Counter-Terrorism Expert Suggests 'Nutrition Labeling' For News Sources During Senate Testimony

from the interesting,-but-doomed-to-fail dept

Clint Watts of the Foreign Policy Research Institute testified at a Senate Intelligence Committee last week, giving his insight into Russia's propaganda machine. Like everyone else in Washington, the Senate is trying to determine how much of a role the Russian government might have played in the recent election. An FBI investigation into Trump's ties with Russia is ongoing.

Watts noted Russia's attempts to influence American thinking isn't really new, nor is it solely tied to Trump's unlikely political success. He points out he began seeing major inroads being made almost three years ago. Here at Techdirt, we noticed the stateside spread of the Russian troll army, confronted directly here by Karl Bode in response to a stream of pro-Russia comments on one of his articles.

Also of concern to many (although in varying degrees) is "fake news." Much of what's considered fake news tends to be in the often-partisan eye of the beholder, but a growing network of conspiracy theory sites and news outlets with Russian government ties aren't helping. Watts states this is simply more the same Cold War tactics by the Russian government, but with the advantage the internet's built-in instant amplification power.

On the evening of July 30, my colleagues and I watched as RT and Sputnik News simultaneously launched false stories of the U.S. airbase at Incirlik being overrun by terrorists. Within minutes, pro-Russian social-media aggregators and automated bots amplified this false news story and expanded conspiracies asserting American nuclear missiles at the base would be lost to extremists. More than 4,000 tweets in the first 78 minutes after launching of this false story linked back to the Active Measures accounts we’d tracked in the previous two years. These previously identified accounts, almost simultaneously appearing from different geographic locations and communities, amplified this fake news story in unison. The hashtags incrementally pushed by these automated accounts were #Nuclear, #Media, #Trump and #Benghazi. The most common words found in English-speaking Twitter user profiles were: God, Military, Trump, Family, Country, Conservative, Christian, America, and Constitution. These accounts and their messages clearly sought to convince Americans a U.S. military base was being overrun in a terrorist attack like the 2012 assault on the U.S. consulate in Libya. In reality, a small protest gathered outside the Incirlik gate and the increased security at the airbase sought to secure the arrival of the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff the following day.

Watts' testimony is informative and genuinely interesting. But when it comes to the subject of "fake news," Watts' suggestions as to how it might be handled seem a little less grounded in reality. In January, Watts floated the idea of a "Consumer Reports for news:" an independent group made up of members of major social media platforms that would grade new sources for reliability.

The idea was fleshed out a bit in front of the Senate Committee:

Social-media companies should band together in the creation of an Information Consumer Reports. This non-governmental agency would evaluate all media organizations, mainstream and otherwise, across a range of variables producing news ratings representative of the outlet’s accuracy and orientation. The score would appear next to each outlet’s content in web searches and social-media streams providing the equivalent of a nutrition label for information. Consumers would not be restricted from viewing fake news outlets and their erroneous information, but would know the risks of their consumption. The rating, over time, would reduce consumption of Russian disinformation specifically and misinformation collectively, while also placing a check on mainstream media outlets that have all too often regurgitated false stories.

There are a few problems to this approach, starting with it being pitched some sort of private sector "information war" effort -- a companion piece to the government's efforts to combat Russian propaganda. Watts also suggest the State Dept. and DHS both form their own version of Snopes to fact check claims about actions the US government is taking at home and abroad.

The second problem is this won't solve much, even if it's able to overcome the resistance of nearly everyone involved. News agencies aren't going to care much for being graded by platforms that do very little other than drive traffic to them or, in the case of Facebook, find new ways from preventing readers from leaving Facebook.

Facebook, in particular, has been spectacularly bad at handling content that flows through its platform. While it has been more proactive in its attempts to handle abuse and police content than other platforms, it's also been more error-prone and willing to adjust its ethics to avoid losing traffic and users from countries engaged in censorship.

A grading system can't be left to algorithms, so it will end up being a representation of graders' biases, rather than an objective score based on verifiable inputs -- in other words, nothing like the "nutrition label but for news" Watts envisions.

Worse, it won't do anything to overcome readers' biases. If Facebook, et al hand out a "C-" to Fox News, no one who regularly views Fox News is going to question the trustworthiness of the company's reporting. Instead, they'll see the score as untrustworthy: the result of left-leaning social media companies and their hate for anything "conservative."

