What sort of wunderkind was Aaron Swartz?

Ed Lake writes: Who was Aaron Swartz? I never met him, though I’ve had dealings with friends of his over the years. The outline of his biography is a matter of public record: teenaged computer whizz gets rich, becomes a political activist and ends up in his 20s facing decades in jail for murky charges related to the misappropriation of academic journal articles. That much is on Wikipedia.

If that isn’t intimate enough, perhaps his character comes through in the tributes that poured onto the internet following Swartz’s suicide in 2013. The signature notes of tenderness, exasperation and awe, in reminiscences from Tim Berners-Lee, Lawrence Lessig, Cory Doctorow and many other notable mentors, certainly conjure a fleeting presence. Nevertheless, in the end, the person is irrecoverable, and those of us who weren’t lucky enough to know him never will.

What was Aaron Swartz?’, on the other hand, seems like both a tractable and a worthwhile question, not least because a decent answer ought to say something about where we are now. Swartz positioned himself at the exact spot where technology and politics press noses and glare at one another. It’s a Silicon Valley joke (or perhaps just a Silicon Valley joke) that every idiot with a dating app says he wants to change the world, but Swartz seems really to have meant it. He quit money the way PayPal’s co-founder Peter Thiel wants smart kids to quit college. He became a white-hat hacker among the levers of state power.

And things ended, not just badly, but dismally, in a sulphurous halfworld of G-men, prosecutorial intimidation and forced betrayals. It is, I suspect, impossible to learn anything about the young activist’s story without starting to see it as a symbol of something ominous in our present chunk of history. But what? [Continue reading…]

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Time to #BoycottBudLight

First up (to be completely honest): I’m not in a position to boycott Bud Light or any other Anheuser-Busch product.

It’s easy enough to identify pissy beer from the brand without needing to taste it — I’m confident I’ll be able to continue through the rest of my life without ever drinking a single Budweiser. That said, if there is a movement to #BoycottBudLight sprouting up among current drinkers, I applaud all those who support it.

The New York Times reports: A new label on some bottles of Bud Light, one of the brands owned by the beer giant Anheuser-Busch InBev, is falling flat among women, a demographic group the industry has been desperately courting in hopes of jump-starting flagging sales of suds.

In a continuation of its “Up for Whatever” campaign, a wide blue band low on the label says, “The perfect beer for removing ‘no’ from your vocabulary for the night.”

Protests quickly erupted in social media, criticizing what was perceived as perhaps not the best marketing language in the midst of public outcry over date rape on college campuses.

“As a woman, as a mother of a girl and a boy, I find this message very disturbing and dangerous,” someone using the name Danielle Sawada posted on Bud Light’s Facebook page. “I have been a Bud Light drinker for quite a while, but until this campaign ends, you do not have my dollars.”

Alexander Lambrecht, vice president for the Bud Light brand at Anheuser-Busch, says:

“It’s clear that this message missed the mark, and we regret it. We would never condone disrespectful or irresponsible behavior.”

With all due respect, that’s bullshit.

Anheuser-Busch is trawling a market that’s a bit lacking in discrimination, but even so, I seriously doubt that the advertising campaigns dreamed up their agency, BBDO, are being created by a group of idiots.

Rather than treat the corporate response as an admission of an honest mistake, it should in my opinion be viewed as a smokescreen — not so much a reaction to the campaign, but instead an integral component in the campaign strategy.

The watery beer behind the label has been on the market for over 30 years. Creating some buzz around an old brand has to get increasingly difficult — especially when the age at which young people start drinking is the period in life when they have least interest in imitating their overweight parents.

A campaign built around the hashtag #UpForWhatever is clearly aimed at breaking boundaries — not staying in well-worn tracks.

The outrage provoked by this campaign, far from being fallout from “missing the mark,” may in fact be the mark itself — free publicity on Twitter and across the media.

Arguably, the only way of having a big impact through social media is by stoking controversy. After all, outrage is the currency of the realm.

And in this case, expressing consternation gets turned into an equal opportunity exercise whose participants include executives not only at Anheuser-Busch but also BBDO.

