How dis­in­for­ma­tion bub­bles from bots to the White House

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - CHICAGOLAND - Rex W. Hup­pke rhup­pke@chicagotri­bune.com

Clint Watts is a distin­guished re­search fel­low at the For­eign Pol­icy Re­search In­sti­tute, an Army vet­eran and a for­mer FBI spe­cial agent who served on the Joint Ter­ror­ism Task Force.

I asked him about how a White House aide’s at­tempt to pull a mi­cro­phone away from CNN chief White House cor­re­spon­dent Jim Acosta dur­ing a pres­i­den­tial news con­fer­ence Wed­nes­day turned into a false nar­ra­tive of Acosta as­sault­ing the aide.

“This is what two years of dis­in­for­ma­tion ped­dling gets you,” said Watts, who has stud­ied dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paigns on so­cial me­dia. “This is the pay­off.”

What I ob­served as the Acosta story was un­fold­ing — ob­ser­va­tions that Watts gen­er­ally con­curred with — is a win­dow into the shock­ing speed with which bad ac­tors on so­cial me­dia can swoop in, dis­tort re­al­ity and, with the help of a White House that will­ingly em­braces dis­in­for­ma­tion, turn that dis­torted re­al­ity into fact in the minds of many Amer­i­cans.

Acosta was called on by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump at the news con­fer­ence and pro­ceeded to ask Trump tough ques­tions. The pres­i­dent de­flected those ques­tions and grew ir­ri­tated with Acosta, who con­tin­ued to speak as the pres­i­dent tried to move on to an­other re­porter.

The ex­change grew heated — CNN is Trump’s fa­vorite me­dia tar­get — and soon an aide stood up and tried to re­move the mi­cro­phone from Acosta’s hand. That is not a nor­mal thing that hap­pens dur­ing pres­i­den­tial news con­fer­ences.

Acosta was fac­ing the pres­i­dent when the woman reached in un­der his left arm to grab the mi­cro­phone in his right hand. He didn’t let go of the mi­cro­phone and his left arm came down enough to make con­tact with the aide’s arm, af­ter which Acosta said: “Par­don me, ma’am.”

Acosta didn’t do any­thing im­proper when the aide tried to take the mi­cro­phone. We can ar­gue over whether Acosta should have stopped ask­ing ques­tions af­ter the pres­i­dent shut him down — per­son­ally, I think he did what jour­nal­ists are sup­posed to do — but there is sim­ply no ra­tio­nal way to sug­gest Acosta, as the White House would later al­lege, was guilty of “plac­ing his hands on a young woman.”

Shortly af­ter this hap­pened, I sent out a tweet say­ing the woman who tried to get his mi­cro­phone should lose her job. It’s un­heard of for a White House of­fi­cial of any sort to try to grab a re­porter’s mi­cro­phone while that re­porter is do­ing his or her job.

Al­most in­stantly, there were a slew of re­sponses to my tweet from ac­counts that ap­peared to be “bots.” Twit­ter bots are dum­miedup ac­counts that pre­tend to be real peo­ple. They have been used ex­ten­sively by Rus­sia to launch dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paigns and pro­mote false sto­ries aimed at sow­ing dis­cord. You can of­ten tell an ac­count is a bot if the user­name is a word or a name fol­lowed by a se­ries of ran­dom num­bers.

An­other tell­tale sign of bot ac­tiv­ity is a striking sim­i­lar­ity in what the ac­counts are tweet­ing. In this case, the re­sponses were all say­ing some­thing along the lines of “Acosta as­saulted that woman” or “he karate chopped her arm.”

“Rapid nar­ra­tive for­ma­tion means that there’s some so­phis­ti­cated or or­ga­nized trolling ef­fort go­ing on some­where,” said Watts, who tes­ti­fied be­fore the Se­nate in­tel­li­gence com­mit­tee last year about Russian in­ter­fer­ence in the 2016 elec­tion. “I’ve seen more and more Amer­i­can­gener­ated dis­in­for­ma­tion or mis­in­for­ma­tion over the last two years that re­ally seems to out­pace even what the Rus­sians are do­ing. But they of­ten­times are say­ing the same thing or try­ing to spread the same false­hood.”

My men­tions swiftly filled up with other com­ments from Trump-sup­port­ing ac­counts par­rot­ing the same lan­guage. Many of those ac­counts ap­peared to be le­git­i­mate, show­ing how quickly the bot-driven nar­ra­tive made its way into the time­lines of real peo­ple.

Just like that, the “Jim Acosta at­tacked that woman!” nar­ra­tive be­came a real thing among real peo­ple. Hours later, the White House re­leased a state­ment mak­ing a sim­i­lar al­le­ga­tion that Acosta had placed “his hands on a young woman just try­ing to do her job as a White House in­tern.” The White House used that al­le­ga­tion to re­voke Acosta’s cre­den­tials.

In the mean­time, some­one doc­tored video from the news con­fer­ence, speed­ing it up in parts and zoom­ing in on the arms of Acosta and the aide, mak­ing it look like Acosta's arm is mov­ing in — you guessed it! — a chop­ping mo­tion. Like a karate chop.

That video was tweeted out by some­one who works for a no­to­ri­ous con­spir­acy web­site, one that claimed the mas­sacre of chil­dren at Sandy Hook Ele­men­tary School was a hoax.

Then that same video was tweeted out by the White House press sec­re­tary, Sarah Huck­abee San­ders.

In a mat­ter of hours, a com­pletely twisted ver­sion of re­al­ity went from Twit­ter bots to eas­ily swayed Twit­ter users to be­com­ing a White House talk­ing point falsely sup­ported by a doc­tored video shared by a con­spir­acy the­o­rist, a doc­tored video le­git­imized by the pres­i­dent of the United States’ press sec­re­tary.

That should scare the liv­ing hell out of ev­ery right-think­ing Amer­i­can, re­gard­less of ide­ol­ogy or party af­fil­i­a­tion. This ap­pears for all the world to be a light­ning-fast, co­or­di­nated on­line ef­fort to fool Amer­i­cans and pro­vide jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for an at­tack on the free press.

“Peo­ple be­lieve that which they hear first, that which they hear most of­ten, that which doesn’t come with a re­but­tal and that which comes from a trusted source,” Watts said. So the dis­in­for­ma­tion “will then be taken over or­gan­i­cally by the au­di­ence. Ev­ery­body picked up on the karate chop thing, and once it’s out there, it’s very hard to dis­prove. The trusted source is the White House press sec­re­tary. It was pushed by her, and as soon as she does that, it’s dif­fi­cult to stop.”

Watts con­tin­ued: “It’s po­lit­i­cal par­ti­san pro­mo­tion and it’s cre­at­ing an al­ter­na­tive re­al­ity that dom­i­nates the minds of sup­port­ers. It’s to har­den their sup­port and push away all chal­lengers, mainly the main­stream me­dia.”

His ad­vice is to re­mem­ber that “so­cial me­dia should not be used as your source for ver­i­fi­able in­for­ma­tion.”

Based on what hap­pened Wed­nes­day, I fear that ad­vice has al­ready been ig­nored.

With a White House that en­cour­ages dis­in­for­ma­tion, one that ac­tu­ally shares an al­tered video and presents it as fact, we’re so deep down a rab­bit hole there’s not a speck of sun­light to be seen.

OLIVER CON­TR­ERAS/TNS

A White House staffer tries to take away the mic from Jim Acosta dur­ing an ex­change with Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump.

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