The only way this would come about as a concerted effort would be through government direction or legislation. Tying the government to it makes the "independence" of the rating even more questionable, providing another percentage of the population with a reason to distrust the low grades slapped on their favorite news sources.

The fact is readers have to want or care that their new sources are trustworthy. Far too many people don't and the grades handed out won't change readers' minds. It will just give them something new to argue about.


Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread


  • icon
    discordian_eris (profile), 10 Apr 2017 @ 7:23am

    Allergy warning: contains nuts.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Unanimous Cow Herd, 10 Apr 2017 @ 8:59am

      Re:

      Nice!

      I think our congress critters should apply the same standards to themselves.

      Contains: Water, Pork, Pork by-products, Human excrement, roach parts, rat hair, rat urine, rat excrement, salt.

      Congressman or hotdog? You pick!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 10 Apr 2017 @ 9:36am

        Re: Re:

        I prefer the term "Diapers" cause they are usually full of shit soon and need to be replaced before they start stinking things up!

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Apr 2017 @ 7:30am

    The sustained moral panic over so-called fake news is interesting.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Roger Strong (profile), 10 Apr 2017 @ 8:27am

      Re:

      Much like the sustained denial.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 10 Apr 2017 @ 9:03am

        Re: Re:

        I like to call them unreasonably sustained opinions!

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 10 Apr 2017 @ 10:11am

        Re: Re:

        Denial of what? Fake news is an entirely manufactured term. Misleading and outright false publication is as old as the medium. Call it what you wish - yellow journalism, tabloids, or simply propaganda.

        It was never considered a crisis to be managed until Hillary Clinton lost the election.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          ac, 10 Apr 2017 @ 11:17am

          Re: Re: Re:

          You my good sir, are the first person I have seen describe the fake news right.

          Thank you.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            Roger Strong (profile), 10 Apr 2017 @ 11:48am

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            You mean Alt-right.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • identicon
              Anonymous Coward, 10 Apr 2017 @ 1:11pm

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

              Thanks Roger.

              You're correct, "Alt-right" is another excellent example of an entirely manufactured term.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

              • icon
                Roger Strong (profile), 10 Apr 2017 @ 1:31pm

                Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

                By that standard every term is an entirely manufactured term. It is after all what the alt-right - Richard Spencer, Steve Bannon etc. - call themselves.

                With good reason, because it distinguishes them from the traditional Republican or conservative right. By definition they reject mainstream conservatism.)

                reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

                • identicon
                  Anonymous Coward, 10 Apr 2017 @ 2:24pm

                  Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

                  And by that standard, you're plagiarizing the dictionary.

                  Regardless, I'd think you'd be pleased such a large group of of folks decided to "reject mainstream conservatism". No? I know I am. It's good to see so many of those contards finally woke up. And although it's not written about nearly as much, there's also a similarly large group folks that have decided to "reject mainstream liberalism" - not the actual liberal/progressive ideology mind you, just the wolf-in-sheep's-clothing that is the Clinton/Obama neo-liberalism.

                  But what do I know, I think the republican vs democrat, right vs left, conservative vs liberal plutocratic con job amounts to little more than tried and true propagandistic tools thats main purpose is to divide and distract the electorate from maintaining a sustained focus on the massive government/corporate malfeasance in our country. Or maybe not, I mean, what would they really have to gain from such an effort?

                  reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

                  • icon
                    Richard (profile), 11 Apr 2017 @ 5:37am

                    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

                    w, I think the republican vs democrat, right vs left, conservative vs liberal plutocratic con job amounts to little more than tried and true propagandistic tools

                    And also heavily out of date. These days the issues just don't fall into the traditional left-right pigeon holes.

                    Generally I find the best strategy is to work out who is genuinely at the bottom of the heap (whilst ignoring those who make a political platform or a career out of pretending to be) and try to align with their interests.

                    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Roger Strong (profile), 10 Apr 2017 @ 11:47am

          Re: Re: Re:

          Whether you call it fake news, propaganda or some other term, it's real, and it's done right up to the state level.

