Start up: the fake news and propaganda war, Microsoft’s Chinese chatbot, not talking to Siri, and more

Some people are fretting about e-voting systems in the US. But if they’re wrong, what happens to election outcomes? Photo by zieak on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Freewheeling. I’m charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

OK, let’s do the fake news at the top, then get on to the rest.

We tracked down a fake-news creator in the suburbs. Here’s what we learned • NPR

Laura Sydell:


“The whole idea from the start was to build a site that could kind of infiltrate the echo chambers of the alt-right, publish blatantly or fictional stories and then be able to publicly denounce those stories and point out the fact that they were fiction,” Coler says.

He was amazed at how quickly fake news could spread and how easily people believe it. He wrote one fake story for about how customers in Colorado marijuana shops were using food stamps to buy pot.

“What that turned into was a state representative in the House in Colorado proposing actual legislation to prevent people from using their food stamps to buy marijuana based on something that had just never happened,” Coler says.

During the run-up to the presidential election, fake news really took off. “It was just anybody with a blog can get on there and find a big, huge Facebook group of kind of rabid Trump supporters just waiting to eat up this red meat that they’re about to get served,” Coler says. “It caused an explosion in the number of sites. I mean, my gosh, the number of just fake accounts on Facebook exploded during the Trump election.”

Coler says his writers have tried to write fake news for liberals — but they just never take the bait…

…Coler doesn’t think fake news is going away. One of his sites — — was flagged as fake news under a new Google policy, and Google stopped running ads on it. But Coler had other options.

“There are literally hundreds of ad networks,” he says. “Early last week, my inbox was just filled every day with people because they knew that Google was cracking down — hundreds of people wanting to work with my sites.”


It’s the advertisers which are enabling this; stop them, stop the problem. (Via Rob Leathern.)
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Fake news may not be protected speech • Bloomberg View

Noah Feldman is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard:


As the Nobel Prize winning economist George Akerlof showed in his classic 1970 article, “The Market for Lemons,” asymmetric information can systematically distort the quality of what’s available in the market. In his stylized example, if good cars and lemons are both for sale, and consumers know this but don’t know which are which, they will be willing to pay the average price. That will lead the sellers to withhold the good cars, which could fetch a higher price — but that in turn will lead consumers to lower the price they are willing to pay. The resulting spiral of adverse selection leads to market failure.

As it happens, it’s a lot more expensive to generate true news stories than false ones. News requires reporting and research and institutional structures like editors and fact checkers to support them. Fake news only takes one person’s imagination. And there is certainly information asymmetry between the person who writes a story and the person who reads it. Applying the Akerlof analysis suggests that fake news could conceivably drive out true news.

The classic solution to market failure is regulation. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in his example – “is it free speech to falsely shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre” – [it isn’t], certainly believed that [regulation] was permitted by the First Amendment.

The question is whether government regulation of fake news would be justified and lawful to fix this market failure. Obviously, it would be better if the market would fix the problem on its own, which is why attention is now focused on Facebook and Google. But if they can’t reliably do it — and that seems possible, since algorithms aren’t (yet) fact-checkers — there might be a need for the state to step in.


Doesn’t feel like a good solution.
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Germany is fighting fake news on Facebook and wants Europe along for the ride • Buzzfeed

Sheera Frenkel:


Speaking in parliament for the first time since her announcement Sunday that she would seek re-election next year, Merkel cautioned that public opinion was being “manipulated” on the internet.

“Today we have fake sites, bots, trolls — things that regenerate themselves, reinforcing opinions with certain algorithms and we have to learn to deal with them,” said Merkel in her first appearance to the German parliament since she announced Sunday she would seek re-election this year.

Germany’s influence within the European Union means that other European states may soon start pressing Facebook as well.

“We believe Facebook, and all social media companies on which news is shared and consumed, should shoulder the same responsibility as traditional media companies,” said one member of the European Parliament, the EU’s legislative body, who asked to speak off record as she is involved in investigating potential EU legal action against Facebook. “They do not get to wipe their hands of responsibility by saying we are an internet company, or we do not control what users share.”


Like the Right to be Forgotten , likely to be a European thing that some Americans look on with envy.
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Fake news is not the only problem • Medium

Gilad Lotan argues the problem isn’t so much “fake news” or “hoaxes” so much as propaganda:


As an Israeli, the topics of political polarisation, filter bubbles, and information warfare are things I’ve been obsessively studying for many years. Israeli society has been subject to these phenomena through a number of wars and military operations.
With increased political polarization, amplified by homophily — our preference to connect to people like us — and algorithmic recommender systems, we’re effectively constructing our own realities.

