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BBC tries to understand politics by creating fake Americans

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NEW YORK (AP) — Larry, a 71-year-old retired insurance broker and Donald Trump fan from Alabama, wouldn’t be likely to run into the liberal Emma, a 25-year-old graphic designer from New York City, on social media — even if they were both real.

Each is a figment of BBC reporter Marianna Spring’s imagination. She created five fake Americans and opened social media accounts for them, part of an attempt to illustrate how disinformation spreads on sites like Facebook, Twitter and TikTok despite efforts to stop it, and how that impacts American politics.

That’s also left Spring and the BBC vulnerable to charges that the project is ethically suspect in using false information to uncover false information.

“We’re doing it with very good intentions because it’s important to understand what is going on,” Spring said. In the world of disinformation, “the U.S. is the key battleground,” she said.

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Spring’s reporting has appeared on BBC’s newscasts and website, as well as the weekly podcast “Americast,” the British view of news from the United States. She began the project in August with the midterm election campaign in mind but hopes to keep it going through 2024.

Spring worked with the Pew Research Center in the U.S. to set up five archetypes. Besides the very conservative Larry and very liberal Emma, there’s Britney, a more populist conservative from Texas; Gabriela, a largely apolitical independent from Miami; and Michael, a Black teacher from Milwaukee who’s a moderate Democrat.

With computer-generated photos, she set up accounts on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok. The accounts are passive, meaning her “people” don’t have friends or make public comments.

Spring, who uses five different phones labeled with each name, tends to the accounts to fill out their “personalities.” For instance, Emma is a lesbian who follows LGBTQ groups, is an atheist, takes an active interest in women’s issues and abortion rights, supports the legalization of marijuana and follows The New York Times and NPR.

These “traits” are the bait, essentially, to see how the social media companies’ algorithms kick in and what material is sent their way.

Through what she followed and liked, Britney was revealed as anti-vax and critical of big business, so she has been sent into several rabbit holes, Spring said. The account has received material, some with violent rhetoric, from groups falsely claiming Donald Trump won the 2020 election. She’s also been invited to join in with people who claim the Mar-a-Lago raid was “proof” Trump won and the state was out to get him, and groups that support conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.

Despite efforts by social media companies to combat disinformation, Spring said there’s still a considerable amount getting through, mostly from a far-right perspective.

Gabriela, the non-aligned Latina mom who’s mostly expressed interest in music, fashion and how to save money while shopping, doesn’t follow political groups. But it’s far more likely that Republican-aligned material will show up in her feed.

“The best thing you can do is understand how this works,” Spring said. “It makes us more aware of how we’re being targeted.”

Most major social media companies prohibit impersonator accounts. Violators can be kicked off for creating them, although many evade the rules.

Journalists have used several approaches to probe how the tech giants operate. For a story last year, the Wall Street Journal created more than 100 automated accounts to see how TikTok steered users in different directions. The nonprofit newsroom the Markup set up a panel of 1,200 people who agreed to have their web browsers studied for details on how Facebook and YouTube operated.

“My job is to investigate misinformation and I’m setting up fake accounts,” Spring said. “The irony is not lost on me.”

She’s obviously creative, said Aly Colon, a journalism ethics professor at Washington & Lee University. But what Spring called ironic disturbs him and other experts who believe there are above-board ways to report on this issue.

“By creating these false identities, she violates what I believe is a fairly clear ethical standard in journalism,” said Bob Steele, retired ethics expert for the Poynter Institute. “We should not pretend that we are someone other than ourselves, with very few exceptions.”

Spring said she believes the level of public interest in how these social media companies operate outweighs the deception involved.

The BBC experiment can be valuable, but only shows part of how algorithms work, a mystery that largely evades people outside of the tech companies, said Samuel Woolley, director of the propaganda research lab in the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas.

Algorithms also take cues from comments that people make on social media or in their interactions with friends — both things that BBC’s fake Americans don’t do, he said.

“It’s like a journalist’s version of a field experiment,” Woolley said. “It’s running an experiment on a system but it’s pretty limited in its rigor.”

From Spring’s perspective, if you want to see how an influence operation works, “you need to be on the front lines.”

Since launching the five accounts, Spring said she logs on every few days to update each of them and see what they’re being fed.