          What's new is the new mediums that allow it to bypass traditional fact-checking. However imperfect the traditional media has been at fact-checking, they're a far sight better at it than blogs, Facebook, Twitter and the rest.

          It was never considered a crisis to be managed until Hillary Clinton lost the election.

          In your defense, I honestly don't think you're delusional enough to believe that.

          It was the Trump campaign that was ranting about "fake news" all throughout the election cycle, usually applying the label to something that was demonstrably true, often to news outlets quoting Trump verbatim.

          It was the Trump campaign generating fake news - from fake crimes used to justify "Lock Her Up" chants to fake Hillary illnesses to retweeting and promoting truly sleazy smears like Pizzagate.

          When the President is getting his news from conspiracy theory sites like InfoWars and neo-Nazi sites like Breitbart, that's pretty much the very definition of a fake news crisis.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            I.T. Guy, 10 Apr 2017 @ 12:25pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            "fake crimes"
            Really? Methinks you need to search back here a few months because I believe I've posted the actionable laws she ran afoul of.

            Please don't bleat out about how others did it too.


            "When the President is getting his news from conspiracy theory sites like InfoWars and neo-Nazi sites like Breitbart, that's pretty much the very definition of a fake news crisis."
            No that's not a problem with fake news, it's a problem with a fake President.

            Oh and you are not the decider of what is and is not fake. If you have particular articles in which you take issue with then bring it. I've personally found a tiny bit of value in some Infowars articles. Never been to Breitbart because well... I know better.

            So... you got 2 sites there. Let the panic begin folks.

            AC spanked you on fake news. Move along. Nothing more to see here.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • identicon
              Thad, 10 Apr 2017 @ 5:56pm

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

              Really? Methinks you need to search back here a few months because I believe I've posted the actionable laws she ran afoul of.

              That's not a citation.

              Oh and you are not the decider of what is and is not fake. If you have particular articles in which you take issue with then bring it. I've personally found a tiny bit of value in some Infowars articles.

              Guy, you know exactly what Infowars article he's talking about; it's the "Obama had my wires tapped" article.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 10 Apr 2017 @ 12:58pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            Let me ask you: does fake news affect your beliefs at all? Does simply reading about pizzagate make you believe it? Does it switch off your ability for skepticism and critical thinking? The ability to evaluate sources?

            Citizens are better educated and informed, with more valid sources of information than ever before. This doesn't mean some will reject truth and act on faith. But as a society we never treated this as a problem. It's the inherent messiness of democracy.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • identicon
              ryuugami, 10 Apr 2017 @ 1:16pm

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

              Does simply reading about pizzagate make you believe it? Does it switch off your ability for skepticism and critical thinking?

              No, it doesn't.

              On the other hand, there was that idiot who was so outraged he went to shoot up the "pizzagate" place... :/

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

              • identicon
                Anonymous Coward, 10 Apr 2017 @ 1:35pm

                Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

                ...and Hinkley shot Reagan to impress Jodie Foster. So what?

                There's always going to be crazies out there that will do crazy things for whatever crazy reasons they decide on.

                We shouldn't even think of censoring our freedom of press because of it.

                ...because that would be crazy.

                reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            Richard (profile), 11 Apr 2017 @ 5:45am

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            However imperfect the traditional media has been at fact-checking, they're a far sight better at it than blogs, Facebook, Twitter and the rest.

            That is actually a very misleading thing to say - because a false story is a false story regardless of how good the general fact checking of the organisation is.

            Plus the MSM have been pretty outrageously bad on occasion, and that is made worse by the fact that they have a good reputation.

            Actually the internet is in many ways a good thing - because people are beginning to realise that they should not rely on any single source for anything - and now the means to check up for yourself are available.

            At this point I was going to quote the Buddha by saying

            "Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense."

            which I actually originally heard on that pillar of fact checking, - the BBC but then, when I googled it again I discovered that it is fake: http://fakebuddhaquotes.com/believe-nothing-no-matter-where-you-read-it/

            (Or maybe the "fakebuuddhaquotes" site is itelf fake...)

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          I.T. Guy, 10 Apr 2017 @ 11:56am

          Re: Re: Re:

          Bravo, Sir. Or Ma'am.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 10 Apr 2017 @ 11:02am

      Re:

      "Watts noted Russia's attempts to influence American thinking isn't really new..."