The agency’s Director of Digital Strategy, Lucy Leiderman, tweeted: “Oh no. Bud Light’s new tagline: “The perfect beer for removing ‘no’ from your vocabulary for the night”… ” but then removed the tweet.

Was this just a bit of damage control on behalf of the agency? Maybe, but perhaps Leiderman can be given the benefit of the doubt.

Prior to her arrival at BBDO, she wrote quite astutely about the dangers of removing “no” from ones vocabulary, addressing her warning directly at advertising creatives:

Marketers everywhere are singing the siren song of increasingly outrageous social campaigns. Decision makers are seeing signs that the end of the traditional is nigh. More and more, the creative space has become a world of “yes.” And that’s a problem.

But it isn’t just a problem that results in outrageous advertising. By its very nature advertising is always coercive and always designed to precipitate choices that might otherwise not be made.

Every ad wants you to say “yes.”

As Bud Light lights up Twitter, Anheuser-Busch and BBDO are getting exactly what they want. The only way of making the backlash truly instructive will be if it moves beyond the digital sphere and consumers in significant numbers actually stop buying the beer.

Still, even if to my surprise, the #UpForWhatever campaign turned out to become a very expensive mistake, I don’t anticipate the kind of seismic shift that I would really hope for in American culture.

In the larger scheme of things, this is a somewhat trivial example of a trend that permeates almost every strand of public discourse.

Language, through its relentless abuse, gets stripped of meaning. As meaning ebbs away, there is a frenzy in which everyone is turning up the volume, trying to make themselves heard even when much of the time they have nothing of true value to say.

Advertising is inherently emotive. It is designed to provoke feelings — not thought.

It’s not by chance that BBDO would choose the hook of a generational phrase — whatever — in an effort to fuel mindless consumption, cloaked as free spirit.

Whatever signals a vocabulary already severely depleted as advertisers try and knock out its last line of defense.

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Why too much Facebook can leave you feeling down

By Mai-Ly Nguyen Steers, University of Houston

“Comparison is the thief of joy”, said former US president Theodore Roosevelt. Spoken more than a century ago, Roosevelt’s words highlight a fundamental truth that is just as relevant today.

In the 1950s, the acclaimed social psychologist, Leon Festinger, devised the social comparison theory to help explain the psychological processes behind why we compare ourselves to others. Festinger proposed that individuals have an innate desire to see how they measure up with their peers on dimensions they deem personally important in order to evaluate how well they are doing.

This tendency hasn’t gone away, and in fact, through social media websites like Facebook we may be engaging in more social comparison than ever before. Such social comparisons can convey important information: are we measuring up in terms of our progress or achievements, or are we falling behind and need to put in the effort to catch up?

[Read more…]

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Facebook isn’t a charity. The poor will pay by surrendering their data

Evgeny Morozov writes: Luxury is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed. Such, at any rate, is the provocative argument put forward by Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist. Recently dubbed “the Varian rule”, it states that to predict the future, we just have to look at what rich people already have and assume that the middle classes will have it in five years and poor people will have it in 10. Radio, TV, dishwashers, mobile phones, flatscreen TVs: Varian sees this principle at work in the history of many technologies.

So what is it that the rich have today that the poor will get in a decade? Varian bets on personal assistants. Instead of maids and chauffeurs we would have self-driving cars, housecleaning robots and clever, omniscient apps that can monitor, inform and nudge us in real time.

As Varian puts it: “These digital assistants will be so useful that everyone will want one and the scare stories you read today about privacy concerns will just seem quaint and old-fashioned.” Google Now, one such assistant, can monitor our emails, searches and locations and constantly remind us about forthcoming meetings or trips, all while patiently checking real-time weather and traffic in the background.

Varian’s juxtaposition of dishwashers with apps might seem reasonable but it’s actually misleading. When you hire somebody as your personal assistant, the transaction is relatively straightforward: you pay the person for the services tendered – often, in cash – and that’s the end of it. It’s tempting to say that the same logic is at work with virtual assistants: you surrender your data – the way you would surrender your cash – for Google to provide this otherwise free service.

