Tag Archives: social media

Basic scientific method

As, I am sure, all of you know, a proper scientific experiment will have a ‘control group’. Say I have a new cancer drug. I can’t tell if it’s actually any good just by testing it. I need something else to compare it to. It’s only by means of the comparison that my results have any meaning. To see if the ‘independent variable’ is of any significance, you have to consider other possible factors which might be affecting the result. In short, you can’t treat a single phenomenon in isolation from everything else.

Bear this in mind, as we’ll come back to it later. But for now, let’s switch track and turn to the matter of ‘Russian interference’ in US politics. What have we learnt to date?

What we’ve learnt is that some ‘Russia-linked accounts’ posted messages about US politics, and paid for advertisements related to US politics, on social media such as Twitter and Facebook. Some of these messages were anti-Clinton and pro-Trump (along the lines of ‘a vote for Hillary is a vote for Satan’), but some were anti-Trump, and some were about completely different things altogether (Black Lives Matter and the like). For a sample, take a look here.

We’ve also learnt that an account is deemed ‘Russia-linked’ if it features even one of the following criteria: it was created in Russia; registered via a Russian phone carrier or email account; uses Cyrillic characters; the user regularly uses the Russian language; and the user has logged in from any  Russian IP address, even once. I’ve logged in to this site in Russia, so according to this definition you are reading a ‘Russia-linked’ blog. That means that if I make any comments about US politics, they will be added to the list of evidence of ‘interference’ by the Russian government.

Clearly, this is all a bit silly. But, let’s not worry about that for the moment. Let’s accept that some of the ‘Russia-linked accounts’ are indeed Russian, though we can’t tell that any of them are actually linked to the Russian government, and let’s accept that Russians are posting things about US politics. Does that amount to ‘interference’? And does it show that Russians are particularly noteworthy interferers, so noteworthy as to justify a vast witch-hunt?

Now, this is where the matter of comparison comes into play. Russians are posting stuff about US politics. But what about everybody else? Let’s face it, Russians are hardly likely to be the only ones. US politics interests people just about everywhere, and some of them no doubt have some strong views on it and may even have generated some commentary or memes or something else which they’ve posted on Facebook or Twitter. If you’re going to say that ‘Russian interference’ is especially prominent and dangerous, you need something to compare it to. For instance, you might compare it to the complete total of all social media users. Are Russians posting substantially more about US politics than social media users as a whole? Alternatively, you could look at individual countries. What about Canada-linked users; Britain-linked users; French-linked users; Mexican-linked users; whatever? Have any of them posted stuff about US politics, bought political advertisements, and the like? And if so, do they do it more or less than Russia-linked users, in proportion to their numbers.

This matters, because if you were to do such a comparison and discover that, say, Canadian users were generating very similar stuff on Facebook and Twitter, and doing just as much compared to their overall numbers, then you’d have to start investigating ‘Canadian interference’. Or if you found the same with Brits, Germans, French, Mexicans, Venezuelans, whatever, you’d have to investigate British, German, French, Mexican, Venezuelan, etc interference too. And then, it would become obvious that Russian interference’ isn’t particularly abnormal.

Maybe it is. Maybe, ‘Russia-linked accounts’ have generated far more of the sort of stuff under investigation than accounts linked to other countries. But then again, maybe not. To date, I haven’t read anything which suggests that anybody has carried out the research to show which is the case. If that is true (and please show me if I’m missing something), then all the findings about Russian interference are utterly meaningless, as they lack any comparison. This is basic scientific method. Am I the only person to have thought of this?

Cunning troll

I once read that the founders of the website Inosmi.ru, which translates articles from the Western mass media into Russia, had hoped that by giving Russians access to Western journalism they would be able to convince them of the rightness of Western ways and of the values of liberal-democracy more generally, and thus rid them of their nationalist and anti-democratic urges. Unfortunately, said the article, Inosmi had had the opposite effect. Once non-English speaking Russians finally got the opportunity to read the over-the-top nonsense about Russia that passes for journalism in the Western press, they became more convinced than ever that the Western world was out to get them. It has thus been suggested that the very best thing that the Russian authorities can do to counter Western propaganda is to spread it as widely as possible among the Russian population. Appalled by what they see and hear, the Russian people will rally around the authorities with great aplomb.