      Q: So why is the "establishment" making such a show of it this time? Hint: It's not because the mean ol' internet amplified it.

      A: It's because the "establishment" pick for POTUS (i.e., a politician that could be counted on to continue to put the financial/power interests of those already in power ahead of everyone elses - i.e., either a Clinton or Bush this last round) was not elected.

      Do the Russian plutocrats/oligarchs likely enjoy seeing the US plutocrats/oligarchs in a full-on panicked self-destruct mode? I'm sure they do. Did they do whatever they could this election to achieve that result? Why on earth would anyone (esp., our government) act as if the Russians haven't always been doing exactly this? Sorry if this comes as a shock to some, but that's what competing foreign governments have always done. And you know who does it the most, that's right, good ol' Uncle Sam. Watching our politicians feign indignation is the height of comedy.

      So I ask, what's more probable? That the Red Menace has all of sudden morphed into a new super villain and manipulated the helpless American psyche into electing the EVIL TRUMPUS? ...or that our political establishment has become so arrogant, filter-bubbled, bought by corporate interests, distracted by empire building endless wars, etc. ad nauseam - that they executed the most embarrassingly inept, near complete disregard for their constituents real needs, identity/wedge issue, out of touch, political campaign ever - and lost for some "UNLIKELY" reason - and now want to blame the Russians. How convenient. Not to mention, they're always looking to build up the next bad guy to absorb all those trillions of tax dollars. So, certainly, "those damn Russians" is a possible explanation. However, it's nowhere near the most likely one.

      Now to this "fake news" farce...

      When folks like Cushing/Masnick (and the good people here in the TD comments section) think of "fake news", we probably define it something like, "News that is inaccurate." - and our government will certainly pay plenty of lip service to that definition. But they are much more likely to be motivated by a definition closer to, "News that challenges their control."

      It is important for us, The People, when discussing this issue to always keep in mind this difference in definitions. Because no matter the pretty words our politicians wrap around the "fake news" narrative, no matter the dire fear mongering they use to try to trick us into going along with it, rather than protecting the public, their real motivation is far more likely to be to legislate/normalize the censorship of ideas that challenge their control. Remember, they're most likely use their new powers to censor ALL ideas that challenge their control, not just the Russian ones.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Apr 2017 @ 7:32am

    Close to home TD?

    "The fact is readers have to want or care that their new sources are trustworthy. Far too many people don't and the grades handed out won't change readers' minds. It will just give them something new to argue about."

    Some place called TD comes to mind... heck I have personally been told by TD staff to leave as well! I think TD wants to become an Echo Chamber than this is sitting at the end of an article? Is there a sea change coming for TD I am not aware of? I am certain all of the fan bois around here will not like that! Naw... who am I kidding?

    Carry on... most only come here for the confirmation bias!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Apr 2017 @ 7:32am

    >The rating, over time, would reduce consumption of Russian disinformation specifically and misinformation collectively.

    Can't have the ignorant masses reading the wrong propaganda!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Richard (profile), 10 Apr 2017 @ 8:12am

      Re:

      >The rating, over time, would reduce consumption of Russian disinformation

      No - it might however force the Russians to be more subtle n their approach.

      They are not stupid - the fact that they take a rather crude approach is merely an indication of their assessment of our level of intelligence.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 10 Apr 2017 @ 10:14am

        Re: Re:

        Funny how the only ones making the insinuation that Americans are gullible enough to be swayed by Russians are American themselves.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Apr 2017 @ 7:40am

    First they start rating news sources, and the next step is mandatory licensing so that that trusted outlets act as gate keepers.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    me, 10 Apr 2017 @ 7:49am

    what this is

    Is an attempt by a thin skinned administration to control information by way of what is Stae approved and what is not.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Apr 2017 @ 7:52am

    Another govt bureaucracy

    And create another govt bureaucracy.... this time the Ministry of Truth.. Now where did I hear of that? Oh 1984.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Pixelation, 10 Apr 2017 @ 8:01am

    Fake news

    I think this is just fake news. Probably concocted by the Russians to... Oh, right.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ThaumaTechnician (profile), 10 Apr 2017 @ 8:27am

    Isn't this already being done?

