Google's search algorithm enables fake news from Russia or elsewhere to manipulate reality
By: +David Herron; Date: June 5, 2017
If you control what the population believes is true, you can control what that population does. Propagandists have known this for generations. The rise of Nazi Germany was due to "weaponized" misinformation. The Nazi Party owned newspapers that churned out fake news, the Party pushed all kinds of lies including Racial Lies, and ruthlessly squashed any dissenters. In the current time period we're being told that Russia has weaponized a system of social media accounts, websites pushing fake news, and on and on, for the purpose of manipulating elections around the world, and weakening international organizations like the EU and NATO.
I believe that Russia is doing that kind of thing, because Russia has for ages pushed Propaganda. The Russian newspaper "Pravda" (the word Pravda means Truth) famously was full of lies every day. Pravda is still in exactly that business, and other news outlets owned by the Russian Government, like Sputnik News and RT News, also push a highly slanted view of the world (everything Russia does is enlightened, everything the West does is clueless and harmful). Russia's motive? To get NATO off its back without fighting an open war. An information war is the ticket, but the casualty is the sense of Truth we all need.
By determining the scope of information we get as answers to questions, search engines have a lot of power to shape what the population believes.
The game that's on is about controlling what the population believes is the Truth. Governments do it to push policy goals, businesses do it to earn more money, activists might do it to push their cause, and so on.
Russia isn't the only participant in spewing fake news into the world. We're being told The Russians are doing it, and they almost certainly are. But that idea is being pushed to the exclusion of others who are using similar mechanisms. What's the goal being served by pushing "The Russians are doing it" while failing to recognize the techniques are used across governments and industries?
The shape of the Internet has a flaw -- we find information through Search Engines (Google, Duck Duck Go, etc), and those search engines algorithmically select what to show us. We ask questions, and the search engine algorithms determine what answers we see.
The mechanism is extremely complicated and there is room to "game" the results. Third parties are constantly yammering to get top ranking on the first page of search results. There is a big pile of "Search Engine Optimization" (SEO) tricks and techniques that can be used, many of which are extremely dirty and underhanded. Search engines also game the results, primarily to weed out undesirable spammy sites. SPAM isn't just clogging our email inboxes, but Search Engine Spam clogs the Internet with useless fake information. The side effect is that search engines are in the business of selecting which websites win and which fail, and more importantly what answers we receive to our questions.
If I did the previous paragraph well, it is readable and informative while targeting a set of keyword phrases related to search engine optimization techniques. That paragraph demonstrates one of the core techniques used in manipulating search engine results. Sentences are constructed to allow the writer to use phrases like "first page of search results" which might lead the search engines to show the article to people asking how to get their website to show up in the first page of search results. Repeating similar phrases in several different ways reinforces the keyword phrase, which might make search engines rank the article higher for those phrases.
The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!
Since November 2016 (and before) a big news story has been "Russians hacked the election", and that the Trump Administration has seemingly colluded with the Russian Government for some incompletely understood reason. A big motive is to undermine NATO so that Russia can act more freely.
One of the mechanisms has been what I just described. A whole slew of websites looking like legitimate news organizations exist, and are pumping out news articles full of fake incorrect information. Postings on those sites are coordinated, often containing duplicate or extremely similar content.
Another area is coordinated postings on social media sites like Twitter, meant to skew the discussion in desired directions. In Congressional testimony in March, Security Analyst Clinton Watts discussed coordinated twitter bot activity meant to amplify certain hashtags. The goal is causing news editors to shift news coverage over to the hot twitter hashtag, even though the conversation on that hashtag is full of fake news spewed by twitter bots.
The busy newsroom might not have the resources to sift the wheat from the chaff, and instead run with the fake news story that's heating up twitter.
Supposedly the Russian government has hired "Russian Hackers" to work with the Russian intelligence forces to set up these systems. The result is akin to a weapons system, hence the phrase "weaponized information". To the extent that an information war is underway, the weapons systems of that war are armies of fake twitter or facebook accounts, coordinated with websites for posting fake news.
Another mechanism that was covered back in 2015 is a so-called "Troll Army" operated by people associated with the Russian intelligence services, located outside St. Petersburg. According to a former employee of that facility, operatives would receive instructions to post comments on blogs or news websites, on social media accounts, and elsewhere, that the comments needed to target certain ideas, and perhaps link to certain posts on certain websites. The purpose again was to amplify certain topics, and to pollute the Internet with false information.
- Russia has released The Kraken on the Internet - The Young Turks
- Russia's Online Troll Army -- WGBH
- Russia's Propaganda Machine -- Vice News
- Trolling for Putin: Russia's information war explained - Agence France Presse
- Why are Russian trolls spreading online hoaxes in the U.S.?
- Russia’s disinformation campaign in Europe
- The Russian Troll Factory in St. Petersburg
How the Trump-Russia Data Machine Games Google to Fool Americans
A few days ago an article titled How the Trump-Russia Data Machine Games Google to Fool Americans shows some results from gaming the search engines. The author had worked for a startup company selling "Drones" which had been successful for awhile using search engine optimization techniques to ensure their website ranked highly. That is, until larger companies entered the market and clobbered them. That gave him a context from which to understand what Russia (and others) are doing.
An example he gives is a claim that President Obama had leaked classified information about the Osama bin Laden raid -- the raid where they finally caught and killed bin Laden -- and that as a result intelligence operatives were killed. If true, that's explosive news because it's treasonous to expose intelligence operatives. Thing is, that's a piece of fake news, but you can find dozens of websites running extremely similar articles on that topic. What's even more curious is all those websites are hard-line right winger sites, and the news articles were all posted between May 16-17, 2017.
What happened just before that is Donald Trump hosted top Russian Government officials, the Russian Foreign Minister, and the Russian Ambassador, in the White House. During that meeting, Trump leaked highly classified intelligence information to the Russians, and the leak may have revealed the identity of intelligence operatives and may get them killed. In other words, the Trump Administration needed something in the news to distract from that story, and floated this other story instead.
In May, The Guardian had a similar article The great British Brexit robbery: how our democracy was hijacked about "data analytics" firms that are being used to manipulate elections. The British election that made Brexit the official policy direction of Great Britain was manipulated in this way, as described in the article.
Also in May, Time had an article Inside Russia’s Social Media War on America talking about how Russia had evolved their information warfare systems. In one attack, Russian's sent "expertly tailored messages carrying malware to more than 10,000 Twitter users in the Defense Department" that tailored the messages to the interests of the target recipients. The risk highlighted is, what if official Twitter accounts have been undermined so that 3rd parties can post messages through those accounts. If we can no longer trust official Twitter accounts, doesn't that undermine the authority of those organizations?
It's not just the Russians
It's not like the Russians have a monopoly on manipulating elections.
Other governments, including the USA, have manipulated lots of elections. Just picking one example, in 1951 the British and American secret services (the CIA and MI5/MI6) teamed up to undermine and overthrow the democratically elected moderate democracy in Iran. Why? Because that government reneged on an oil contract with the precursor to British Petroleum. Other countries include Chile, Venezuela, Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua.
The USA has its own news publications. The Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and other operations, have for decades presented news and information highly slanted to America's interests. And, by the way, a reorganization of the "Broadcasting Board of Governors" (the parent organization to these operations) came into effect when Trump became President. Previously that Board had been run by an independent bipartisan group, but now the organization has a CEO directly appointed by the President. See Trump moves to put his own stamp on Voice of America, and An Obama-Backed Change At Voice Of America Has Trump Critics Worried