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First Evidence That Social Bots Play a Major Role In Spreading Fake News (technologyreview.com) 144

An anonymous reader writes: Researchers from Indiana University in Bloomington provide an answer for how social bots play a major role in spreading fake news. MIT Technology Review reports: "At issue is the publication of news that is false or misleading. So widespread has this become that a number of independent fact-checking organizations have emerged to establish the veracity of online information. These include snopes.com, politifact.com, and factcheck.org. These sites list 122 websites that routinely publish fake news. These fake news sites include infowars.com, breitbart.com, politicususa.com, and theonion.com. 'We did not exclude satire because many fake-news sources label their content as satirical, making the distinction problematic,' say researcher Chengcheng Shao and co. Shao and co then monitored some 400,000 claims made by these websites and studied the way they spread through Twitter. They did this by collecting some 14 million Twitter posts that mentioned these claims. At the same time, the team monitored some 15,000 stories written by fact-checking organizations and over a million Twitter posts that mention them. Next, Shao and co looked at the Twitter accounts that spread this news, collecting up to 200 of each account's most recent tweets. In this way, the team could study the tweeting behavior and work out whether the accounts were most likely run by humans or by bots. Having made a judgment on the ownership of each account, the team finally looked at the way humans and bots spread fake news and fact-checked news.

'Accounts that actively spread misinformation are significantly more likely to be bots,' say Shao and co. 'Social bots play a key role in the spread of fake news.' Shad and co say bots play a particularly significant role in the spread of fake news soon after it is published. What's more, these bots are programmed to direct their tweets at influential users. 'Automated accounts are particularly active in the early spreading phases of viral claims, and tend to target influential users,' say Shao and co."

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First Evidence That Social Bots Play a Major Role In Spreading Fake News

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  • proves exactly how much value we should attribute to these so-called 'fact-checking organizations'.
    • There's often some truth in what's declared as fake news, and some is true and politically incorrect. So labeling sites as fakw news sites will achieve the result that people stop their critical thinking, introduction of the ministry of truth and making people in general falling victims to scams easier.

      Don't handicap people by making their life too easy. (Paraphrasing Heinlein)

    • proves exactly how much value we should attribute to these so-called 'fact-checking organizations'.

      The alternative would be to equip the people with the (intellectual) tools, so they can make up their mind of their own.

      There are french teachers currently organising such classes in schools (media awareness).
      One of them has a youtube channel [youtube.com] (sorry, everything in french currently), where he makes presentations about such media-critic methods, and also documents a colleague doing such a lesson in a classroom.

  • by poity ( 465672 ) on Monday August 07, 2017 @11:40PM (#54961177)

    Even after several news organizations apologized and retracted their statements about "17 intelligence organizations all agreeing", Politifact continued to offer apologetics for their favored media outlets, saying it wasn't a big deal (being factually incorrect), as long as the overall notion was in the right direction.

    http://www.politifact.com/trut... [politifact.com]

    Contrast this to the near anal-retentive literal manner in which PolitiFact analyzes other stories.

    • And the fact that they're owned by the Miami Herald, which in turn is owned by the Poynter Institute for Journalism, which is openly left wing.
      I trust Snopes over Politifact. Politifact may bring objective facts to the table, but in the end, their final judgments are still subjective in terms of what constitutes a "mostly false vs. half true" type rating or similar, and it's in those judgments that their bias, however subtle, is often evident.

      Case in point, Michelle Obama's statement that the White House w

  • by Okian Warrior ( 537106 ) on Monday August 07, 2017 @11:41PM (#54961185) Homepage Journal

    Can someone link to a Breitbart article that's actually fake news?

    From what I've read, their reporting is very tight, usually with references to whatever it is they're talking about.

    Yes, they have a conservative bias, but bias is not the same thing as fake.

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Oh, sweetie. Did you not hear? It's the current year. Anything right of Stalin is now "fake news" and Russian Hacking(tm). Sorry you didn't get the memo.

    • bias is not the same thing as fake.

      Somebody should tell the president.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 07, 2017 @11:55PM (#54961239)

      Wikipedia has a list of notable articles they ran - many of them now debunked as false.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Breitbart_News#Notable_stories

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        ACORN undercover videos
        " the most damning words match the transcripts and the audio, and do not seem out of context." - NYT Public Editor

        Shirley Sherrod
        NAACP audience reacts favorably to admission of anti-white racial bias. Other non-breitbart entities overreact before seeing full video. Sources of the original article seem to be down, so can't evaluate further.