“I try to make it as realistic as possible,” she said. “I have these five personalities that I have to inhabit at any given time.”

David Bauder, The Associated Press

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Politics This Morning: 'Critical minerals' strategy coming down – The Hill Times

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What lies ahead for Sask. politics after fall sitting begins in controversy, ends with $500 cheques in mail – CBC.ca

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The fall sitting of the Saskatchewan Legislature started with controversy and ended quietly on Wednesday with confirmation $500 affordability cheques have been mailed.

The past seven weeks have seen the typical disagreements on what the government’s priorities ought to be, but it began with an incident that made international headlines and led to an apology by the premier.

On Oct. 26, Lt.-Gov. Russell Mirasty delivered the government’s throne speech. Seated in the crowd was convicted killer and former Saskatchewan cabinet minister Colin Thatcher.

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Thatcher, 84, was found guilty in 1984 of the first-degree murder of his ex-wife, JoAnn Wilson, who was found beaten and shot to death in the garage of her home the previous year.

He was sentenced to life in prison with no parole for 25 years and granted full parole in November 2006.

Thatcher was invited by Thunder Creek MLA Lyle Stewart, who initially defended the decision, before calling it an “error in judgment.”

The Saskatchewan Party government relieved Stewart of his legislative secretary duties. Five days after the throne speech, Premier Scott Moe apologized.

On Wednesday, deputy premier Donna Harpauer met with reporters, as Moe was in Washington, D.C.

“It was a mistake, one that the premier addressed on behalf of all of us, but we are very focused on the government agenda and got back to our agenda very quickly,” she said.

Colin Thatcher, a former Saskatchewan MLA and a convicted murderer, walks out of the chamber after the speech from the throne at the Saskatchewan Legislature in Regina on Oct. 26. (Heywood Yu/The Canadian Press)

NDP Leader Carla Beck said the invitation was a “slap in the face” to survivors of domestic violence, those that work in the field, and the assembly.

“We’re looking at a government that is out of touch,” the Opposition leader said. 

“The fact that they did not see a problem with inviting a convicted wife killer to the legislature on throne speech day and then took five days and international embarrassment to even table the weakest of apologies,” said Beck.

“It sent a terrible message in a province that has twice the rate of domestic violence in the country.

Saskatchewan First Act

A day after Moe’s apology, Justice Minister Bronwyn Eyre introduced the Saskatchewan First Act, which the government said will confirm the province’s autonomy and jurisdiction over its natural resources. 

“This isn’t about fed-bashing for kicks,” Eyre said on Nov. 1. 

“This is about quantifying, assessing, and defining economic harm. It’s about our place in this federation and our responsibility to the people of Saskatchewan to foster economic growth.”

The Saskatchewan First Act has been overshadowed by new Alberta Premier Danielle Smith’s Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act which was introduced on Nov. 28 and is already going to be tweaked by government.

On Wednesday, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations called for the proposed Alberta Sovereignty and the Saskatchewan First acts to be withdrawn

Moe and Eyre have said the Saskatchewan act is inclusive.

“It doesn’t change the intentions the government has to include all Saskatchewan people, Indigenous or otherwise, in the economy,” Moe said last week.

“What the act is focused on is to make sure we have the focus on Saskatchewan so we can collectively benefit.”

Last week, Beck and members of her caucus received some criticism for voting to move the bill to committee.

Beck said it is not clear what the bill accomplishes.

“My observation is that this was an act that was designed to have a political motivation behind it, but really materially wouldn’t have had that much of an impact on the people of this province. It reasserts rights that already exist.”

Beck said she has concerns about a lack of consultation with Indigenous and Métis communities.

$500 cheques not enough, says Opposition 

Beck and the Opposition spent much of the sitting calling on the government to spend more to help people facing increased cost-of-living.

The government said it had responded with its decision to spend $450 million to send $500 cheques to more than 900,000 adults.

After an initial delay in getting the cheques mailed, they have been sent to people who filed their income tax by Aug. 31.

Harpauer said Wednesday the government is addressing needs by spending in areas of need like health care and education.

“We have committed additional dollars in a plan for health care for recruitment, retention, training and incentivizing more workers, recognizing that there is stress in the health-care system,” she said.

