Episode [] MSP54 [] Explainer [Social Media Smear Campaigns]

Original Images: Pixabay. Glitched @ Kulturpop

Original Images: Pixabay. Glitched @ Kulturpop

Episode [] MSP52 [] Explainer [Social Media Smear Campaigns]

Recorded the day before the Facebook and Soros smear story broke, this Explainer shows how easy it is to build a smear campaign. About donuts. 

Episode Transcript


These shows are dictated to and transcribed by machines, and hurriedly edited by a human. Apologies for the minor typos and grammar flaws.


Frequent friend of Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg apologist, also known as Kulturpop’s Matt Armitage, is back on his Fake News mission this week. We’re never entirely sure whether he wants to stop it or spread. So, we’d better give him the chance to explain.

·      It’s a bit unfair to say I’m a Facebook apologist. 

·      I’m more of a Facebook realist. 

·      We talk about accountability a lot. So today I want to ask what should Facebook or any other technology company be responsible for?

·      Restocking our fridge? Well, Amazon seems to be on its way to that one.

·      Driving us to work? Uber and Google are working on those.

·      Looking after kids or elderly relatives? Companies like Samsung and Hitachi are building robots that should be able to take care of the unwanted.

·      Still there? Hello Yahoo.

·      Massive over-pricing and glitchy software? Apple’s got that one covered.


Well, that’s that topic resolved. What should we do for the next twenty minutes?

·      I always find that badminton works very well on the radio.

I think that might be all the listeners can take.

·      It was a good game though. 

·      I think you beat me 40 love in that first game.


That’s a different game. Let’s go back to your friend Mark Zuckerberg. Maybe we can pad the show out a bit.

·      Regular listeners know that Mark and I have this weird relationship where I call him Zucky-baby and he acts as though he has no idea who I am.

·      In effect, that relationship allows me to be absolutely honest about what I think of his company and its policies and he continues to act as though he has no idea who I am.

·      You may have heard on the media – perhaps on BFM itself – that various governments have called for Mark Zuckerberg to appear at some kind of world congress of fake news.

·      To answer the questions that various world leaders and politicians have about the fake news epidemic.

·      And, I’m guessing, about how to reset their router when the bandwidth drops out on a Sunday morning.


You’re still on the politicians don’t know enough about technology trip?

·      Well, that’s why I made the joke about resetting the router.

·      Which I know is a cheap jibe and the pols are getting better at this but it’s not good enough that they’re playing catch up.

·      Mark Zuckerberg is the boss of one of the world’s largest companies, not the tech support guy from the basement of your office.


That’s not an excuse for him not to be held accountable.

·      Absolutely not. He should be brought to task.

·      But it’s pointless unless we have the infrastructure and knowledge to hold him to account.

·      Right now he could say pretty much anything. 

·      For example, he could say that fake news was made possible because of a vulnerability in the root servers that govern DNS addresses, and that that exploit prevented Pearl programmed servers from correctly identifying the geo-locations that his company’s ads stream to and from.

·      He could easily say that even though I just made that up. 

·      It’s nonsense. In the sense that none of it makes sense. It’s just random Internet stuff I threw into a sentence.

·      But our general lack of knowledge about the technology we rely on, leaves us in the position that anyone who trots out a bunch of plausible sounding terms is taken seriously.


And that’s what you want to talk about today.

·      we’re losing the ability to understand how the world works.

·      That’s not new – we’ve discussed it here before.

·      Partly because some of the technology – like quantum computing and AI is absurdly difficult to comprehend. 

·      But we assume that everything is just as complicated. So we stop bothering.

·      So we’re divorced from the reality.


And we stop being able to distinguish between truth and fiction?

·      They’re both just words. The truth has no more distinction from the fiction.

·      In fact, when we watch fiction, the fictional technology is often more plausibly explained than the truth.

·      Which is why we all think that DNA matching takes seconds and that a super-database containing the distinguishing characteristics all the world’s criminals exists somewhere.

·      We’ve arrived at this bizarre point where the easy availability of information should be allowing us to consider everything in a much more nuanced fashion, we’re becoming incredibly polarised.