But something doesn’t add up here: few of us expect our personal assistants to walk away with a copy of all our letters and files in order to make a buck off them. For our virtual assistants, on the other hand, this is the only reason they exist. [Continue reading…]

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Could ISIS’s ‘cyber caliphate’ unleash a deadly attack on key targets?

The Observer reports: When a chubby Birmingham teenager went on trial in 2012 for hacking Tony Blair’s personal address book, and taking down an anti-terror hotline, defence lawyers described him as “shy and unassuming” and dismissed the online exploits as a childish prank.

“They weren’t terrorists in any way, shape or form,” his barrister argued in court. Less than two years later, Junaid Hussain was in Syria, apparently on his way to join Isis, one of its most dangerous new recruits.

The group transfixed the world with its ultraviolent ideology, as it swept through Syria and Iraq in a frenzy of bloodshed and destruction. But its leaders’ enthusiasm for medieval barbarity is matched by an equally fervent embrace of modern technology. They know that a hacker like Hussain, behind his laptop, is as intimidating to some of their distant enemies as the gunmen terrorising people on the ground.

“Isis has been recruiting hackers for some time now. Some are virtual collaborators from a distance, but others have been recruited to emigrate to Syria,” said JM Berger, co-author of Isis: The State of Terror. “Activity targeting the west is just part of their portfolio. They’re also responsible for maintaining internet access in Isis territories, for instance, and for instructing members on security.” [Continue reading…]

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Twitter says it suspended 10,000 ISIS-linked accounts in one day

The New York Times reports: Activists and experts who monitor the Twitter traffic of the Islamic State and its supporters noticed something odd last week when many accounts suddenly disappeared.

The activists exchanged messages about the missing accounts, suspecting they had been suspended.

On Thursday, a Twitter representative confirmed what some were saying and put a number on it. The social media network’s violations department suspended approximately 10,000 accounts on April 2 “for tweeting violent threats,” the representative said.

It was impossible to independently verify the assertion because Twitter’s data is not public. But it would be the biggest single mass purge by Twitter of accounts linked to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh, which some experts believe has as many as 90,000 affiliated accounts.

The suspensions came against a backdrop of rising criticism that Twitter has allowed the Islamic State to exploit the social network to spread propaganda, glorify violence and seek recruits.

Twitter previously acknowledged suspending as many as 2,000 ISIS-linked accounts per week in recent months.

On March 31 the New York Times reported: A cybersecurity activist who recently helped publicize 9,200 Twitter accounts that were said to be linked to the Islamic State released a roster of 26,382 accounts on Tuesday, the biggest such list yet.

But the new list distributed by the activist, who goes by the Twitter name XRSone, appeared to be far from flawless.

It misidentified Al Jazeera’s popular Arabic-language Twitter account as suspect, for example. Also erroneously listed, among others, were Zaid Benjamin, a Washington-based journalist with 82,300 followers who works for Radio Sawa, an Arabic-language broadcaster partly funded by the United States, and Yousef Munayyer, a prominent Palestinian rights advocate based in Washington, with 23,400 followers.

Reached late Tuesday by email, XRsone said the erroneously included accounts had been removed. He also said he believed that the list still “has a high accuracy,” and that his intent was to show that more could be done to expunge Islamic State supporters from Twitter, where by some estimates they have registered as many as 90,000 accounts.

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China is said to use powerful new weapon to censor internet

The New York Times reports: Late last month, China began flooding American websites with a barrage of Internet traffic in an apparent effort to take out services that allow China’s Internet users to view websites otherwise blocked in the country.

Initial security reports suggested that China had crippled the services by exploiting its own Internet filter — known as the Great Firewall — to redirect overwhelming amounts of traffic to its targets. Now, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Toronto say China did not use the Great Firewall after all, but rather a powerful new weapon that they are calling the Great Cannon.

The Great Cannon, the researchers said in a report published Friday, allows China to intercept foreign web traffic as it flows to Chinese websites, inject malicious code and repurpose the traffic as Beijing sees fit.

The system was used, they said, to intercept web and advertising traffic intended for Baidu — China’s biggest search engine company — and fire it at GitHub, a popular site for programmers, and GreatFire.org, a nonprofit that runs mirror images of sites that are blocked inside China. The attacks against the services continued on Thursday, the researchers said, even though both sites appeared to be operating normally.

