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The Catch: When Campaigns Manipulate Social Media by Jared Keller at The Atlantic

The Atlantic

When Campaigns Manipulate Social Media

by Jared Keller

“If you think about how much putting an ad on TV costs, you could pay an army of people to post fake information and promote it through social networks,” says Menczer, who, based on his research, anticipates future manipulation of the Twittersphere for political gains. “It’s a form of information pollution. Spamming on social networks has very low cost and has the potential to influence a  large amount of people. From the point of view of someone running for office, it would be crazy NOT to use this system.”

Accountability is a huge problem in the social media sphere, where anonymity is still easy to maintain. “If anything, this is in violation of Twitter terms of service…. but so what? You can just make another account. There’s no accountability,” says Menczer. “I think it’s scary. It’s extremely easy to fabricate news use these methods to manipulate the Web because people want to believe what they want to believe.”

I’ve written before about the possibilities for using 5GW principles specifically for elections. The proliferation and rising prominence of social media even in the short time from when I wrote that post make it even more natural that social media becomes the preferred platform for observational manipulation if only from a cost / benefit standpoint.

By the numbers of that post, from a social media standpoint:

1)  Defined timeframe allows for 5GW organizations to plan to specific points in time and the election cycle allows for a truly strategic planning horizon.

Most of the examples cited in the article are fairly blatant in nature and yet still seem to have a measurable effect. Considering a strategic planning horizon, a 5GW effector can afford the time and effort to create a much more subtle and subversive network of influencers to fly under the radar of projects like Mr. Menczer’s Truthy. Twitter spam accounts, spam blog comments and Facebook Feed spam may still have an important place in the plan, but even more valuable is the opportunity to create or co-opt opinion leaders that will be persistent in the network.

2)  Defined geographic areas involved allow for a 5GW organization to precisely define the scale of their operations.

This is somewhat harder to do with social media, mostly because, by nature, the networks aren’t restricted to geographical boundaries. However, the ability to target specific nodes in a network that may have specific geographic impacts is becoming easier and more effective. It may actually be easiest to do this on the smallest and largest scales of geographic areas like cities and countries, and most difficult at intermediate scales like states or regions of states that are less well represented as network subsets.

3)   5GW organizational goals may be precisely and measurably defined due to the existing systems in place to progressively measure results in detail.

When I wrote this the systems that I had in mind were opinion polls and, of course, the voting itself that can be broken down into individual precincts and viewed over time. Now it brings to mind systems and tools such as Momentum. Momentum bills itself as “a real-time index rating for all content in the global social network.”

“Momentum provides social intelligence. We first retrieve all conversations in regards to the topic, event, brand, or person you entered. Then Momentum extracts all linked content, indexes it, ranks it and displays it so you can use it…”

John Robb has more thoughts on Momentum, its purpose and its potential here. If 5GW is about creating or co-opting a narrative to lead to a specific goal or result, then Momentum and other tools and systems like it, or related to it, are invaluable to identify and get ahead of those narratives.

4)  The campaign and election process is already optimized for rapid information dissemination providing ample vectors for meme transference.

The concern of the day may be changeable and fickle as defined by the pattern of the 24 hours news cycle, but the “message” of the political campaign seems to be endlessly applicable to any given situation. The dedication to spin, especially in more important elections, means multiple mouthpieces for the “message.” To co-opt the “message” is to co-opt all of the mouthpieces. As social media increasingly becomes a mouthpiece of the campaign the opportunity for a 5GW effector to subtly and seamlessly co-opt the “message” becomes more possible because of its ubiquity.

5)  Well connected political parties and multitude of long-standing issues offer powerful memplexes for a 5GW organization to piggyback or hijack.

This is very much related to the previous consideration. Social media in this regard offers influence for the receiving end of the “message” as it has the potential to organize the audience based upon specific interest and provide a direct input into their observation.

6)  Previous election cycles have created a vast amount of pre-existing expertise in political manipulation for 5GW organizations to recruit as 5GW effectors or 5GW proxies.

When I wrote this I was thinking about the existing talent pool of political operatives that seem to drift from campaign to campaign and / or issue group to issue group. It is all about organization. Those skills are easily applied to social media venues with the bonus that proxy organizations may be much more easily constructed or co-opted because of the amorphous anonymity inherent in social media networks and the low costs associated with the creation and distribution of the content.

7)  Discovery of 5GW manipulations may be conceivably and believably be attributed to the campaign process as ‘business-as-usual’.

On social media too. Perhaps even more so, even after things go viral.

From the article:

A few days before the special election in Massachusetts to fill Senate seat formerly held by the late Edward Kennedy, the conservative American Future Fund (AFF) conducted a “Twitter-bomb” campaign against Attorney General Martha Coakley, the Democratic candidate. The AFF set up nine anonymous Twitter accounts in early morning hours prior to the election that sent hundred of tweets accusing Martha Coakley of taking money from health insurance lobbyists to other influential Twitter accounts around the state, linking back to anonymous websites containing further details. Twitter realized the messages were spam and shut down the accounts two hours later, but by that point the messages had reached nearly 60,000 people. The sudden spike caused the attacks on Coakley to turn up in Google searches for her name, effectively gaming Google’s real-time search functions.

8)  There is already ‘competition’ built into the campaign and election  system that may be able to simulate 4GW vs. 5GW or 5GW vs. 5GW opposition.

I intended this in the context of being a test bed for the effectiveness of a 5GW but being applied to social media makes essentially no difference. If the co-opted / manipulated “message” goes viral, the 5GW operation has to have worked in some way.

9)  Election and campaign system is designed to support and protect false-front and proxy organizations.

Social media is even more friendly to anonymity by its very nature and even harder to track down the actors behind the manipulations even if they don’t use proxies or false-fronts. It is the nature of the beast.

10)  Voters expect to be manipulated by political campaigns and will either allow themselves to be manipulated or resist overt manipulations.

As Mr. Menczer said at the end of  the article section cited at the beginning of this post; “It’s extremely easy to fabricate news use these methods to manipulate the Web because people want to believe what they want to believe.”

That is the meat and potatoes of 5GW.

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