Reporter creates social media accounts for fake Americans to show how “we are being targeted” with propaganda

Larry, a 71-year-old retired insurance broker and Donald Trump fan from Alabama, would be unlikely to run into eclectic Emma, ​​a 25-year-old graphic designer from New York City, on social media — even if they were both real.

Every BBC reporter is a figment of Mariana Spring’s imagination. He created five fake Americans and opened social media accounts for them, part of an attempt to explain how misinformation continues to spread, and how it affects American politics, despite efforts to stop it on sites like Facebook, Twitter and TikTok. does.

It has also left Spring and the BBC vulnerable to allegations that the project is morally dubious in using false information to expose false information.

Media-BBC's Fake American
This image released by the BBC shows London-based reporter Mariana Spring, who described how misinformation continues to spread despite efforts to stop it on sites such as Facebook, Twitter and TikTok, and how it continues to affect American politics.

Robert Timothy / AP

“We’re doing this with the very best of intentions because it’s important to understand what’s going on,” Spring said. In the world of propaganda, “America is the major battlefield,” she said.

Spring’s reporting has appeared on the BBC’s newscast and website, as well as on the weekly podcast “Americast”, a British view of news from the United States. It launched the project in August with a mid-term election campaign in mind, but expects to continue it until 2024.

Spring collaborated with the Pew Research Center in the US to establish five archetypes. In addition to the very conservative Larry and the very liberal Emma, ​​Brittany is a more populist conservative from Texas; Gabriella, largely apolitical independent from Miami; and Michael, a black teacher from Milwaukee who is a moderate Democrat.

Along with computer generated photos, she created accounts on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok. The accounts are inactive, meaning his “people” don’t have friends or make public comments.

Spring, which uses five different phones labeled with each name, goes to accounts to fill out their “personalities.” For example, 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 essentially fodder to see how social media companies’ algorithms kick in and what content is sent their way.

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

Despite efforts by social media companies to combat the propaganda, Spring said there is still a considerable amount of money being received, mostly from far-right perspectives.

Gabriella, the non-aligned Latina mom who mostly expresses an interest in music, fashion, and saving money while shopping, doesn’t follow political groups. But it’s more likely that Republican-aligned material will show up in his feed.

“The best thing you can do is change how it works,” Spring said. “It makes us more aware of how we are being targeted.”

Most of the major social media companies ban impersonation accounts. Violators can be kicked for making them, although many evade the rules.

Journalists have used a variety of methods to investigate how tech giants operate. For a story last year, the Wall Street Journal created more than 100 automated accounts to see how TikTok drove users in different directions. The nonprofit Newsroom Markup set up a panel of 1,200 people who agreed to study their web browsers for details of how Facebook and YouTube operate.

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

She’s clearly creative, said Eli Colon, a professor of journalism ethics at the University of Washington and Lee. But what Spring called ironic upsets him and other experts, who believe the above is the only way to report on the issue.

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

Spring said he believes the level of public interest in the operation of these social media companies far exceeds the deception involved.

Samuel Woolley, director of the Propaganda Research Lab at the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas, said the BBC experiment could be valuable, but only shows how the algorithms work, a mystery largely kept from people outside tech companies. is saved.

The algorithms also take cues from comments people make on social media or in conversations with friends – both things the BBC’s fake Americans don’t, he said.

“It’s like the 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 point of view, if you want to see how an impact operation works, “you need to be on the front line.”

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

“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.”

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