So we come up with binary positions?

·      Those who are with us and those who are against us.

·      Yes and no. Wrong and right.

·      And as any child, whose parents have just told them that they can’t eat the green hairy thing they found under the car seat because life isn’t fair, can tell you…

·      …the world doesn’t work like that. And you really shouldn’t eat the green hairy thing.


Looks like this is shaping up to be another apocalyptic episode.

·      Admittedly, last week I went full apocalypse with the story about Puerto Rico and wondering what would happen if you added cyber-attacks into the natural disaster mix.

·      I had intended this week to talk about the other side of the environmental debate, and talk about some of the technologies that are helping us to adapt to climate change. 

·      And I will do that in one of the next few episodes.

·      I didn’t want to talk about this while this topic while the US mid-terms were going on, and at the same time I didn’t want the Zuckerberg world congress topic to get too old.

·      Plus, this week there have also been news reports about India’s struggle to tame fake news over Whatsapp, so I wanted to slide this in for Friday brunch before it spoils. 


Ok, let’s wander back to Facebook. What does the world need now?

·      Love. Sweet love. It’s the one thing there’s too little of.

·      Failing that, a face to face with the Facebook CEO.

·      Back to the reports that came out last week. There’s set to be a pan-national digital disinformation committee in the UK on November 27.

·      Representatives from the UK, Canada, Argentina, Australia and Ireland have called on Zuckerberg to attend and make himself available to lawmakers’ questions.

·      It also suggests that the UK organisers concentrated on the letters A through C when they searched through their Rolodex of international contacts, and Ireland got a default note through the letterbox because it’s the next-door neighbour. 


Hasn’t Facebook responded to world governments over the fake news affair?

·      That’s where there’s a difference of opinion. 

·      So far, MZ has declined to appear, and Facebook’s position seems to be that they have responded to several governments already, and that MZ and other senior FB officials have answered questions, and by golly that should be enough.

·      That’s not to say that FB has declared the issue over.

·      Throughout the US midterms the company made periodic announcements about profiles it had deleted that were suspected of misinformation or improper attempts to influence public opinion. 

·       But it still seems to me that we’re doing this back-to-front.


In what sense?

·      This is where that information and knowledge gap comes in.

·      Let’s accept the facts: the majority of people have no idea how Facebook works.

·      They don’t understand how social media tools can be used to spread disinformation and misinformation.

·      They don’t understand that this wasn’t just about buying ads that sent negative or false messages to people.

·      It was also about creating fake profiles that would represent individuals or often entirely fictional grassroots movements or interest groups.


Do you want to elaborate?

·      I’m not saying this is how it happened, but this is one way that I would do it.

·      Let’s say I set up the Kulturpop Exotic Donut Society, aka KEDS, fanpage and promote it heavily.

·      It gets 100k Likes – who doesn’t like donuts? 

·      It’s especially popular with US law enforcement officers.

·      So, in among the donut recipes and fanshots, I sprinkle a few posts with US police officers engaging with difficult members of the public.

·      Posts that always show the police in a good light.

·      I check to see how many Likes I’m getting for that kind of post. I’m especially looking for comments. The more comments the more engaged my followers are.

·      That tells me whether to post more of this content or stick to the donuts.


Do you often stick to donuts?

·      It depends how heavily I lean on them.

·      I’m sorry. I apologise for that joke.

·      But even that awful awful gag is an example of how you can lead a conversation to a specific outcome. 

·      I’m not going to go into that side of it – look up Derren Brown’s work if you want more examples of how easily our behaviour can be psychologically channelled in certain directions.


After the break we’ll take a look at where this donut is heading. The things I have to say on this show…




Before the break Kulturpop’s Matt Armitage was riding the donut of oblivion towards impending doom.


What are we casting our glazetowards now?

·      So, we’re talking about binary choices today.

·      The idea that we can only choose wrong or right.

·      And if our position is right, then the other person must automatically be wrong.

·      I know that seems like a refuge of certainty in a world that is very much uncertain.