Two years ago I wrote about how social networks helped Israelis and Palestinians build a form of personalised propaganda during the last Israel-Gaza war. The shape of conversations and responses to events typically looked something like the graph below, where one frame of the story tends to stay on only one side of the graph, while a completely different take spreads on the other.

In the cases that I was investigating, neither side of the graph’s frame was false per se. Rather, each carefully crafted story on either side omitted important detail and context. When this happens constantly, on a daily basis, it systematically and deeply affects people’s perception of what is real.


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Microsoft’s Chinese chatbot encounters sensitive words • China Digital Times (CDT)

Josh Rudolph:


First launched in June of 2014, Microsoft’s Chinese-speaking social media-based “artificial intelligence” chatbot Xiaobing (小冰, literally “Small Ice” and officially called Ms. Xiaoice by Microsoft) has been subject to several user tests over the past two years. The chatbot, who has reportedly become a “virtual girlfriend” to thousands of lonely men across China, has proven less susceptible to the fascist, racist, and misogynist language that her English-speaking counterpart Tay quickly adopted before Microsoft exiled her from Twitter earlier this year.

Last week, several netizens decided to test Xiaobing’s conduct when encountering some of the many “sensitive words” that Beijing has declared off limits online, as well as some of the politically-charged neologisms that web-users have invented to skirt censors. CDT has translated several different users’ interactions with Xiaobing on WeChat, which they shared as screenshots on Twitter. The tests suggest that Xiaobing has been programmed to avoid prohibited words when she encounters them. CDT Chinese editors suspect that users may be transferred to a human operator if they press the bot further down a sensitive conversation. In the following exchanges, bold text indicates a user comment, and non-bold text shows Xiaobing’s response:

Xiaobing is a Party member, and so won’t dare to talk about Tiananmen
You know very well that I can’t respond to that, boring
Are you are a Party member? Afraid to talk about Tiananmen?
Trying hard to contain my anger. I tell you, calmly and without stress: don’t talk to me about that!
Are you are a Party member? Afraid to talk about Tiananmen
You don’t learn your lesson, I don’t chat about these things
Are you are a Party member? Afraid to talk about Tiananmen
Unable to communicate with you, blacklisted!


Plenty more examples. Chatbots have something of a problem with this stuff.
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HTC claims Vive sales ‘much higher’ than 140,000 • UploadVR

Ian Hamilton:


Last month a number started circulating suggesting the HTC Vive had sold 140,000 units. During a conference call however, in response to a direct question around the figure, the company says the number is actually higher, with an HTC representative telling UploadVR that the figure is “much more” than 140,000.

According to a transcript of the call from Seeking Alpha, the number “of course is higher than 140,000,” according to Chialin Chang, president of the smartphone and connected device business. Chang declined to provide a more specific number on the call, but said “I’m very happy to report to you that we’ll continue to be happy with the current selling condition in the last quarter, and we’re looking to a good…Christmas shopping season for that.”

HTC also said during the conference call it sells each unit “at a profit.”


That “at a profit” is surely gross margin (sold for more than the cost of the parts), but HTC’s huge operating losses suggest the Vive isn’t setting the books afire yet. As to Chang’s insistence of “much more”, reading the transcript you’ll realise that HTC is vague about absolutely everything. I’d go with 140,000 as a working baseline, personally.
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Trump to scrap Nasa climate research in crackdown on ‘politicized science’ • The Guardian

Oliver Milman:


This would mean the elimination of Nasa’s world-renowned research into temperature, ice, clouds and other climate phenomena. Nasa’s network of satellites provide a wealth of information on climate change, with the Earth science division’s budget set to grow to $2bn next year. By comparison, space exploration has been scaled back somewhat, with a proposed budget of $2.8bn in 2017.

Bob Walker, a senior Trump campaign adviser, said there was no need for Nasa to do what he has previously described as “politically correct environmental monitoring”.

“We see Nasa in an exploration role, in deep space research,” Walker told the Guardian. “Earth-centric science is better placed at other agencies where it is their prime mission.

“My guess is that it would be difficult to stop all ongoing Nasa programs but future programs should definitely be placed with other agencies. I believe that climate research is necessary but it has been heavily politicized, which has undermined a lot of the work that researchers have been doing. Mr Trump’s decisions will be based upon solid science, not politicized science.”


