In 2020, homegrown US disinformation surpasses Russian effort

A supporter of US President Donald Trump stands inside the Republican headquarters in Union City, Pennsylvania, US, on Oct. 23, 2020. (REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton)
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Updated 26 October 2020

In 2020, homegrown US disinformation surpasses Russian effort

  • Special counsel Robert Mueller's probe detailed Moscow’s disinformation campaign showed bias for Trump and antipathy toward Hillary Clinton in 2016
  • In this election, the disinformation campaign claims that Trump is locked in a struggle with Democratic and Hollywood elites who practice child sex trafficking and cannibalism

WASHINGTON: Russia’s coordinated effort to nudge Americans toward voting for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election caught social media companies flat-footed and remains a stain on the reputation of Facebook in particular.
Four years later, the FBI and other American security officials — aware of interference but silent last time — are warning that Russia and Iran are meddling.
But Russia’s actions — special counsel Robert Mueller’s report detailed the Kremlin’s bias for Trump and antipathy toward Hillary Clinton in 2016 — and those of other countries are only part of the disinformation problem.
Americans are now playing the leading role, posting the bulk of false or misleading comments, memes, photographs and videos that are spread with the ease and speed of online distribution. And there are signs that it is out of control.
“What the Russians did in 2016 was show a toolkit, where you could use deceptive actors online working in coordination with each other as a political tool,” Joshua Tucker, a professor of politics and expert on data science and social media at New York University, told AFP.
“There’s been a fixation on foreign interference, but the people who really have an incentive to influence the outcome of an election are people who live in that country — Americans.”
Facebook’s latest report about inauthentic behavior confirms the trend.

Sowing political discord
In the first week of October alone it took down 200 Facebook accounts, 55 Pages and 77 Instagram accounts that originated in the US.
Copying the Russian tactics of 2016, the operators used stock profile photos and posed as right-leaning individuals across the United States. Some of the removed accounts were older, and had pretended to be left-leaning individuals around the 2018 US congressional elections.
The overall effect was to sow political discord and undermine faith in the democratic process, just as Mueller’s report last year said was Russia’s overarching and continuing aim.
The most egregious example disclosed by Facebook involved a US marketing firm that used teenagers in Arizona to post comments that were either pro-Trump or sympathetic to conservative causes, while also criticizing 2020 Democratic candidate Joe Biden.
Research undertaken by Tucker and his colleagues shows that political partisanship — heightened by social media algorithms that drive users to one side of a story — means neither liberals or conservatives are good at sorting fact from fiction when challenged.
As part of a third-party fact-checking relationship with Facebook, AFP has flagged thousands of false or misleading posts in the US. Some had been shared hundreds of thousands of times. User feedback shows that even verified facts are not accepted when they go against partisan political belief.
Twitter is also removing impostor content. One such account featuring the image of a Black police officer, Trump and the slogan “VOTE REPUBLICAN” gained 24,000 followers earlier this month despite tweeting only eight times.
Its most popular tweet was liked 75,000 times before the account was removed for breaking the platform’s rules against manipulation.
But social media researchers say the detection of such accounts are the exception rather than the norm.

QAnon conspiracy theory
Professor Russell Muirhead, co-author of “A Lot Of People Are Saying,” a title that plays on words often used by Trump to promote unproven theories, said US disinformation has evolved rapidly since 2016.
Referring to Pizzagate, the false claim that top Democrats ran a child sex trafficking ring from a Washington, DC pizza restaurant, Muirhead said political debate has been poisoned.
“This story, with no basis whatsoever, purports to show Hillary Clinton as a concentration of pure evil,” said Muirhead, who teaches politics and political science at Dartmouth College.
“How do you make politics with such a person? You can’t, so you have to make war. That story told Trump supporters that in a political context you are engaged in a war with someone who should be locked up.”
In this election cycle, Pizzagate has metastasized and been succeeded by the QAnon conspiracy theory, which claims that Trump is locked in a struggle with Democratic and Hollywood elites who practice child sex trafficking and cannibalism.
Its adherents are taking aim at Biden.
“QAnon is now painting Joe Biden not as a legitimate opponent but as part of this team of globalists who are intent on destroying America, not to be argued with but to be eliminated,” said Muirhead.
The most immediate disinformation risk to the 2020 vote, however, according to Tucker, is Trump’s repeated claims that the use of mail-in ballots will lead to fraud and a “rigged” election.
He made the same claims in 2016. Subsequent investigations showed no evidence of widespread fraud.
“This is disinformation,” said the NYU’s Tucker.
“There are problems with people not filling out their ballots correctly, there’s problems with people getting their ballots late, but there is no evidence to suggest that there has been wide-scale fraud.
“Who needs the Russians running around casting doubt on the integrity of the democratic process when the president of the United States is doing it?“