·      But it’s really a bit like poking your head in the sand.

·      You’re opting for easy tribalism instead of doing the hard work of looking for answers.


That’s a long way from donuts.,,

·      We can frame the argument in terms of donuts. 

·      In binary terms there are donuts with holes and donuts without holes.

·      Those are the only two types of donuts that exist.

·      And if you like one type of donut, you can’t like the other. 


That’s boring…

·      A binary world is boring. If the only two colours available to you were black and white, you’d think grey was the most psychedelic and mind-bending thing you’d ever seen.

·      The same goes for donuts. 

·      In a world of plain donuts, the only thing that differentiates them is the aesthetic.

·      Whether you prefer with or without a hole, the taste is the same.

·      Donuts only get interesting when you put stuff on them, or in them, or both.

·      Thankfully, In the real world, Donuts are a broad church, and they make room for everyone.

·      Life is like a donut: It only gets interesting once you’ve added some multi-coloured sprinkles.

·      Which brings me back to what we were talking about before the break, my donut fanpage and how I can use it to influence what people think.


You’ve already started showing your support for law enforcement with pro-police videos.

·      Yup. Imagine I’ve put up a post of an easy-to-make cronut recipe…


Is anyone still eating cronuts?

·      You and your lamestream friends might have left the cronut behind as you embrace stevia and quinoa flour.

·      But for some of us, double glazing is a badge of honour. Diabetes be damned. 

·       o, sprinkled among the comments about my fabulous and so easy to follow recipe, I start to seed in some darker comments from fake profiles I’ve set up.

·      These comments say that Richard Bradbury, a celebrity patissier who is my main rival, melts plastic bags into the batter to make his donuts shinier.

·      Among the genuine gasps of shock-horror and it can’t be true, other fake accounts I operate post links to blogs and news sites that expose the diabolical double-dealings of this shady chef.


So you’ve made the effort to set up fake blogs and websites to publicise my non-existent cronut crimes?

·      It doesn’t take much. A few dollars spent at one of those Indian word farms that create cheap blog posts.

·      A couple of domain names that look like professional news sites and a knock-off wordpress template.

·      A few hours work and surprisingly little cash.

·      But now I buy some ads that – on Facebook and other social media and ad buying sites – start to follow you around the Web.

·      We all get trailed by ads. Go to a product site and the next media site you visit is full of ads for the product you were just looking at.

·      So now, I have my fake expose posts turning up everywhere you go. I can use the same content over and over on dozens of different sites.

·      Most people will never click on it anyway, so it’s really the headline and the photo that matter.

·      I can churn out headlines for all these posts. Donut Dick’s Plastic Passion. Elephant Dung: Healthier than Richard’s Cronuts. Eat me and Die. You start off funny and get darker and darker.


Haven’t you broken the law?

·      I may have broken libel or defamation laws. But that doesn’t matter. My websites are all located in countries that either cloak me in anonymity or don’t recognise those crimes or the legal jurisdictions they’re lodged in.

·      Maybe there’s no libel at all: I may be simply exaggerating reports and leaving misleading wording that pushes people into thinking I’ve said those things, when actually I’ve only alluded to them.

·      Maybe there was a picture of you walking into your kitchen with a plastic bag full of eggs and sugar.

·      But when you come out later, there’s no plastic bags. The eggs and sugar were for the donuts, so it’s only logical to assume that you put added the plastic bags to the mix, too.


And if I say I’m innocent?

·      It doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference. It’s ironic but the subject of the attack is irrelevant. 

·      It’s the attacks themselves that are important.

·      Creating arguments and chaos.

·      What I’ve done is create an environment where Richard Bradbury is presented as a villain.

·      And his crime is so straight forwardly evil that you can’t help but have an opinion on it.

·      So, you, the real Richard Bradbury, who has probably never made a cronut in his life, now belong to this binary world, one where you’re a meme, and you’re an angry bystander in discussions of your guilt or innocence.


I feel a really pressing need to pivot this away from me and back to Mark Zuckerberg. You mentioned before the break that the way we treat sites like Facebook is back to front.