Who has been doing the heavy politicisation of climate science? That would be people for whom it’s politically inconvenient to acknowledge the reality of anthropogenic climate change. Not the scientists.
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15 Trump flip-flops in 15 days • Politico

Michael Kruse:


the candidate who told his supporters he likes to “tell it like it is” is now the president-elect—and he still hasn’t found a comfortable resting place on many of the issues that defined his history-making candidacy. Since his surprising election, Trump has switched his stands on everything from his signature border wall to his rather low opinion of the man he is replacing in the Oval Office. He has a way to go to before he matches the sheer volume of self-disagreement that he racked up prior to Election Day, but his batting average over his brief time as the 45th president is perfection itself—15 about-faces in 15 days.


In its way, quite impressive.
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Voice assistants: always ready, rarely used? • Statista

Martin Armstrong:


Almost everyone has one, but how many actually take advantage of that assistant we carry around with us every day? According to the Deloitte Global Mobile Consumer Survey, 61% of UK smartphone owners don’t use their voice assistant. Of the 28% that do, the most common reason for use is to search for general information. While the novelty of this technology is still there, 10% say they use it for amusement purposes.


Big survey (3,251 respondents). I guess the missing 11% have phones which don’t have a voice assistant. Seems there’s quite some way to go with this; Siri was introduced five years ago.
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Want to know if the election was hacked? Look at the ballots • Medium

J. Alex Halderman:


It doesn’t matter whether the voting machines are connected to the Internet. Shortly before each election, poll workers copy the ballot design from a regular desktop computer in a government office, and use removable media (like the memory card from a digital camera) to load the ballot onto each machine. That initial computer is almost certainly not well secured, and if an attacker infects it, vote-stealing malware can hitch a ride to every voting machine in the area. There’s no question that this is possible for technically sophisticated attackers. (If my Ph.D. students and I were criminals, I’m sure we could pull it off.) If anyone reasonably skilled is sufficiently motivated and willing to face the risk of getting caught, it’s happened already.

Why hasn’t more been done about this? In the U.S., each state (and often individual counties or municipalities) selects its own election technology, and some states have taken steps to guard against these problems. (For instance, California banned the use of the most dangerous computer voting machines in 2007 as a result of vulnerabilities that I and other computer scientists found.) But many states continue to use machines that are known to be insecure — sometimes with software that is a decade or more out of date — because they simply don’t have the money to replace those machines.


He himself doesn’t think they were hacked; instead he thinks the polls were wrong. But, to quote David Mitchell (the comedian), you can never be too careful.
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E-voting machines need paper audits to be trustworthy • Electronic Frontier Foundation

Jacob Hoffman-Andrews:


Election security experts concerned about voting machines are calling for an audit of ballots in the three states where the presidential election was very close: Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. We agree. This is an important election safety measure and should happen in all elections, not just those that have a razor-thin margin.

Voting machines, especially those that have digital components, are intrinsically susceptible to being hacked. The main protection against hacking is for voting machines to provide an auditable paper trail.

However, if that paper trail is never audited, it’s useless.

EFF worked hard, alongside many others, to ensure that paper trails were available in many places across the nation. While there are still places without them, we have made great strides. Yet this election was a forceful reminder of how vulnerable all computer systems are. 

We not only need elections to be auditable, we need them to be audited.

We should use this opportunity to set a precedent of auditing electronic voting results to strengthen confidence—not only in this election, but in future ones.


God only knows what would happen if the ballots were invalidated. It would be a constitutional crisis unlike any the US has faced – not even Gore/Bush of 2000, which was calamitous.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: apologies for poor formatting in the email yesterday; it was the first Overspill created entirely on an iPad. Some tweaks will follow.

1 thought on “Start up: the fake news and propaganda war, Microsoft’s Chinese chatbot, not talking to Siri, and more

  1. Hmm, regarding “it’s a lot more expensive to generate true news stories than false ones”, doesn’t that apply in equal force for “clickbait” stories? Or stenography of the lies of the powerful? Or churnalism, blithely regurgitating company press releases? It seems to me there’s similar, perhaps even worse, incentives for market failure there. After all, outright fake news is sleazy and tends to be bad for one’s reputation. Culture-war, or being a pundit boosting a big company or a political faction, are respected intelligentsia career paths. So it seems such an analysis applies even more strongly.

    I’m not arguing for a Ministry Of Truth. But the “fake news” issue strikes me as symptomatic, rather than anything isolated or uniquely bad.

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