The Kremlin, it seems, has learnt the lesson. If the latest stories in the Western press are to be believed, those dastardly Russians are responsible for turning a piece of anti-Russian propaganda into a viral video on social media. Curse them for their cunning! The video in question, of course, is that by American actor Morgan Freeman recently published by the creepily titled ‘Committee to Investigate Russia’, in which Freeman declared that Russia was at ‘war’ with America. No doubt, many of you have already seen it. If so, it’s quite probably because you are a victim of a Kremlin troll. You see, Kremlin trolls have been spreading the video all over the internet and social media, in order to have a good laugh at it and show how ridiculous anti-Russian propaganda is. My goodness, they’re cunning, ‘as cunning as a fox who’s just been appointed professor of cunning at Oxford University,’ as the great Blackadder said.

Don’t take my word for it. According to that well-known bastion of non-propagandistic, 100% totally objective news reporting, RFE/RL, ‘A top NATO adviser on Russian Internet propaganda and disinformation campaigns says U.S. actor Morgan Freeman appears to have been targeted by “coordinated, pro-Kremlin social-media attacks”.’ Actually, Rolf Fredheim, the alleged ‘top NATO advisor’, is just a ‘data analyst’, and at the Riga-based NATO Strategic Communications Centre for Excellence, not at NATO. The Centre is just ‘accredited by NATO’, which according to the Centre’s website means simply that it’s one of several facilities ‘recognized by the Alliance for their expertise’. But let’s put that to one side for the moment. It’s RFE/RL, after all. Details, details. What matters is what Herr Fredheim has to say, which is the following:

Fredheim told RFE/RL on September 21 that he could not say whether the avalanche of recent English-language attacks against Freeman on Twitter, YouTube, and other social media were directly coordinated by the Kremlin. But he said the timing and similarity of many of the initial attacks suggest an army of pro-Kremlin, online trolls may have taken a cue from the criticism of Freeman by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on September 20, one day after the Freeman video’s release. ‘It does look very highly coordinated, because you’re seeing something on multiple platforms at the same time communicating the same message,’ Fredheim said. ‘It’s more than just a teenager in the basement. It could be many teenagers in many basements. But it could also be something more sophisticated than that…the St. Petersburg troll factories, for instance. It could be an example of some kind of Russian troll-farm output.’

So, our ‘top NATO advisor’ admits that he has no evidence that the flood of articles, blog posts, and Twitter and Facebook messages linking to Freeman’s video and poking fun at it, are ‘coordinated by the Kremlin’, but he feels confident enough nonetheless to say that it’s likely the case, because it involves multiple messages on multiple platforms, something which could only be achieved by a coordinating centre, and couldn’t possibly be the result of lots of individuals deciding that this was such blithering nonsense that they really ought to comment on it on whatever type of media they happen to choose. Take  for example, Bloomberg’s Leonid Bershidsky, who wrote a scathing article about the video a couple of days ago.  Kremlin troll, obviously! And Fox New’s Tucker Carson, who tackled the issue on his talk show. Troll, too. Must be. And myself … Well, you all know that I’m taking payment from the Kremlin; it’s how I bought my Ferrari.

matchbox-ferrari-testarossa

The funny thing is that the ‘Freeman is a victim of Kremlin trolls’ story has itself gone sort of viral, as other Western media outlets pick it up, and Tweeters and Facebookers spread the word. ‘The legendary American actor is a pariah in Russia,’ says the Washington Post, ‘with Kremlin officials, Russian talking heads and pro-Putin social media trolls ganging up to denounce Freeman. The all-hands-on-deck response suggests a concerted Russian effort to discredit the actor via social media.’ ‘Russian trolls are waging war on Morgan Freeman,’ shouts Viceciting RFE/RL. ‘Russia has aimed its entire media arsenal at the veteran Hollywood actor Morgan Freeman,’ proclaims the BBC.  Blogs are getting in on the act. ‘Is nothing sacred?’ asks the Codebringer, complaining about the Russian trolls’ attacks on Mr Freeman. It’s just one of many such complaints one can find in a couple of seconds through a Google search. And it’s on Twitter and Facebook too, as people share the stories from RFE/RL, the BBC, Vice, and so on. In short, the story’s spreading far and wide.

Well, golly gosh. It seems that we are ‘seeing something on multiple platforms at the same time communicating the same message.’ Very suspicious. This phenomenon can’t be spontaneous, can it, Mr Fredheim? You’ve said so. Somebody must be coordinating it. A NATO troll factory, maybe? I demand we be told the truth.