Marginalization blights lives of French people of Arab origin: Survey

Updated 27 min 50 sec ago

Marginalization blights lives of French people of Arab origin: Survey

  • An Arab News en Francais/YouGov poll suggests the largest minority group in France suffer from lack of acceptance, even stigmatization
  • More than half the respondents said they adhere to secularism and believe it could help alleviate problems in the Arab world 

DUBAI: As a wave of violence inspired by radical Islam shakes French cities and the culture at large, creating a sense of insecurity and fear, Islamophobia is on the rise. Islamism is not Islam, but for lack of knowledge, conflation of the two is easy.

It is through this wrong prism that French Muslims are viewed, as well as some Jews and Christians due to their Arab origins. INSEE, France’s national statistics bureau, said that by 2019, 55 percent of immigrants (both first and second generation) had come from Arab countries. They are the largest minority group in France and therefore it is not for an extremist minority to represent them.

For the first time in France, a survey was carried out among French people of Arab origin. Arab News en Francais commissioned leading online polling firm YouGov to conduct research on the perception of their life in France and their position in the face of secularism.

Arab News Research and Studies Unit partnered with YouGov for the survey which was carried out between Sept. 8 and Sept. 14, and was based on a representative sample of 958 French people from Arab countries, living in France.

The survey confirms their desire to belong to a democratic and secular France. It emerges that all religions are not perceived in the same way by French society, as indicated by the feelings of the French of Arab origin, Muslims and Jews who were interviewed.

Contrary to popular belief, the majority of those interviewed were found to be educated and employed, while French people of Arab origin are generally familiar with the French system and its history, and adhere to the fundamental values ​​of the French Republic.

The French of Arab origin have largely adapted to the way of life in France, but they do not feel accepted, with many citing a sense of stigmatization. Both religion and their national origin have no impact on their sense of belonging to French society. But the sounding of their name has an impact on their careers.

Half of the people questioned believe that neither their race, nor their origin and their religion had any impact on their feelings of belonging to French society and on their professional careers. Their responses, however, underline a feeling of exclusion which, for 51 percent is not linked to skin color, but rather to the ethnic origin of their name (36 percent), which, on the other hand, has a negative impact on their career prospects.

This feeling of exclusion is exacerbated among women who believe that their country of origin (46 percent against 33 percent of men) as well as their religion (66 percent against 52 percent of men) causes a negative perception among their compatriots.

French people of Arab origin clearly respect French values, such as secularism, and believe that a secular system would be beneficial for their country of origin. Many even claim to be ready to defend this model in their country of origin.

IN NUMBERS

55% French immigrants with roots in Arab countries.

51% Who did not link feeling of exclusion to skin color.

36% Who linked feeling of exclusion to ethnic origin of their name.

In fact, 54 percent of them advocate secularism, which would be, for them, a solution to the problems of the Arab world. The people questioned are reluctant to interfere with religion in politics and appreciate the secular system applied in France, which they even openly defend in their country of origin.

Moreover, the majority is not in favor of regulations on religious clothing, but 45 percent of men, 48 percent of respondents residing in rural France and 50 percent of those aged over 55 support regulatory laws and are in favor of such decisions, against 29 percent of the youngest (18-24 years) interviewees.

The oldest are better integrated than the youngest who were born in France. The younger generations are much less enthusiastic about state institutions and seem to be going back to their parents’ roots, thus reinforcing their sense of otherness.

The survey highlights the widening gap between the generations, insofar as young French people of Arab origin aged 18-24, for whom their religion is perceived positively (53 percent), seem less inclined to respect the regulations and join institutions like the national football team. Thus, 58 percent would support the football team of their country of origin against France, while 58 percent of men aged 35 to 44 and 72 percent of those over 55 would support the French team.

This last point reflects a generational gap and a generational conflict, which represents a major challenge for the future. A significant 49 percent of respondents and 52 percent of 18-34-year-olds believe that education levels are the most important factor in advancing their careers, but that their last name alone has a negative impact on their career, despite their ability to progress and the fact that they give themselves the means to do so.

A better knowledge of French people of Arab origin, peaceful and attached to the values ​​of freedom and secularism, is essential if the fight against extremism and Islamization in France is to be won.