Editor’s note: As we come to the end of the year, Conversation editors take a look back at the stories that – for them – exemplified 2018.
Sometime in the political frenzy of the past year, I realized I had to stop scanning Twitter.
I had become used to taking the pulse of online society, but was no longer confident that the tweets I was reading were accurate portrayals of the authentic views of real humans. Some of them were, no doubt – yet I had worked with so many scholars on articles about how social media sites leave users vulnerable to being misled and misinformed. There’s plenty of evidence that social media platforms were misusing my data, and allowing trolls and bots to exploit their systems, to manipulate my thinking.
I haven’t been back to Twitter since – nor have I used Facebook for anything other than looking at friends’ photos of babies and other celebrations. Here are some of the articles I worked on that informed me how wary I should be of secret, malicious influencers online.
1. Don’t trust social media
When 2018 began, I – like many in the U.S. – was worried about the previous year’s revelations about how Facebook data had been used to influence voters in the 2016 election. I considered deleting my Facebook account, but as part of my job I need to be awawre of what’s happening on the platform. So I took the advice of Dartmouth College social media scholars Denise Anthony and Luke Stark:
“Without full information about what happens to their personal data once it’s gathered, we recommend people default to not trusting companies until they’re convinced they should.”ADVERTISEMENT
Since then, I have spent far less time on the site than I used to. Also, I deleted some information from my profile, and am extremely limited about clicking on links, commenting on posts or even clicking “like.” Facebook can still track what I see, but not how I react to it. I imagine, and hope, that means the company has less information about me, and is less able to manipulate me.
2. Checking my own perceptions
To further understand how manipulative and misleading online activity spread, I used the tools created by Filippo Menczer, Giovanni Luca Ciampaglia and their colleagues at the Observatory on Social Media at Indiana University. They want to “help people become aware of [biases in the brain, society and technologies] and protect themselves from outside influences designed to exploit them.”
The most fun is their game “Fakey,” which asks players to identify which news stories and information sources are reliable – and which aren’t. They’ve also built Hoaxy, which shows graphically how falsehoods spread across social networks, and Botometer, which rates how likely it is that a particular Twitter account is a bot – or not.
3. Bots are powerful
Those bots, I learned from MIT professor Tauhid Zaman, can be dangerous even if there aren’t very many of them. He analyzed Twitter activity, including both people and bots, and measured users’ political opinions. Then he found a way to simulate what the humans’ views would have been if the bots weren’t there.
“A small number of very active bots can actually significantly shift public opinion,” he found. The key wasn’t how many Twitter bots there were, but how many posts they made.
4. Engaging with real people
All the free time I gained by spending less time on social media went to good use, for socializing in-person and being by myself – which likely made me feel happier. As Georgetown psychologist Kostadin Kushlev found, “Digital socializing doesn’t add to, but in fact subtracts from, the psychological benefits of nondigital socializing.”
I certainly feel best when socializing face-to-face and, as Kushlev found in his research subjects, focusing on the people who are right in front of me is even more enjoyable than hanging out in person while also messaging others on their phones.
Avoiding psychological and political manipulation and having a more enjoyable time with friends and loved ones in person sounds like a great plan for 2019, too.
Melania Trump ripped for bragging about helping children while her husband runs concentration camps for kids
Melania Trump was ripped on Monday for pushing her signature "Be Best" campaign against bullying while her husband, President Donald Trump, runs concentration camps for children along the southern border.
"Looking forward to collaborating with all of our #BeBest Ambassadors. Delighted to be working alongside so many people both inside and outside of government to better the lives of children everywhere!" Melania Trump tweeted Monday.
The response was some of the harshest since she wore an "I Don't Care" jacked to visit the border.
Border Patrol blocking Americans from donating toothbrushes and diapers for detained children
On Sunday, Austin Savage and five of his friends huddled into an SUV and went to an El Paso Target, loading up on diapers, wipes, soaps and toys.
About $340 later, the group headed to a Border Patrol facility holding migrant children in nearby Clint with the goal of donating their goods. Savage said he and his friends had read an article from The New York Times detailing chaos, sickness and filth in the overcrowded facility, and they wanted to help.
But when they arrived, they found that the lobby was closed. The few Border Patrol agents — Savage said there were between eight and 10 of them — moving in and out of a parking facility ignored them.
Michael Flynn’s legal team is making bizarre moves — signaling he’s still hoping for a Trump pardon
When disgraced former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn recently hired a new firebrand lawyer, Sidney Powell, it suggested he could be maneuvering to change his legal strategy.
And on Monday, new signs emerged that his legal team is looking to shake things up. Flynn had another status hearing on Monday before Judge Emmet Sullivan as he awaits sentencing for charges brought by former Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
In the hearing on Monday, Powell, who had been publicly critical of the Russia investigation before joining Flynn’s team, requested a security clearance to review documents in the case. This was a surprising move, because the government said that there was no classified information in the documents it had turned over to the defense.