The BBC tries to understand politics by creating fake Americans

The BBC tries to understand politics by creating fake Americans

NEW YORK (AP) — Larry, a 71-year-old retired insurance broker and Donald Trump fan from Alabama, isn’t likely to run into liberal Emma, ​​a 25-year-old graphic designer from New York City. . and social media—even though they were both real.

Everyone is a ghost BBC reporter Marianna Spring imagination She created five fake Americans and opened social media accounts for them, part of an attempt to illustrate how misinformation is spreading on sites like Facebook, Twitter and TikTok despite efforts to stop it, and how this impacts politics american

It also left Spring and the BBC vulnerable to accusations that the project is ethically suspect in the use of false information to uncover false information.

“We do it with very good intentions because it’s important to understand what’s going on,” said Spring. In the world of disinformation, “the United States is the key battleground,” he said.

The spring report has appeared Newscasts and the BBC websiteas well as the weekly podcast “Americast”, the British view of news from the United States. She started the project in August with the midterm election campaign in mind, but hopes to keep it going until 2024.

Spring worked with the Pew Research Center in the United States to set it up five archetypes. In addition to the very conservative Larry and very liberal Emma, ​​there is Britney, a more populist conservative from Texas; Gabriela, a largely apolitical independent from Miami; and Michael, a Black teacher from Milwaukee who is a moderate Democrat.

With computer generated pictures, he created accounts on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok. The accounts are passive, meaning that their “people” do not have friends or make public comments.

Spring, which uses five different phones labeled with each name, tends to the accounts to fill out their “personalities”. For example, Emma is a lesbian who follows LGBTQ groups, is an atheist, is actively interested in women’s issues and abortion rights, supports the legalization of marijuana and follows the New York Times and NPR.

These “traits” are the bait, essentially, to see how the social media companies’ algorithms get in the way and what material is sent their way.

Through what she followed and liked, Britney was revealed as anti-vax and critical of big business, so she was sent down several rabbit holes, Spring said. The account has received material, some with violent rhetoric, from groups that falsely claim that Donald Trump won the 2020 election. She was also invited to join the people who say that the Mar-a-Lago raid it was “proof” that Trump won and that the state was out to get him, and the groups that support conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.

Despite the efforts of social media companies to combat disinformation, Spring said there is still a considerable amount to go around, especially from a far-right perspective.

Gabriela, the non-aligned Latina mother who has primarily expressed interests in music, fashion and how to save money while shopping, does not follow political groups. But it’s much more likely that Republican-aligned material will appear in their feed.

“The best thing you can do is understand how it works,” Spring said. “It makes us more aware of how we are meant to be.”

Most social media companies ban impersonator accounts. Violators can be fired for creating them, although many evade the rules.

Journalists have used several approaches to probe how the tech giants operate. For a story last year, the Wall Street Journal created more than 100 automated accounts to see how TikTok led users in different directions. The non-profit newsroom the Markup set up a panel of 1,200 people who agreed to have their web browsers studied for details about how Facebook and YouTube operated.

“My job is to investigate disinformation and I set up fake accounts,” Spring said. “The irony is not lost on me.”

It’s obviously creative, said Aly Colon, a professor of journalism ethics at Washington & Lee University. But what Spring called ironic bothers him and other experts who believe there are ways above board to report on this issue.

“By creating these false identities, she’s violating what I believe is a pretty clear ethical standard in journalism,” said Bob Steele, a retired ethics expert for the Poynter Institute. “We shouldn’t pretend to be anyone other than ourselves, with very few exceptions.”

Spring said he believes the level of public interest in how these social media companies operate outweighs the deception involved.

The BBC’s experiment may be valuable, but it only shows part of how algorithms work, a mystery that largely eludes people outside of tech companies, said Samuel Woolley, director of the propaganda research lab. . Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas.

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

“It’s like a journalist’s version of a field experiment,” Woolley said. “It runs an experiment on a system, but it’s quite limited in its rigor.”

From Spring’s perspective, if you want to see how an influence operation works, “you need to be on the front lines.”

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

“I try to make it as realistic as possible,” he said. “I have these five personalities that I have to inhabit at all times.”

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