John Borthwick writes: 2014 certainly ended up as the year of the media hack. The Sony incident and the ham handed response by the company and theatrical distributors, pushed the hacking of a media company and its ransoming into the mainstream. The entire incident was surreal, partially because it was both an example of a media company getting hacked and media hacking. There has been a lot of attention on the former; we want to dig into the latter — media hacking.
Media Hacking refers to the usage and manipulation of social media and associated algorithms to define a narrative or political frame. Individuals, states, and non-state actors are increasingly using Media Hacking techniques to advance political agendas. Over the past year we’ve seen a number of such incidents occur — where both social media and mainstream media were manipulated to advance a particular agenda. Two examples follow, one which I tracked and one Gilad tracked.
Open your browser and search for ISIS France. The first recommendation that Google offers is “ISIS France support”. Why is the most sophisticated algorithm in the world prompting me that the most frequently used search term about ISIS and France relates to French support? The answer has nothing to do with the tragic murders at the French satirical magazine. It’s a hack. Google search algorithm was effectively hacked to produce this result.
On August 26th Vox ran a story with the title “One in six French people say they support ISIS”. The headline is disconcerting — the article highlights that in the 18–24yr old bracket, 27% of French youth surveyed support ISIS. I remember seeing this in my Twitter feed and thinking this makes no sense, 10M people in France, a quarter of French youth, support ISIS? A bit of digging yielded some perspective.
The article is based on a survey of random phone interviews conducted by a British marketing agency called ICM. ICM randomly dialed 1,001 people in France. This seems like a small sample, but 1,000 randomly selected callers is statistically significant for a population the size of France. While the overall sample is relevant the sub samples aren’t — the sample size that yielded the 27% number was based on a sample size of 105 people. That’s not meaningful. And the questions in the survey were oblique — if you look at the source data, it’s possible that people who were interviewed thought this was a general statement of support of Iraq, not ISIS and while the survey refers to ISIS the French have several other words they use. Finally the survey data indicated only 2.7% of people had a very favorable view — most people grouped into the unfavorable group (62%) or the “don’t know” group (23%) so methodology wise, it’s a mixed bag, at best.
Beyond the methodology, the survey was commissioned by Russian news agency Rossiya Segodnya. The trail of the media breadcrumbs seem to be as follows: Rossiya Segodnya commissioned a survey to test support or opposition to the admissions of Georgia and the Ukraine into the EU, the ISIS question was secondary. On August 18th Russia Today ran the story with the headline: “15% of French people back ISIS militants, poll finds.” Over the following week the Russia Today story was reposted, in particular the summary infographic (above) propagated around the internet, mostly on French sites. A Tinyeye search for the URL of the image for the infographic shows some of the sites who ran it.
The Vox story ran a week later. In an email exchange Max Fisher (author of the Vox post) said he thought he saw the data in Tweet. The Vox story combined two surveys (the one by ICM and one by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion), sources were cited (including that Rossiya Segodnya commissioned the survey) and they included an infographic from Russia Today. With the headline — “One in six French people say they support ISIS” — the story started to circulate on social media, in particular on Twitter. Media hacks take advantage of the decontextualized structure of real time news feeds — you see a Tweet from a known news site, with a provocative headline and maybe the infographic image included — you retweet it. Maybe you intend the read the story, might be you just want to Tweet something interesting and proactive, maybe you recognize the source, maybe you dont. [Continue reading…]