But the researchers suggested that the system could have more powerful capabilities. With a few tweaks, the Great Cannon could be used to spy on anyone who happens to fetch content hosted on a Chinese computer, even by visiting a non-Chinese website that contains Chinese advertising content.

“The operational deployment of the Great Cannon represents a significant escalation in state-level information control,” the researchers said in their report. It is, they said, “the normalization of widespread and public use of an attack tool to enforce censorship.” [Continue reading…]

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Searching the web creates an illusion of knowledge

Tom Jacobs writes: Surely you have noticed: A lot of people who have no idea what they are talking about are oddly certain of their superior knowledge. While this disconnect has been a problem throughout human history, new research suggests a ubiquitous feature of our high-tech world — the Internet — has made matters much worse.

In a series of studies, a Yale University research team led by psychologist Matthew Fisher shows that people who search for information on the Web emerge from the process with an inflated sense of how much they know — even regarding topics that are unrelated to the ones they Googled.

This illusion of knowledge appears to be “driven by the act of searching itself,” they write in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Apparently conflating seeking information online with racking one’s brain, people consistently mistake “outsourced knowledge for internal knowledge.” [Continue reading…]

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Why do memes go viral, and should we care?

Abby Rabinowitz writes: On April 11, 2012, Zeddie Little appeared on Good Morning America, wearing the radiant, slightly perplexed smile of one enjoying instant fame. About a week earlier, Little had been a normal, if handsome, 25-year-old trying to make it in public relations. Then on March 31, he was photographed amid a crowd of runners in a South Carolina race by a stranger, Will King, who posted the image to a social networking website, Reddit. Dubbed “Ridiculously Photogenic Guy,” Little’s picture circulated on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr, accruing likes, comments, and captions (“Picture gets put up as employee of the month/for a company he doesn’t work for”). It spawned spinoffs (Ridiculously Photogenic Dog, Prisoner, and Syrian Rebel) and leapt to the mainstream media. At a high point, ABC Morning News reported that a Google search for “Zeddie Little” yielded 59 million hits.

Why the sudden fame? The truth is that Little hadn’t become famous: His meme had. According to website Know Your Meme, which documents viral Internet phenomena, a meme is “a piece of content or an idea that’s passed from person to person, changing and evolving along the way.” Ridiculously Photogenic Guy is a kind of Internet meme represented by LOL cats: that is, a photograph, video, or cartoon, often overlaid with a snarky message, perfect for incubating in the bored, fertile minds of cubicle workers and college students. In an age where politicians campaign through social media and viral marketers ponder the appeal of sneezing baby pandas, memes are more important than ever—however trivial they may seem.

But trawling the Internet, I found a strange paradox: While memes were everywhere, serious meme theory was almost nowhere. Richard Dawkins, the famous evolutionary biologist who coined the word “meme” in his classic 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, seemed bent on disowning the Internet variety, calling it a “hijacking” of the original term. The peer-reviewed Journal of Memetics folded in 2005. “The term has moved away from its theoretical beginnings, and a lot of people don’t know or care about its theoretical use,” philosopher and meme theorist Daniel Dennett told me. What has happened to the idea of the meme, and what does that evolution reveal about its usefulness as a concept? [Continue reading…]

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Russian propaganda exploits Western weakness

Andrew Kornbluth writes: It is becoming clear that certain authoritarian models of government are capable of matching and, in some respects, even exceeding the accomplishments of their democratic counterparts. Whether Russia, with its dependence on energy exports and otherwise undiversified economy, should be counted among them is debatable, but there is one area in which the Russian state has so far demonstrated a clear mastery over its Western opponents: its propaganda or, to use the public relations term, its messaging.

But impressive as the information component of Russia’s current “hybrid war” over Ukraine has been, its success arguably owes less to its ingenuity than to ingrained flaws in Western democratic culture for which there is no simple solution.

The effectiveness of Russia’s spin is difficult to deny; in addition to the almost 90 percent of Russians who support their president and, albeit passively, his expansionist campaign, a large part of the Western public, especially in Europe, remains convinced that Russia bears little or no responsibility for the war in Ukraine.