        Anthony Weiner
        Lol

        Friends of Hamas
        Surely no MSM outlet would publish anonymous claims from government insiders without independently verifying them

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by locketine ( 1101453 )

        I read through that list and researched five of the most egregious sounding claims supposedly made by Breitbart. Some of the claims against Breitbart's involvement, exaggerated that involvement. There was an example of Breitbart publishing a mistake and later retracting it; this is actually the closest they came to publishing fake news from all the examples I looked at but it could have very easily been mistake. I didn't actually find an example of a Breitbart article that was debunked, but there were defi

        • by mjwx ( 966435 )

          Breitbart is not a high quality news media outlet in my opinion, but I've yet to find anything I can point at as conclusive proof that they have published fake news. There's definitely misleading/biased articles I can point at but that's not the same thing and anyone can find an example of that in a more respectable news outlet like the New York Times.

          Erm, the Muslim mob in Germany that didn't happen. False reporting on the UK climate. Still to this day trying to claim Obama is a Kenyan Muslim... Hell, even Fox News gave up on that one years ago.

          I challenge you to find a Brietbart article that is accurate and factual (to the BBC standard). Hell, forget the BBC standards, find me one that doesn't rely on thought terminating cliches.

          • The Muslim mob that didn't happen? There was the immigrant, mostly Muslim mob in Berlin last year that was widely reported but I doubt that's the one you're referring to.

            I don't frequent Breitbart but I tried to find an example of them claiming Obama is a Muslim and didn't find one. They've got some quotes talking about it but it's pretty mild stuff. I did find this interesting though: http://www.breitbart.com/2016-... [breitbart.com]

    • by Gravis Zero ( 934156 ) on Monday August 07, 2017 @11:56PM (#54961245)

      Can someone link to a Breitbart article that's actually fake news?

      Here you go: http://www.breitbart.com/londo... [breitbart.com]

      The weather channel was displeased: https://weather.com/news/news/... [weather.com]

      • I'd run out of comment space before i'd get done with describing the issue, but i'll leave you with two words: Jayson Blair.

        • by Gravis Zero ( 934156 ) on Tuesday August 08, 2017 @12:15AM (#54961343)

          Here's something more recent: http://www.breitbart.com/big-g... [breitbart.com]
          The title doesn't match the content. Calling it misleading would be an understatement.

          • They don't specify in the article where they get the $3million claim, but that doesn't make it fake news. Maybe they simply read about it at another site [washingtonpost.com].

          • by OYAHHH ( 322809 )

            Um, What seems to be your beef with that article?

            Then title appears to me to correlate well with the article. $3 million will be spent by PP to support the Democratic nominee. That's what the article says. The article references a Washington Post article which says the same thing.

      • I'm no fan of Breitbart but I don't think your example is evidence of fake news. It's definitely an example of bias and cherry picking data, as mentioned in the WC response, but it's not fake news. Fake news invents "facts", mis-attributes quotes, makes statements that aren't backed by their own sources, flat out lies, etc. The Breitbart article in question didn't do any of that as far as I can tell. The Daily Mail article they referenced had similar conclusions as the Breitbart article and while they're bo

      • Except there's nothing false in the Breitbart article. Did you even read it? It links to an article published by the Daily Mail, and cites the source. The alleged refutation states that "This number comes from one satellite-based estimate of temperatures above land areas in the lower atmosphere. Data from the other two groups that regularly publish satellite-based temperature estimates show smaller drops". The refutation doesn't say why one is incorrect and the other two are correct, it doesn't say how
    • If you get your news from social media, as most Americans do [7], you are exposed to a daily dose of false or misleading content — hoaxes, rumors, conspiracy theories, fabricated reports, click-bait headlines, and even satire. We refer to this misinformation collectively as false or fake news.

      The idea here is that Breitbart is misleading and thus misinforming people. Given that a recent headline of theirs is "Planned Parenthood to Spend $3M to Back Democrat in Virginia Governor Race" [breitbart.com], I would say that misleading is accurate description.

      • Strange. I googled that phrase, and found numerous other sites saying the same thing. Maybe they know something you don't know.

        • or maybe they are all running to get as much clicks (and ads revenue) as possible by quickly re-posting some sensationalist trash without much checking.

          The next step would to check the source mentioned in each of them and build a graph of the propagation.

