How a local candidate uses Facebook to fight against disinformation

(And a Facebook loophole that Trump's campaign is exploiting)

The most pernicious effect of disinformation is not that people come to wrap their minds around bad information and dig in. It’s that disinformation lowers the permission threshold for our minds to become captive to its own tendency to seek clarity and avoid confusion.  When faced with deception, or with ostensibly harmless information patterned along a design that seems familiar, we freeze.  We don’t know what to do, and so we do nothing.

It is hard to have a conversation about policing truth claims on platforms because it quickly becomes messy.  The edge cases are easy to detect and hard to solve.  How, for example, should Twitter deal with a video edited by a candidate to make it appear as if his opponents stammered and stuttered on stage for 30 seconds after being confronted with one of his strong truth?  The campaign (Mike Bloomberg’s) in this case claimed that the video was clearly satirical; how could – why should Twitter police political humor?  Well, it shouldn’t right?  Is that an easy edge case? 

What about the use of an official and important government function like the census to raise money for a campaign?   Facebook insists that it would treat any information about the census “like an election.”  But when the Trump campaign uses the design housing of official census forms to raise money and collect data about voters – even stealing government lingua franca – “For Official Use Only” – Facebook says that its policy isn’t violated because, as a spokesperson told Judd Legum, it “clearly” is an ad for the Trump campaign.

Clear to whom? How does Facebook know that a deliberately gamed ad using the imprimatur of the census is clear to its readers?  Shouldn’t there be heightened skepticism of any advertisement that refers to a protected subject of information?  Facebook has said that it will not allow its platform to be used as a vector to spread false information about census and elections. 

My take: Twitter and Facebook should err on the side of forcing anyone who wants to play in these spaces to explicitly label their content as advertisements. They should NOT allow anyone to use the words “official” in the context of elections and the census unless there is absolutely no way that a reasonable person could be confused. 

As Maurice Turner, the deputy director of the Internet Architecture Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology put it this morning: “How do we know that the source of that information has access to that data and benign intent?”    We don’t, especially if Facebook allows anyone to borrow official-looking language for unofficial purposes.  The Trump campaign wants to persuade people to click on ads that say “official” and “congressional district census;” forget about motive: it’s confusing. It veers into disinformation quickly.

The public is on board with platform self-regulation: 59% of those surveyed by the Knight Foundation and Gallup want all online political ads to be identified as such, to have their provider identified, to have its cost identified, and to have the target audience identified.  A majority of Americans want misinformation banned entirely; if you can figure out how to do that at scale, then you’ll make a lot of money. And grey areas? Americans say that gray areas should remain gray. They expect political ads to be misleading and, damnit, they want to preserve their right to determine the truth for themselves.

Counter-Disinfo Best Practice Update:

Having damned Facebook, now I offer an example of how politicians without resources can use the platform to combat manipulated information about them.

In Nevada, Ellen Barre Spiegel, a state assemblywoman representing Henderson, was confronted by an allegation that she was using misleading information on a piece of mail that went out to voters in her district. 

So, she simply posted the mailer. The issue went away.

How does she build trust with voters?  Her district is small enough for her to be able to add anyone to her personal Facebook account.  She understands the privacy trade-offs involved, but she’s determined that the intimacy and trust that being a Facebook friend to her constituents can build outweighs those second-order issues. She told us that she gives out her personal cell phone to people who have questions and tries to answer every call.  (I urged her to use a burner number; she pointed out that her constituents might be suspicious of a non “702” area code.  There are trade-offs!).

So this is a good use case.  A state assemblywoman who doesn’t have the money to hire a sophisticated communication team to help her has created a bootstrap mechanism using the platforms that her voters use.  She can respond quickly to disinformation.  There are downsides to being so accessible, but she knows that that the way she communicates with her constituents is the most important determinant of whether they trust what she is saying.

Digital Security Best Practice Update

Protocol reports today about yet another company, Babel Street, with a secret location surveillance system that they sell to law enforcement.  The program, Locate X, aggregates, sorts and finds gems in data collected by mobile apps.

One of our mantras: your phone number is only one of the many ways that your phone device can be tracked. Be aware of the others and take action.  Every phone device includes a unique identifier, a Media Access Control number, that’s burned into the hardware of the part of your phone that transmits and receives Wifi routing requests. You can’t change this; it’s used because Wifi networks need some way to know that an actual device is trying to connect. But as you move across the internet, your MAC, along with the Internet Protocol address you’re accessing, often moves with you.  If you’re using LTE to get online, and you’re using an app, that app is (most likely) recognizing and collecting the location of the cell towers that you’re connecting to.  By merging a MAC and a cell tower location, or a GPS satellite, it can be easy to track individual devices as they move across the meat-space.   Apps make money by selling this data.

Iphones and Android-based devices allow you to throttle your exposure, and I strongly recommend that you take the time to ask, for every app you use, whether location services are needed.

The same goes for the unique advertising identifier that Apple and Google code into your devices.  You can reset them or make them invisible to beacons and hungry apps. In California, your advertiser ID belongs to you. So either move to California, or reset your advertiser ID.