Ironically, Russian messaging has worked by exploiting vulnerabilities in precisely those mechanisms of self-criticism and skepticism which are considered so essential to the functioning of a democratic society. The modern Western culture of self-doubt has proved particularly susceptible to manipulation in a 21st-century confrontation that strongly recalls its Cold War origins.

Four assumptions popular in contemporary Western democratic discourse have been co-opted by Russian messaging in the present crisis. The first is that all sides in a conflict are equally guilty. Never far beneath the surface, Europe’s suspicion of the leader of the Western alliance, the United States, has been reinvigorated by successive scandals over the war in Iraq, torture and eavesdropping. Everyone has committed crimes — so the thinking goes — so how can the West possibly reproach Russia?

Likewise, in this confused moral landscape, the “illegality” of the Ukrainian revolution is blithely juxtaposed with the illegality of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, while the enormous differences in nature, scale and motive between the subjects under comparison go unmentioned.

The second assumption is that there are “two sides to every story.” The desire to consult multiple sources and the unwillingness to accept just one narrative are part of a healthy critical outlook, but the system breaks down when one side is a fabrication. There is no middle ground, for example, between the claim that the Russian army is fighting in Ukraine and the claim that it is not. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS urges sympathizers to kill U.S. service members it identifies on website

The New York Times reports: In a new online threat to American military personnel, the Islamic State has called on its members and sympathizers in the United States to kill 100 service members whose names, photos and purported addresses it posted on a website.

The group said that the personnel had participated in efforts to defeat it in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere.

Defense Department and F.B.I. officials said that they were aware of the website and were investigating the posting.

It does not appear that the information had been hacked from government servers. One Defense Department official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said that most of the information could be found in public records, residential address search sites and social media.

The officials said the list appears to be drawn from personnel who have appeared in news articles about airstrikes on the militant group.

Some of the names also appear to be drawn from the Defense Department’s own official reports on the campaign against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL.

But the list also included armed services personnel and others in the United States or elsewhere who have had nothing to do with the bombing campaigns, officials said. [Continue reading…]

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Where are ISIS supporters tweeting from?

Infographic: Where are ISIS supporters tweeting from? | Statista
You will find more statistics at Statista

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Inside Russia’s ‘Kremlin troll army’

Olga Bugorkova reports: Over the past year, Russia has seen an unprecedented rise in the activity of “Kremlin trolls” – bloggers allegedly paid by the state to criticise Ukraine and the West on social media and post favourable comments about the leadership in Moscow.

Though the existence and even whereabouts of the alleged “cyber army” are no secret, recent media reports appear to have revealed some details of how one of the tools of Russian propaganda operates on an everyday basis.

The Internet Research Agency (“Agentstvo Internet Issledovaniya”) employs at least 400 people and occupies an unremarkable office in one of the residential areas in St Petersburg. [Continue reading…]

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A phony populism is denying Americans the joys of serious thought

Steve Wasserman writes: The vast canvas afforded by the Internet has done little to encourage thoughtful and serious criticism. Mostly it has provided a vast Democracy Wall on which any crackpot can post his or her manifesto. Bloggers bloviate and insults abound. Discourse coarsens. Information is abundant, wisdom scarce. It is a striking irony, as Leon Wieseltier has noted, that with the arrival of the Internet, “a medium of communication with no limitations of physical space, everything on it has to be in six hundred words.” The Internet, he said, is the first means of communication invented by humankind that privileges one’s first thoughts as one’s best thoughts. And he rightly observed that if “value is a function of scarcity,” then “what is most scarce in our culture is long, thoughtful, patient, deliberate analysis of questions that do not have obvious or easy answers.” Time is required to think through difficult questions. Patience is a condition of genuine intellection. The thinking mind, the creating mind, said Wieseltier, should not be rushed. “And where the mind is rushed and made frenetic, neither thought nor creativity will ensue. What you will most likely get is conformity and banality. Writing is not typed talking.”