          Then several possible outcome :
          - you'll go up stream until you find an actual report (the planned parenthood listing 3M spent on this politician on their taxt returns)
          - you'll go up stream until you find something that remotely looks like this if you squini

    • Remember that "misleading" is also one of the elements in play. A very flexible term to be sure, and technically covers almost any news outlet to one degree or another. But when misleading or extremely exaggerated are the norms, it seems safe to put the site in a separate category.
    • I've never read Breitbart News. So I hopped over to their website just now. The head line was in large all capital letters. It declared that the Deep state was colluding with the media, soliciting anti Trump leaks.

      I thought to myself, regardless of the administration or the bias of the media organization, the media is always trying to get inside information from sources both inside government and outside. So the news from Breitbart was not fake. But it was trivial and sensationalist. It was piss poor journa

  • by n329619 ( 4901461 ) on Monday August 07, 2017 @11:59PM (#54961261)

    Nah, 90% of twitter accounts are bots. The social bots are just entertaining their fellow bots.

  • by El Cubano ( 631386 ) on Tuesday August 08, 2017 @12:05AM (#54961285)

    These sites list 122 websites that routinely publish fake news. These fake news sites include infowars.com, breitbart.com, politicususa.com, and theonion.com.[emphasis added.]

    Look, I get it: fake news, it's a problem. But let's not get carried away. The Onion publishes more factually correct stories than most major media outlets. Plus they are actually entertaining to read. Don't go messing with The Onion.

  • BeauHD (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    lol

  • Daily Stormer has the best "Real News"
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Propaganda isn't new. As long as there is money driving it, then it will spread by whatever available channels there are.

    Look, case in point, the Seth Rich story. Hannity launches a "Seth Rich was murdered for leaking, since he's the DNC leaker, Russia is innocent of DNC hacks, FBI investigator says so". That was pushed via Hannity on Fox News.

    This is falling apart now, and you can see the elements of it.

    http://www.npr.org/2017/08/01/540783715/lawsuit-alleges-fox-news-and-trump-supporter-created-fake-news-s

  • by Okian Warrior ( 537106 ) on Tuesday August 08, 2017 @12:22AM (#54961367) Homepage Journal

    Here's a link [arxiv.org] to the original paper.

    A quick scan shows that they... apparently use every type of data representation. You'll find a scatter plot with non-linear regression, a joint distribution image, a histogram, line charts, diffusion networks, and a triangular distribution thingy where color indicates the log of the number of articles (what the heck is that called?).

    It plots the Gini coefficient of the various tweets. (I'll save you the trouble [wikipedia.org].)

    The paper goes from the introduction directly to the results, then the discussion, then talks about the methods afterwards. Is that typical? I always thought the methods section comes before the results.

    As near as I can tell, there is no supplemental data that indicates what their data is. Their entire paper relies on the correctness of "hoaxy" and "botometer".

    Taking "botometer" as an example, looking for an estimate of accuracy, I could find no papers in established journals about this service. There are a couple of conference papers though - will those do? None has an indication of how accurate the service is.

    So if "botometer" has an accuracy of 80%, which would be pretty good, and "hoaxy" had an accuracy of 80%, which would also be pretty good, then the results of the cited paper would be... how good?

    Looking at the paper, I have to wonder if it's an elaborate hoax.

    There's a *lot* of... um... surprising things about this paper.

    • by mentil ( 1748130 )

      So you're saying the paper is fake news? Maybe it has every data type under the sun because it was written by a bot that didn't consider applicability.

      • The paper calls out this Infowars spirit cooking article [infowars.com] as an example of fake news and how it spreads. The diffusion chart for that one article takes up the entirety of page 4 of the paper.

        I reviewed that article, and couldn't find anything that was in any way "fake".

        John Podesta's brother forwarded an E-mail where Marina Abramovic invited them to a spirit cooking dinner. All of this is fact, made public when wikileaks published the actual E-mail.

        There's some background on spirit cooking (which I didn't ch

  • by 93 Escort Wagon ( 326346 ) on Tuesday August 08, 2017 @12:31AM (#54961393)

    Other than with one story ("Spirit Cooking"), the paper itself doesn't seem to break anything out by site or by story. What if 95% of these retweets are Items from the Onion?

    There's a hand-waving single statement at the end saying basically "we know people will complain about us including The Onion, so we left it out and looked again; but the results were all the same"... but without any actual data. If it didn't affect the results, why not show us? And, since it was indeed workable to leave The Onion out after all, why did the authors make a big deal regarding why they had to Include it in the first place?

