In spite of its potential to democratize information, the internet has become a notorious haven for all kinds of false information. Flat Earth proponents (and their cousins in conspiracy, Hollow Earth enthusiasts) and all flavors of tin hat political zealots have a home on the web, with a comforting community to back up their beliefs. Samuel Woolley began studying the effects of nationalized internet propaganda years before it became a front-page story in 2016. Now he has written a book about what has come before and the incredible new tools for rooting out the truth—programs that have yet to be rolled out. Earlier this year, PublicAffairs published his book, The Reality Game: How the Next Wave of Technology Will Break the Truth.
On Jan. 16, 2020, Woolley appeared at the Strand bookstore in New York City to discuss The Reality Game with The New York Times reporter Davey Alba, who was hired by the newspaper last year to cover disinformation. What is the difference between disinformation and misinformation? In a recent interview, Woolley said that misinformation is accidentally posting something wrong, but disinformation is posting something known to be false to further a political agenda.
Oxford University—‘A School for Stupid People’
Woolley and Alba have something in common. They have both highlighted the digital abuses of Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte. In 2017, Woolley was the director of research for the Computational Propaganda Project at Oxford University’s Oxford Internet Institute, which had recently published a research paper that called out Duterte’s government in its use of social media to spread malicious disinformation about his opponents. When asked about the report in a press conference, Duterte said, “Oxford University? That’s a school for stupid people.” Woolley wrote that this was not the first time the project’s work had touched a nerve among powerful people, but it was the first time it had been called out specifically by a world leader.
In September 2018, Alba wrote a piece for BuzzFeed called “How Duterte Used Facebook to Fuel the Philippine Drug War,” which described in sickening detail the propaganda campaign that Duterte used to destroy an opponent in the Philippine Senate. It started with compromising photos of Sen. Leila de Lima being dumped onto Facebook. Duterte used this to begin a full campaign against de Lima, although the photos were soon found to be fake. Nonetheless, the smear campaign ended with de Lima being jailed for drug offenses. Her incarceration has lasted for 3 years as of this writing. This reporting netted Alba the 2019 Livingston Award for Excellence in International Reporting and the 2019 Mirror Award for Best Story on Journalists or Journalism in Peril.
Why You Should Be Afraid
Woolley’s book lists a treasure trove of new technologies designed to make you believe that 2 + 2 = 5. AI, video fakery, and virtual reality are all covered in detail. Given the complexity of the subject and the myriad technologies in play, the heart of Woolley’s message is summed up in one paragraph on page 84: “Nearly all of the computational propaganda campaigns I’ve studied have been wielded quite bluntly. During events in which … political bots and disinformation played a key role—the Brexit referendum, the Trump-Clinton Contest in 2016, the Crimea Crisis—smart AI tools have played little to no role in manipulating political conversation. … Online communication during these events was altered by rudimentary bots that had been built simply to boost likes and follows, to spread links, to game trends, or to troll opposition.”
Woolley writes that phony bots were easy to spot in the past, because they didn’t bother adding new faces to the phony accounts. He would see hundreds of bogus users with the same picture from stock photos. Now, AI programs can create a new human for every fake account and mass produce them. In the same sense, realistic-looking deepfakes use a library of photos and clips of intended victims to create a video of them saying things out of whole cloth that were never actually said. Woolley noted that in the past, these could be spotted when a viewer saw that the subjects did not blink their eyes. Now, AI programs can create scenes of the subject blinking and speaking with “ah” and “er” pauses. Woolley said that the viral videos that have flooded the market thus far have been made using simple programs that are accessible to any tech-savvy consumer. When malevolent governments use their resources to create disinformation videos using expensive tools, there will be major problems.
AI propaganda is on the way, and the path for fighting it is not clear. An anonymous source from Facebook told Woolley that the company’s effort to combat AI propaganda included hiring outside consultants and generally throwing many things at the wall to see what sticks. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has opined that AI can be the solution to the problem of fake news, but the track record so far is dismal. For instance, Microsoft’s bot experiment “Tay” was launched to emulate a teenage girl and communicate with people on social media. It was quickly unlaunched when it became the immediate target of hackers who trained it to repeat racist propaganda.
Why Woolley Is ‘Cautiously Optimistic’
In his presentation and in the book, Woolley said that for every sinister program out there spreading computational propaganda, there are organizations sprouting up to uphold the truth—and democratic ideals. This was somewhat soothing for those of us who are cautiously pessimistic.
As luck would have it, major world events occurred this winter to test Woolley’s optimism. The global COVID-19 pandemic appeared and spread like wildfire throughout February and March. As one might expect, there has been a flood of misinformation and disinformation circulating about the novel coronavirus. In the disinformation category are offers to sell unwitting citizens miracle cures.
In March, it was reported that the major social media players formed an alliance to fight bad information about the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 13, I did a Google search for “coronavirus” and got a screen full of authoritative information from reputable news sources, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the World Health Organization (WHO). Reassuringly, similar results were seen in the same search on Facebook.
Conclusion: Buckle Your Seat Belts
Woolley concludes The Reality Game with the statement, “I have since come to the conclusion that social media tools—and indeed, all the new technology coming out and on the horizon—can still be tremendously useful in advancing the best part of humanity. Although, in the past few years we have lost our way, we can still find true north again.”
I hope that his optimism is well-founded. In the meantime, this is an important book for its detailing of the problems. He also has good coverage of the institutions we can turn to that are fighting for truth and democratic ideals.