The fundamental idea at stake in the criticism of culture generally is the self-image of society: how it reasons with itself, describes itself, imagines itself. Nothing in the excitements made possible by the digital revolution banishes the need for the rigor such self-reckoning requires. It is, as Wieseltier says, the obligation of cultural criticism to bear down on what matters. [Continue reading…]

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How ISIS succeeds on social media where #StopKony fails

J.M. Berger writes: Social networks offer an incredible tool for tapping into the collective unconscious, a virtual Jungian arena in which competition might be expected to amplify the critical values and anxieties of millions of people in real time.

In early 2015, these critical issues included the ambiguous color of a random dress, the so-called Islamic State, and llamas — in that order.

How did we get here?

The answer to this question is, predictably, complex. Divining the mood of the masses has always been a tricky business. Prior to the rise of democracy, there were few consistent tools for this purpose, aside from counting how many pitchforks and torches the peasants were waving outside the gates. The vote became one way to quantify citizen priorities. But in practice, democracy is reductive. A finite number of candidates run for a finite number of offices, and the winners infer what their constituents want and need.

The explosion of affordable communications technologies allowed such inferences to become more accurate over time. Still, at every stage, reductionist influences kept whittling and shaping the raw data of public opinion. Pollsters decided what to ask and how to phrase the questions. Politicians decided which issues to exploit. News editors and producers made judgment calls about what was newsworthy.

Social media has introduced a new and profound layer of complication to how we listen to the voice of the masses. The technology has replaced the reductionism of the old world with a bafflingly dense ecosystem of echo and amplification. [Continue reading…]

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CIA chief says social media ‘greatly amplifies’ terror threat

Reuters: Social media and other technology are making it increasingly difficult to combat militants who are using such modern resources to share information and conduct operations, the head of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency said on Friday.

CIA Director John Brennan, in a speech in New York, said such communications heighten the challenge of dealing with diffuse threats and attacks across the world from groups like Islamic State, known also as ISIL, and others.

“New technologies can help groups like ISIL coordinate operations, attract new recruits, disseminate propaganda, and inspire sympathizers across the globe to act in their name,” Brennan said, using an acronym for the militant group that has taken hold in Syria and Iraq.

“The overall threat of terrorism is greatly amplified by today’s interconnected world, where an incident in one corner of the globe can instantly spark a reaction thousands of miles away; and where a lone extremist can go online and learn how to carry out an attack without ever leaving home,” Brennan said.

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Media hacking

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…]

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Defining and describing the population of ISIS supporters on Twitter

Although much ink has been spilled on ISIS’s activity on Twitter, very basic questions about the group’s social media strategy remain unanswered. In a new analysis paper, J.M. Berger and Jonathon Morgan answer fundamental questions about how many Twitter users support ISIS, who and where they are, and how they participate in its highly organized online activities.

Previous analyses of ISIS’s Twitter reach have relied on limited segments of the overall ISIS social network. The small, cellular nature of that network—and the focus on particular subsets within the network such as foreign fighters—may create misleading conclusions. This information vacuum extends to discussions of how the West should respond to the group’s online campaigns.

Berger and Morgan present a demographic snapshot of ISIS supporters on Twitter by analyzing a sample of 20,000 ISIS-supporting Twitter accounts. Using a sophisticated and innovative methodology, the authors map the locations, preferred languages, and the number and type of followers of these accounts.

Among the key findings:

• From September through December 2014, the authors estimate that at least 46,000 Twitter accounts were used by ISIS supporters, although not all of them were active at the same time.
Accounts Created, By Year

• Typical ISIS supporters were located within the organization’s territories in Syria and Iraq, as well as in regions contested by ISIS. Hundreds of ISIS-supporting accounts sent tweets with location metadata embedded.
Location Claimed in Profile

• Almost one in five ISIS supporters selected English as their primary language when using Twitter. Three quarters selected Arabic.

• ISIS-supporting accounts had an average of about 1,000 followers each, considerably higher than an ordinary Twitter user. ISIS-supporting accounts were also considerably more active than non-supporting users.

• A minimum of 1,000 ISIS-supporting accounts were suspended by Twitter between September and December 2014. Accounts that tweeted most often and had the most followers were most likely to be suspended.

• Much of ISIS’s social media success can be attributed to a relatively small group of hyperactive users, numbering between 500 and 2,000 accounts, which tweet in concentrated bursts of high volume.

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