    The CJR, FAIR, your brain?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Richard (profile), 10 Apr 2017 @ 8:37am

    What news isn't fake?

    All News is written by people with an agenda. This applies even to honest journalists.

    As everyone who has seen a news story written about something where they have some first hand experience knows, journalism is usually inaccurate, frequently spectacularly so.

    This is because journalists are rarely specialists and tend to see things through the prism of their own limited prior knowledge. This usually reflects "conventional wisdom". As we know on this blog from our analysis of copyright/patent issues, "conventional wisdom" rarely contains much wisdom.

    What I find disappointing about this blog is that when it strays into areas outside its core expertise there is a tendency to revert to the same conventional wisdom that it (rightly) decries in IP related subjects.

    Russia is quite a good example of this.

    During the cold war the west cultivated any "anti-communist" group that it could find. Many of these groups were not in fact "anti-communist" at all - but in fact, actually "anti-russian", reflecting older conflicts that really we should not be taking sides in.

    After the collapse of communism (yes it really did collapse you know) we carried on cultivating anti-russian groups in former soviet republics and former eastern bloc countries. This was a mistake as it has turned Russia into an enemy quite unnecessarily.

    It has also created an environment of unconscious bias where western stories about Russia are rarely accurate.

    My suspiscion is that the so called "troll army" is really no such thing - but rather the sum total of ordinary expat Russians who find the western media really annoyingly inaccurate and try to hit back. THe social dynamics of internet false story propagation and amplification explain the rest.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 10 Apr 2017 @ 8:52am

      Re: What news isn't fake?

      Привет, товарищ

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Richard (profile), 10 Apr 2017 @ 9:24am

        Re: Re: What news isn't fake?

        If you meant "comrade" then - as I pointed out - communism really is dead - although a few people in Russia are in denial of the fact.

        (Note that currently most translations use a different word).

        It seems however that even more people in the west are in denial of it.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 10 Apr 2017 @ 9:35am

          Re: Re: Re: What news isn't fake?

          You are helping to prove the faux news case in an odd way.

          Calling it "denial" is juvenile. Most people are just ignorant, which is not denial in the least. Denial is someone who has seen solid evidence or proof and decide to ignore them without equally contrary evidence or proof.

          Most people only have news and politics as a way to understand other cultures. Since most people have low information awareness, then it is easy to dupe them.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            Richard (profile), 10 Apr 2017 @ 9:59am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: What news isn't fake?

            Denial is someone who has seen solid evidence or proof and decide to ignore them

            What I observed in Russia was very definitely denial. I am talking here about an old tourist guide who hadn't come to terms with the removal of Stalin's body from Lenin's tomb - which happened when he was 11. In his head Putin was still an anti-religious communist - in spite of hs many well publicised appearances in church.

            As far as the west is concerned, what I actually said was "seems", in other words "might as well be".

            Whether this comes from ignorance or from actual denial doesn't matter - the effect is the same.

            In reality there is actually no reason for us to treat Russia any differently from the way we treat the other post soviet and post eastern bloc states - yet we persist in doing so. If we assess on the basis of human rights, rule of law or democracy Russia is, at worst, somewhere in the middle of the spectrum for these states (clearly better than Belarus, Ukraine or almost all the "Stans").

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Richard (profile), 10 Apr 2017 @ 10:23am

        Re: Re: What news isn't fake?

        Привет, товарищ

        Христос воскресе!

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Stosh, 10 Apr 2017 @ 10:05am

    With 1/2 the voters getting their "news" from Survivor, The Voice and Comedy Central...fake news is a minor issue.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Apr 2017 @ 4:56pm

    "Watts also suggest the State Dept. and DHS both form their own version of Snopes to fact check claims about actions the US government is taking at home and abroad."

    LOL

    Yeah, becausee the government definitely showed how capable it is at fact-checking with its 1.5/6-scoring attempt at defaming Snowden.

    https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20160916/16594835541/house-intelligence-committees-list-s nowdens-lies-almost-entirely-false.shtml

    And yes, I do realize it's technically different agencies.. but it's the same government, if a bit dumber and orange-er.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Use markdown for basic formatting. HTML is no longer supported.
  Save me a cookie
Follow Techdirt
Techdirt Gear
Show Now: Takedown
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads

Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.