Fighting Disinformation in 2020 – Spotlight #326

Good Monday morning. It’s January 27th. This is tech earnings week. Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple  all announce earnings this week so expect some news to filter out during their calls.

Today’s Spotlight is 1,725 words and takes about 7 minutes to read.

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1. News To Know Now

1. Google has launched a new data set search engine. The special search was in beta and is now a full-fledged Google product that lets people learn to get data from 25 million different data sets. Put any term into the search bar to get a list of databases. I tried random terms from this weekend’s news (Grammys, basketball, influenza) and found more than one hundred data sets for each. Visit: to search.

2. Byte, a video-sharing app similar to Vine and TikTok, officially launched Friday. Vine was a similar service acquired by Twitter and then killed. Videos are no more than six seconds in length. In an aspirational move, the company categorized the app as “Teen.” 

3. New Jersey’s Attorney General has banned police from using the Clearview facial recognition app. This follows a week of exposes about the company that has reportedly built a database of more than three billion face images. Company executives told one reporter that they scrape websites like Facebook for images despite rules against that behavior. Facebook says it is looking into the claim. Twitter has sent a cease and desist letter.

Clearview smart links
The Secretive Company That Might End Privacy as We Know It — at NYT
Twitter tells facial-recognition app maker to stop collecting its data — at The Hill
New Jersey cops told to halt all use of controversial facial-recognition technology — at
Scraping the Web Is a Powerful Tool. Clearview AI Abused It — at Wired
Class-action lawsuit filed against controversial Clearview AI startup — at ZDNET

2. Fighting Disinformation

The internet is filled with misinformation that people publish without knowing the information is inaccurate. By definition, the people who publish disinformation do so to deceive. Oxford doctoral candidate Samantha Bradshaw has published the results of a study showing how people publishing disinformation use search engine optimization techniques to improve its visibility.

Disinformation is highly virulent in the audiences it targets. Often presented with false or no supporting claims, the messaging is amplified by people whose confirmation bias allows them to ignore the lack of research or supporting information.

Bradshaw received search tactic information from twenty-nine firms she classifies as “junk news” sites. She used the same tools good search marketers use and concluded that growing distrust of mainstream media is pushing readers to fringe and partisan news sources. There is a bigger issue, she posits, around news and digital literacy. But the very tactics all organizations use to improve search visibility and advertise online are also used for propaganda such as denying the effects of climate change or that the Holocaust occurred.

This trend is prevalent on social media. Lawfare noted last week that a pattern existed in tweets about former FBI attorney Lisa Page.  Lawfare worked with BotSentinel to show that more than 28% of the replies to tweets about Page appear to be automated disinformation. The fact that there is a product named BotSentinel to discover disinformation campaigns is indicative of the trend’s prevalence.

Fake or mislabeled images and amplification by others enhances the effect and makes it difficult to fight disinformation. For example, tweets and Facebook posts showing past military action were posted minutes after Iran attacked U.S. bases in Iraq on January 7 with labels claiming the information was new. 

This week is filled with uncertainty. The U.S. Senate is considering whether to remove Donald Trump following his impeachment, there is a scary new virus in China, Brexit occurs on Friday, and the U.S. Embassy in Iraq was reportedly hit by a rocket late Sunday. As news unfolds, please check a second source and read the information with a critical eye — especially if it is news you like.

Disinformation Smart links
Disinformation Optimized — at Internet Policy Review
How to Spot 2020 Election Disinformation — NPR
Is There A Targeted Troll Campaign Against Lisa Page — Lawfare
False and Unverified Information Spreads — BuzzFeed

3. Google Search Updates

On the subject of disinformation, Google and Microsoft mucked around in the search pond last week and both came off looking terrible.

The ugly parade began when some Microsoft Office subscribers noticed that their default search engine was changed to Bing when they used the Google Chrome browser. The culprit? Microsoft’s own guide said this: “Starting with Version 2002 of Office 365 ProPlus, an extension for Microsoft Search in Bing will be installed that makes Bing the default search engine for the Google Chrome web browser.”

Since every user always reads the guide, there was absolutely no confusion and all of the users approved of Microsoft changing their default search settings without permission.