“We also addressed stresses within education by providing additional dollars for inflation for our school divisions as well as an increase in student enrolment.”

Beck said the government’s priorities do not match the Opposition’s, mentioning the government’s decision to create a Crown corporation, the Saskatchewan Revenue Agency.

The bill to create the agency was introduced this week. The government said its aim is to “pursue greater autonomy in tax collection.”

“We think this is a priority,” Harpauer said.

“The piece of legislation I introduced this week is a very high-level piece of legislation that won’t come to fruition for a few years. But at some point, we do want to explore it, and this lets the public know what our agenda is.”

Saskatchewan Finance Minister Donna Harpauer released the mid-year update last month. The government is projecting a $1.1 billion surplus for 2022-23. (Matt Howard/Radio-Canada)

Beck said the public was not looking for a new tax collection and administration agency.

“There’s a very big distinction between the priorities that we brought forward because these are concerns that people in the province have,” she said.

“The government seems very pleased with in this building I don’t think translates very well to the people out there who are struggling to just get by right now.”

Harpauer disagreed, saying the proposed revenue agency is a response to what the government has heard.

“We are listening to stakeholders around the province, to different groups as well as our own constituents. This isn’t just coming from nowhere. This is something that people are raising concerns about.”

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The Many Ad Bans of Disney+: No Booze, No Politics, No Netflix – BNN Bloomberg

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(Bloomberg) — Walt Disney Co. debuts the ad-supported version of its Disney+ streaming service Thursday with strict rules: No alcohol commercials, no political spots and no ads from competitors. 

The new service, which is priced at $8 a month, has signed up 100 sponsors across a wide swath of business, including finance, retail and automotive, Rita Ferro, Disney Media’s president of advertising, said in an interview. The company intentionally left some slots open to accommodate marketer interest after the product’s debut, she said. 

Although Disney’s position on some of the restrictions may change over time, the Burbank, California-based company will shut out rivals including Netflix Inc. and Amazon.com Inc.’s Prime Video to prioritize its own shows and films, Ferro said. 

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“Our content is going to be the only thing you see on our platforms,” she said. 

The ad-supported version of Disney’s flagship streaming platform will have 4 minutes of commercials per hour or less, or about half the ad load of Hulu, its sister streaming service. It’s becoming available at a tough time for the media industry at large amid a pullback in ad spending and fears of an imminent recession. 

On Tuesday, shares of CBS owner Paramount Global fell 7% after Chief Executive Officer Bob Bakish said the company’s advertising sales this quarter will be “a bit below” the third quarter in a “challenging” market.

Industry Challenges

The comments echoed those of Jeff Shell, chief executive officer of Comcast Corp.’s NBCUniversal division, who said the advertising market is “definitely getting worse.” Last week, AMC Networks Inc. announced plans to fire 20% of its US staff, Warner Bros Discovery Inc.’s CNN division laid off employees, and NPR said it would “severely restrict” hiring after a sharp drop in sponsorship revenue.

So far, Disney has been less affected than peers by the wider downturn in ad spending and has benefited from a “flight to quality,” Ferro said.

“There’s no question that the marketplace is challenged, and there’s no question there are more challenging times to come,” Ferro said. “But we have not necessarily seen the slowdown that we have seen in the marketplace.”

With the debut of the ad-backed Disney+, the price of the commercial-free version is increasing by $3 to $11 a month. Achieving profitability in Disney’s direct-to-consumer division, which lost $1.5 billion last quarter mainly due to expenses at Disney+, is a priority for the company.

C-Suite Tumult

Disney shares fell by 13% on Nov. 9, the worst daily drop since 2001, after the company reported the loss. They were down 41% this year through the close Wednesday.

In response, Disney on Nov. 20 ousted Chief Executive Officer Bob Chapek and brought back longtime CEO Bob Iger. Iger told employees at the first town hall held after his return that the company will prioritize breaking even on its streaming initiatives over subscriber growth.  

As of last quarter, Disney had about 236 million subscribers across all of its online TV businesses, including Hulu and ESPN+. Chapek said at the time that losses had peaked in the direct-to-consumer division, which Disney expects to reach profitability in 2024. 

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.

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