·      At the moment I feel we’re really placing too much responsibility on the technology companies.

·      The methodology I just outlined to turn you into a cartoon villain requires me to register domain names, publish sites and purchase ads on multiple sites and platforms.

·      Overall, what I’m doing may constitute harassment, or bullying, or slander.

·      But each step is carried out perfectly legally. I’m using digital tools to connect all of those threads.

·      How much of that is Facebook’s responsibility? And how much can FB on its own do to reign me in?


We keep hearing that they have systems in place to monitor everything.

·      Those systems are really blunt. There has not been a shortage of shows we’ve done on AI this year.

·      And one of the recurring theme of those shows has been the stupidity of our AI systems.

·      So yes, we can leave the policing of these sites to machines in the same way we can leave a baby in the care of a beagle puppy.

·      It will be an outcome but it probably won’t be the one you were hoping for.


So, it’s pointless and we should give up and go home?

·      Not at all. Facebook and Google and Twitter and Snapchat and Apple and a thousand other companies all have a role to play.

·      But right now we’re in this weird position where lawmakers call MZ and ask him what he’s doing to curb something that is essentially their problem.

·      Because, let’s be honest. Facebook doesn’t care what politicians want.

·      They care what their shareholders, clients and to some extent their users want.

·      Fake news is only bad for social media sites if it causes users to log off.

·      If conspiracy theories are good for the bottom line then where’s the incentive to move away from them?


What would you like to see happen?

·      I want the lawmakers to take charge.

·      It’s not good enough for them to say they don’t understand the technology.

·      A lot of countries have a default position that says ignorance of the law is no defence.

·      But that’s the exact position that lawmakers adopt when it comes to technology: we don’t understand you so we can’t regulate you.

·      How many industries let you decide what you are?

·      Lawmakers ask Facebook if it’s a news or media company and it says no.

·      No. You tell Facebook what it is and make it conform to the guidelines and laws that govern that industry.


How would that look?

·      It would look normal. 

·      We act as though the technology industry has some kind of imperial exceptionalism that exempts it from the rules the rest of us follow.

·      I can’t open a restaurant and decide to call it a stationery shop because that allows me to avoid all the hygiene regulations that govern restaurants.

·      When the tech industry does exactly that, we call it a work of genius and we praise those companies for being disruptive. 

·      There’s another, older word for that kind of disruption: and that’s snake-oil merchants.


Can lawmakers take charge or have they ceded too much ground?

·      They have to take charge.

·      They’re the only ones who can create the framework that determines what is and isn’t allowed.

·      I’d like to see a lot more regulation of political and other campaigning on these platforms and the money that they are allowed to receive and the content that can be aired.

·      Recently the Iceland supermarket chain in the UK had its Xmas TV ad rejected by the broadcast regulator for being too political because it discussed the palm oil industry.

·      Now, I disagree with the regulator’s decision, but at least there’s a framework there.

·      And there’s no reason why we can’t have similar rules for digital ads and campaigns. 


What role do we, the public, have to play?

·      I’ve talked in the past about the pressure we can put on technology companies to shape their behaviour.

·      This isn’t one of those instances.

·      We don’t want Facebook or any company to be the arbiter here.

·      In fact, a lot of the tech companies have made it clear that they would welcome legislation, as it simplifies the position for them.

·      It gives them that sense of right and wrong. It eliminates at least some of the ambiguity.

·      Right now there’s a vacuum that makes it far too easy for partisan and hostile actors to exploit and subvert the norms of society.

·      We need to pressure our representatives in government to make those decisions.


And the donuts?

·      That is something we can do: we can try harder not to fall into the binary donut trap.

·      We have to be a little more open-minded and questioning. 

·      Try to see through the conspiracy theories.

·      A little less accepting of nonsensical, seemingly binary positions.

·      Ultimately, we’re responsible for what we think and believe.

·      But above all, if there’s one conclusion that today’s show should lead us towards, it’s that we have to stop blaming Richard Bradbury.


For more on the Dark Arts of communication, you can head over to Kulturpop.com where you will also find transcripts of these delightful shows.