Meanwhile we had previously told you about Google encouraging website owners to ensure their sites published a favicon so that Google could publish the cute little icon next to search results. Everyone thought that was nifty until Google took its own advice and further stripped down the indicator showing ads to match the regular organic results. 

Here is what their gambit looked like. If you’re playing along at home, the first item is the ad.

We would reprint search exec Danny Sullivan’s full statement retracting that move, but it’s long and many digital marketers don’t believe it especially coming from an advertising company currently threatened with additional regulatory actions. Suffice it to say that this treatment will not appear on desktop search.

4. Debugged: The Case for Microdots. What about Encryption?

If you ever toured FBI Headquarters, you probably saw labs that could duplicate typewriter impressions. The federal government was no slouch when printers caught on and got the industry to add microdot technology that identifies the date and time of all printouts as well as a coded serial number on every printer.

Advocacy groups like the Electronics Frontier Foundation (EFF) loathe the use of microdot technology.  And we adore the EFF and its many fights for civil liberties. But as news about the FBI insisting that Apple help unlock the phone of an alleged gunman in Florida, we’re reminded that the government does not have full visibility into mobile devices.

Here’s the BBC’s article about how your printer includes this technology for comparative purposes.

5. Also in the Spotlight: Security

Here is what happened in digital security last week:

  • The world’s richest man had his phone hacked (allegedly) by the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. The prince is also implicated in the death of a journalist who worked for the other rich man’s newspaper.
  • The FBI took down a website that was selling data records from previous breaches.
  • The Tampa Bay Times was hit with a ransomware attack.
  • Political campaigns in the U.S. are getting additional free help to secure their information after multiple reports of campaign hacking.
  • Microsoft inadvertently left a tranche of customer service data exposed.
  • Experts warned about a Citi financial phishing scheme sent via a convincing looking email.
  • The Justice Department lobbied Apple to keep computer backups unencrypted.

Anyone reading all of that might throw their hands in the air, suggest they can’t protect themselves, and stop trying. But don’t. Many of the issues here are fixed by following a few simple rules:

  1. Don’t open anything ever from anyone unless you were expecting it. If you receive an unexpected attachment, yes, even at work, confirm first.
  2. Have a trusted source of reliable, regular backups.
  3. Use password management software (many good ones are free) and don’t reuse passwords. 

6. Great Data: Coronavirus Map

Johns Hopkins University is publishing a coronavirus map that may be the single most informative map I’ve seen. The CAL FIRE maps are usually excellent, but this map has a whole series of important data facts surrounding it on all four sides.

JHU map tracking coronavirus

7. Protip: Stop Google From Tracking Your Location

Google Maps tracks everywhere you go using data from your iPhone or Android phone. It displays the information in a feature called Timeline. Some folks might find it creepy.

When I look at mine, I see an entry from when I recently met a college friend for lunch. I left at 12:03 p.m., drove 10.4 miles, arrived at 12:24 p.m., stayed until 2:07 p.m. then drove 17.6 miles after running an errand before arriving at my desk at 2:54 p.m. All of the data is supported with a map showing the roads I traveled and where we ate.

You know what? That is creepy because it is a part of your Google history.

CNBC shows you how to delete it and stop future tracking.

8. Following Up: Selling Dot Org Domains

Back in December we told you that the entity that sells the dot org domains used by most nonprofit organizations was selling the registry to a venture capitalist. Organizations have been protesting the sale for weeks and won a temporary reprieve when the existing registrar agreed to delay the sale for 30 days to allow an Internet regulatory body to review the terms. 

Read more at Domain News Wire.

9. ICYMI — Top links from the past 30 days

Amazon Tells Shoppers that PayPal’s Honey is a Security Risk – Bloomberg

How to Create a Google Sheets Template – How-To Geek

How to help the victims of Australia’s Wildfires – PBS NewsHour

10. Coffee Break: Target Tori

You may have heard Tori Perrotti’s story. She works for Target and refused to sell a $90 toothbrush for 1 cent because of a signage error. The shopper demanding the extreme discount posted a couple of photos and tried to shame her on Twitter.

Everything backfired on him, and supporters put up a GoFundMe account to send Tori on a vacation. It raised $34,000.

The Boston-area retail manager’s story on NBC Boston.

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