If You Can’t Beat Them, Make Some Shit Up About Them and Hope It Goes Viral

If You Can’t Beat Them, Make Some Shit Up About Them and Hope It Goes Viral
Graphic: Gizmodo, Photos: Getty Images, Screenshot via Twitter

Your feeds are not currently full of news about the ongoing civil war between the Real American Front and the Alliance to Restore Democracy. In fact, there’s barely any Second American Civil War going on at all, which is to say that things could theoretically be going a lot worse after November 3 than your relatives, friends, and random doomsayers on social media might have predicted.

That said, things are not exactly all well in the state of Denmark, and Big Tech is right in the middle of this clusterfuck — liberals are blaming it for helping Republicans trick a sizable percentage of the country into thinking Joe Biden somehow bribed every poll worker in the country, while conservatives are working themselves into a lather trying to find ways to blame Big Tech censorship for the outcome. So here’s Hellfeed: Jesus Christ Make It Stop Already Edition.

Can we pat ourselves on the back yet?

Election Day passed without the prophesied catastrophic breakdown of social and political order — hey, give it time! — but that’s a pretty low bar. Donald Trump has refused to concede that Biden will be the 46th president and instead retreated further into a reassuring fantasy that hundreds of thousands of fraudulent votes were cast by Democrats in key states, thus making him the actual winner. Republicans have largely done either nothing to stop him or outright endorsed the president’s ongoing effort to pull off what would possibly be the laziest coup d’etat in world history.

Facebook and Twitter took some steps to curb the most egregious disinformation spreading before and during the election, taking down posts and pages and flagging a number of Trump’s posts. This functionally did little to stem the tide. Hoaxes and lies continue to spread faster via the web than the companies can take them down (Pinterest, LinkedIn, and NextDoor are experiencing their own problems, while YouTube is doing virtually nothing, according to the New York Times). As NBC News noted, tech firms have historically been very reluctant to police powerful actors like the White House for fear of backlash, and they’re still playing catchup now to mixed results. Beyond social media, political operatives ramped up their efforts to spread hoaxes via methods nearly impossible to stop, like robocalls and email.

As far as the big social media companies go, the big takeaway here is that the companies turned a blind eye to everything from Trump posts and QAnon to run-of-the-mill propaganda operations for years. For example, 538 argued that Trump and conservative media, who operated unchecked on Facebook and Twitter for years, have spent years seeding doubt about the electoral process in a manner that makes last-minute responses somewhat futile:

“Priming is where an external source, a sender of information, is trying to prime people to think a certain way,” said Mark Whitmore, a professor of management and information systems at Kent State University who has studied misinformation and cognitive bias. “One of the ways in which priming occurs is through partisanship. When that happens, people have a greater tendency to think along the lines of whatever party they feel they belong to.”

When people are already primed to think about a topic in a certain way, it can lead them to seek out information that confirms their existing beliefs… There’s also the illusory truth effect: a phenomenon in which the more times people are exposed to an idea, the more likely they are to perceive it as true, regardless of political leanings.

Per the Washington Post, Trump and his allies were able to exploit a “network of new and existing Facebook pages, groups and events to rally people and spark real-world intimidation of poll workers” to popularise lies about the outcome of the election. On Twitter, the labels seemed to do little to discourage widespread sharing of the president’s ravings, and on Facebook, they could simply be ignored. YouTube barely bothered to lift a finger except to attach warning labels to election-related videos, whether they be truthful or not, and restrict political ads.

This is all to say that whatever the platforms tried or didn’t try, hoaxers and liars dominated. (Slate has a roundup, including some initial data, here.) A Politico poll published this week found that some 70 per cent of Republicans don’t believe the elections were free and fair, doubled from 35 per cent before the election. The vast majority of that 70 per cent endorsed conspiracy theories about mail in-voting, ballot tampering, and that such things helped Biden win.

One thing that’s clear is that the voter fraud mess wasn’t the product of a spontaneous, grassroots uprising arising from social media but the result of a deliberate, long-term plan by Trump and his allies in the GOP and news media (TV, print, and online) to undermine the results of the election. Berkman Klein Centre for Internet & Society at Harvard researchers released a study earlier this year finding social media played a “secondary and supportive role” in “an elite-driven, mass-media led process.”

Say the line, Zuckerberg

Mark Zuckerberg has reportedly told employees at Facebook that he believes “the outcome of the election is now clear and Joe Biden is going to be our next president,” though he didn’t give specific statistics on how many false or hoax claims the company had taken down. As the Times’ Mike Isaac noted, Zuckerberg hasn’t posted in two weeks and hasn’t publicly acknowledged the election results.

Facebook shuts down “Stop the Steal” rallies

Per the New York Times, Facebook took quick action to wipe out one of the fastest-growing groups in the company’s history, a “Stop the Steal” page that started on Wednesday and by Thursday was at 320,000 users, a rate of 100 new members every 10 seconds. During its brief existence, it managed to flood Facebook (and due to overflow, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and right-wing media) with hysterical and baseless posts about voter fraud that never happened.

“The group was organised around the delegitimization of the election process, and we saw worrying calls for violence from some members of the group,” Tom Reynolds, a Facebook spokesperson, told the Times.