  • by mentil ( 1748130 ) on Tuesday August 08, 2017 @12:34AM (#54961403)

    I'm waiting for machine learning to be applied to big data on individuals' browsing habits and message history to figure out what individuals are likely to click on, with machine-written fake news articles custom-made for each click, guaranteed to be conformed to your biases and preconceptions. Once this gets turned from "profit-generating clickbait" to "self-writing custom propaganda" it's going to go from a big problem to a huge one. Sure, people can just read/watch trusted static news, but there will be an increasing sense that this is biased, because it doesn't conform to the viewer's own biases.

    • by l20502 ( 4813775 )
      Hopefully more and more people will buy IoT devices that will be converted in perma-DDoS devices, let it all burn.
    • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

      The most popular stories on Slashdot are the ones that attract lots of conservatives to moan about them. Based on that a machine learning system trained to get the most clicks would simply start trolling readers with things that make them angry.

      That's a proven technique, widely adopted by low grade news outlets such as Fox and the Daily Mail. Rage sells.

  • Is this going to put the President out of business?
  • Did they include MSM sites like nytimes.com, cnn.com, washingtonpost.com, msnbc.com? They have their fair share of fake news.
  • Brietbart USED TO BE fairly reliable, when Breitbart and Drudge were running the place. Infowars, less so. TheOnion doesn't belong in this category, because it's OBVIOUSLY fake.

    I'm certain that there are more "progressive" fake news sites than putatively "conservative" ones. And the clickbait ads around all of them are even faker than the supposed news articles.

  • The SJWs might not like the topics or the reality of the reporting but the staff do exist and work hard.
    People working for online news organizations keep tracking the news over different time zones.
    Their staff get then get real news out. They have information flowing from within the US gov, mil and the US political elite.
    Whistleblowers, investigative reporters who have decades of experiences in the DC area.
    Its not bots creating news.
    Staff are awake and working hard in the real world.

    News posted ha
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Got a /. user ID lower than 1x10^6? All of your posts will be mocked by cowards. Why? The few who remember what this community was like 15 years ago could straight up tell you that bots have been running influence campaigns on this and every other social site that allow AC posts for well over 10 years now. Some keep hoping they will eventually get a life but sadly their will always be fuckwits only out for 'teh lulz'.

    /hire some real moderators, you greedy scumbag /. editors
  • by Anonymous Coward

    The only thing "fake" are the Russian trolls trying to persuade public opinion using American social media!!! OMG, for months I have been coming across odd commentary that is seemingly pro-Trump or Republican - but has also maybe been a little off grammatically or ideologically incomplete or odd in some way.... turns out Russia has employed thousands and thousands of Russians to infiltrate American social media in mass in an attempt to sway public opinion!!! The question is "why?" Trump supporters, fair war

  • I'm probably crazy, but I found the observation "Accounts that actively spread misinformation are significantly more likely to be bots," quite reassuring.
  • Except they left out HuffPo, MSNBC, and CNN.

    So in other words, they had a very clear political bias.

    Hopefully, they also included the duffleblog (military Onion) and babylonbee (religious Onion) sites.

  • Cut me a break. I love this bit, which immediately struck me as "brilliant" in that the audience they are pandering to typically have no senses of humor:

    >> We did not exclude satire because many fake-news sources label their content as satirical, making the distinction problematic

    And wow-- making the distinction problematic! The Left continues to reveal the disdain they have for the general public.

    If you are triggered by this (i.e. teeing up cliche insults and unintelligent slogans) but still reading

  • Sounds like the Paperclip Maximizer problem to me. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org] Gotta get that reader engagement, at any cost.
  • There would sufficiently little incentive enough to preclude the use of bots to spread news, fake, real, or otherwise if it weren't for the prevailing ad-based revenue model of web publishing that panders to fear, greed, desire, and lowest common denominators in the attempt to push buttons to generate a profit or gain an electoral victory, regardless of cost. This is a broader problem than whether it's fake or not, or by whose standards. I'm afraid the MIT study, however informative, will likely be used to

  • Back between 2004 to 2007, there were plenty of gov't proposal bids for G-Trolls, trolls hired through the State Department, FBI, NSA, CIA, etc. so this article is waaaaay off, as G-trolls are essentially Fake News to the max!

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