Living in a World of Contested Reality

2018 may prove to be a turning point in how we perceive our world and make critical decisions. More and more people worldwide use social media as their primary source for information. At the same time, the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer shows that the media is now the least trusted institution globally when compared to NGOs, business and government. Technology is the main reason behind this disruption and large corporations as well as state actors are the major change makers driving this new age of contested reality. Below we list our favorite articles from 2018 that will help you better understand how to navigate the increasingly complex marketplace for attention, information, ideas and values.


1.    How the Wall Street Journal is preparing its journalists to detect deepfakes - Video remains the most preferred content for consumers on social media, but it is increasingly becoming difficult to differentiate between fake and real videos. Machine learning and increased computing power enables the production of videos in which people’s movements and voices are swapped. This can be done with open source software which eventually will lead to the proliferation of deepfakes. If you are interested in creating deepfakes yourself, this New Yorker story takes you through the steps of creating fake videos. As journalists grapple with verification of visual content, so too will everyday users need to pause and question everything they see on social media. 


2.    The Follower Factory - It is a relatively unknown American company, but Devumi has collected millions of dollars in a shadowy global marketplace for social media fraud by selling fake followers and using bots for retweets to anyone who wants to appear popular. The investigative article by The New York Times uncovers how your favorite celebrity, politician or influencer has bought tons of fake followers who make them appear more popular that they are. Devumi’s follower profiling techniques are perhaps the most deceiving of all.  Perception is not reality when money can buy followers and make people appear more popular than they are. 


3.    Troops, Trolls and Troublemakers: A Global Inventory of Organized Social Media Manipulation - Cyber troops are government, military or political party teams committed to manipulating public opinion through social media. Around the world, a range of government agencies and political parties are exploiting social media platforms to spread junk news and disinformation, exercise censorship and control, and undermine trust in the media, public institutions, and science. Authoritarian regimes are not the only state actors engaged in manipulating public perception through disinformation campaigns. Plenty of democratic countries such as Germany or the U.S. target foreign publics in the battle for public perception and influence. 

4.    Operation InfeKtion - We are all aware of fake news and disinformation being peddled on social media but Moscow has been on a decades long mission to tear the West apart, according to this investigate piece by The New York Times.  In fact, KGB spies invented the practice of fake news, also called active measures, and they have a playbook with seven rules for a successful operation: 1) find the cracks, 2) the big lie, 3) a kernel of truth, 4) conceal your hand, 5) the useful idiot, 6) deny everything, and 7) the long game. Technology may have changed over the last decades, but the basic approach employed by Russia remains the same. The three-part video series shows how old school propaganda techniques have been incorporated into digital platforms to persuade the masses. 


5.    Campaigning on WhatsApp - This year has seen a shift in how people across the world use WhatsApp and why it has become increasingly difficult to combat fake news on the platform. As the 2018 presidential election in Brazil illustrates, WhatsApp campaigning happens on a whole new level. According to researchers, a well-crafted disinformation campaign deploying fake images, influencers and the use of bots helped in the election of Jair Bolsonaro, the politician elected as Brazil’s current president. Worst of all, these practices happen in a black box because of the encryption used by WhatsApp. This means researchers have no visibility of the malpractices being committed on the platform and propaganda continues unabated. 


6.    How Russia helped swing the 2016 election for Trump - Two years on, a lot of information about the 2016 U.S. presidential election remains unclear. But there is no longer any doubt that Russia meddled heavily in the polls and ongoing research is uncovering the schemes and target audiences. This academic research piece argues that even though the meddling was minimal, it significantly altered the election in favor of Donald Trump. This was particularly true in the decisive swing states.  


7.    The Politics of Data Privacy in a Post-Cambridge Analytica World - Earlier in 2018, the prominent data mining company Cambridge Analytica went under over the illegal use of private Facebook data used during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. But the lasting legacy of the scandal is not headlines linking Cambridge Analytica with the Trump campaign or Russia. Rather, it is the politicization of privacy that will surely intensify as the public becomes more aware of how social media firms monetize personal data.


8.    Delay, Deny and Deflect: How Facebook’s Leaders Fought Through Crisis - Facebook has come under intense scrutiny this year since the Cambridge Analytica scandal exposed their privacy violations. During several crises, Facebook has over and over again failed to win over public trust with their crisis management plan. In fact, as this article demonstrates, Facebook executives have made matters worse almost every time they denied, delayed and deflected critical issues. This is a useful lesson on how not to handle a crisis.


9.    Why Technology Favors Tyranny - Artificial intelligence could erase many practical advantages of democracy and erode the ideals of liberty and equality. It will further concentrate power among a small elite if we do not take steps to stop it, argues Yuval Noah Harari. While it is not scientifically proven that social media are undemocratic, this article demonstrates that when we let the too much data be concentrated in the hands of a few, we are in fact enabling tyranny. 

10.   Social media power and election legitimacy - Still on the topic of tyranny, a consensus is emerging that the power of the top four tech companies (Google, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft) is unprecedented, and that it has important implications for journalism, politics, and society. This research piece by some of the world’s leading researchers examines the digital dominance of technology platforms and weighs in on a critical conversation useful to maintaining the health of democracies across the world.