Far-right groups and conservative organisations subsequently called for Trump supporters to assemble in DC on Saturday under a variety of names such as the Million MAGA March, the March for Trump, and Stop the Steal DC. Some of the events were deleted, and the remaining Facebook groups show planned attendance of no more than a few thousand (at best — in the past few years, both Trump and far-right groups have struggled to draw more than a gaggle of attendees at DC events).

The labels, they do nothing

On Thursday, Twitter released data on enforcement of its Civic Integrity Policy from Oct. 27 to Nov. 11, saying that it had labelled 300,000 tweets (or 0.2%) of all election-related posts as “disputed and potentially misleading” and hid 456 of those behind warning labels. Twitter claimed this led to a roughly 29 per cent decrease in quote tweeting:

Approximately 74% of the people who viewed those Tweets saw them after we applied a label or warning message.

We saw an estimated 29% decrease in Quote Tweets of these labelled Tweets due in part to a prompt that warned people prior to sharing.

These are Twitter’s metrics, so it’s hard to know what this indicates about the company’s moderation performance. Twitter wrote in the post that it stopped serving “liked by” and “followed by” notifications to users about other accounts they don’t follow, which made a “statistically significant difference in misinformation prevalence” (you don’t say). Twitter did say it will continue to make it less convenient to retweet other users without adding a comment.

Parlez vous safe space?

Free speech app Parler — which used to be pronounced “parlay,” as in the French word, but is now pronounced “parlour,” like the room — has become a major destination for conservatives fleeing Facebook, Twitter, Instagram in the wake of the election. This includes conspiracy theorists like QAnon devotees and people banned from other sites for any number of sins, who are attracted to the platform’s promise to not censor users (unless, of course, it falls in a category of content that offends right-wingers).

Parler surged to the top of app store lists last weekend. According to Wired, over the course of the last week, it went from 4.5 million to 8 million users, in large part because conservative media personalities are relentlessly promoting it to their huge followings on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. It’s less a site for discourse and more of a bullhorn for right-wing pundits, talk show hosts, media figures, and politicians to amplify their message to a hardcore fanbase — Wired registered an account and was immediately bombarded by messages urging them to sign up for the Trump campaign’s text message list.

This could play out two ways, basically. One is that Parler actually carves out space for conservatives to lap up the hard-right content they crave. The other is that conservatives lose interest after a while, leaving behind only the most diehard fans of blowhards like Mark Levin, Dinesh D’Souza, Dan Bongino, etc. In either scenario, we imagine Parler will evolve into another node on the lucrative grifting circuit on the right, whether it’s direct or mail-order marketing or an unending supply of GoFundMes for flash-in-the-plan Republican celebrities.

Proctor this

Proctorio is one of the many creepy, invasive programs schools and colleges whose students are learning from home use to monitor for cheating during exams (through forced webcam and microphone access and dubious “suspicion” algorithms). One student posted Proctorio code snippets to Twitter in an effort to show how the app invaded privacy in September; Proctorio’s marketing director John Devoy and CEO Mike Olsen responded weeks later by demanding Twitter take down the tweets under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Twitter did so, despite the insistence of the Electronic Frontier Foundation that the tweets were a clear example of fair use, according to TechCrunch. Twitter later restored the tweets after TechCrunch published its article.

Q dropped

QAnon is not doing so hot in response to news that they might not be the vanguard of Dear Leader’s ascension after all or the fact that Q has stopped posting. (Whoops!) They’re coping by diving deeper down the rabbit hole.

Memory holes

Facebook has now implemented a Snapchat-like “Vanish Mode” on Messenger and Instagram, which allows users to have their messages auto-delete after a period of time. Honestly, there’s no good reason this shouldn’t be a standard feature on everything.

Drats

The goons at Immigrations and Customs Enforcement’s Twitter account went offline Thursday. But it turns out some genius at the agency just fucked up the account’s listed birthday and got locked out.

The ban list

Some notable smackdowns in the past few weeks:

  • Google and Facebook are continuing their bans on political advertising indefinitely while Trump plots his coup attempt.
  • David Icke — the British anti-Semite who believes lizardmen secretly rule the world — finally got banned from Twitter for spreading covid-19 misinformation.
  • Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, founder of internet hellhole Breitbart, got banned from Twitter and Stitcher and podcast episodes yanked from other sites after he called for Dr. Anthony Fauci and FBI Director Christopher Wray to be beheaded. Facebook slapped him on the wrist.
  • Facebook did ban a coordinated network of political pages tied to Bannon, which cumulatively had audiences of 2.5 million and promoted election fraud conspiracies, but only after they had
  • In addition to #StoptheSteal, several pro-Trump hashtags including #sharpiegate (don’t ask) and #riggedelection got blocked on Facebook and TikTok.
  • Airbnb banned some of the manchild members of the far-right Proud Boys group who were planning to travel to rallies in DC this weekend.
  • Thailand banned internet porn, which will definitely keep people from watching internet porn.

Honorable mention: Trump’s Commerce Department was supposedly set to ban TikTok from U.S. app stores on Thursday, but it chickened out.