. We need to destroy this parasitic control structure. We are not to be controlled by disinformation anymore. Fuck them.

    Liked by 1 person

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