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.”
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.
Trump’s EU ambassador is using the ‘Don Jr. defense’ of being too dumb to break the law: national security expert
Gordon Sondland, the man whom President Donald Trump appointed to be his ambassador to the European Union, told congressional investigators on Thursday that he didn't understand that President Donald Trump might be holding up establishing direct contact with Ukraine's government unless the government agreed to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden.
However, given that the president did ask him to run all Ukraine policy through attorney Rudy Giuliani, and given that Giuliani was already publicly boasting about trying to get Ukraine to probe Biden, Sondland's testimony raises the question of what he actually believed the president's intentions were in withholding aid to the country this past summer.
Historians demolish John Yoo for claim Founding Fathers wouldn’t want Trump impeached in an election year
Comments made by attorney and law professor John Yoo on Fox News on the Founding Father's intentions about impeachment received a brutal debunking by two historians -- including one of his colleagues at UC Berkeley.
Appearing with Fox News personality Laura Ingraham, lawyer Yoo -- who is infamous for providing President George W. Bush's administration with legal justifications for the torture of prisoners of war -- claimed that the Founding Fathers would object to the president being impeached in an election year.
According to Yoo, Democrats are getting it all wrong when they say the Constitution compels them to hold impeachment proceedings against Trump just one year before the election.
McConnell drops a surprise on Trump — calls for an even stronger resolution to rebuke him
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) indicated he opposes the bill out of the House to denounce President Donald Trump's military withdrawal in Syria because it isn't tough enough, reported Bloomberg's Steven Dennis.
"My first preference is for something stronger than the House resolution," McConnell said according to Bloomberg's Laura Litvan.
She went on to say that McConnel wants a bill that outlines what action should take place in Syria.
McConnell said the House version was "curiously silent on the issue of whether to actually to sustain a U.S. military presence in Syria."