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Phony ‘Fact Check’ Account on Twitter Raises New Concerns

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The deception was easy to pull off and came with barely any consequences.

Britain’s Conservative Party changed the name of its press office’s Twitter account to “factcheckUK” during a televised election debate between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn this week.

The renaming made the account look like a neutral fact-checker, raising new concerns about all the creative ways groups and individuals can use social media to deceive voters.

The party hardly even got a slap on the wrist, as Twitter pledged to take “decisive corrective action” only if the Conservatives try to mislead people again.

The incident occurred after years of promises, new rules and millions of dollars spent by social media companies to prevent election interference following Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

It shows that whatever steps tech companies have taken, users will continue to look for ways to exploit loopholes, unevenly enforced or nonexistent policies and companies’ fears of appearing partisan in their crackdowns.

“This is dirty tricks and should be dealt with mercilessly,” said Michael Pachter, an analyst with Wedbush Securities who covers social media. “It shows how difficult it is for social media to police tricks like these.”

In one tweet, the Conservative Party account posted a short video with the words “factcheckUK verdict,” declaring Johnson the winner of the debate. The renamed account still carried the blue checkmark reserved for “verified” Twitter users.

It’s not clear if large swaths of people were misled by the fake fact-checking account. Plenty of Twitter users called out the deception while it was happening.

The Conservative Party changed only the name that appeared at the top of the account, not the actual username that comes after the “at” symbol. Anyone who took a closer look could still see who the tweets were coming from.

Twitter declined to answer questions Wednesday on whether it is rethinking its policies to prevent similar incidents and why it didn’t suspend the offending account.

Twitter users can easily change their account names. This is popular around Halloween, when people temporarily adopt spooky monikers. While impersonation is technically against Twitter’s policies, the rules don’t apply to parody accounts.

There is no specific rule on Twitter against calling yourself a fact-checker, even if you’re peddling anything but facts.

As for Twitter’s bigger rival Facebook, it is unclear if there’s anything to stop a verified group from changing its name on the social network to something like TheTruthUK or FactCheckUSA.

While Facebook bars impersonating the official account of a brand or a public figure, its rules are silent on names that merely describe the account’s intent.

Some journalists fear that sites that co-opt the phrase “fact check” to make political points could cause the term to lose its meaning.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab defended the party’s actions, saying the Twitter account was clearly linked to the Conservatives and asserting that voters would not be perturbed by “the social media cut and thrust.”

“We make no apology for having an instant rebuttal to all the nonsense and lies put out,” Raab told the BBC.

Twitter, long known for its freewheeling and public nature, has said in the past that it cares “deeply” about misinformation and its “potentially harmful effect on the civic and political discourse that is core to our mission.”

But it does not offer third-party fact checks like Facebook. Nor does it ban misinformation save for a few specific cases, such as instances in which people are being told the wrong time or place to vote.

Twitter cannot check every single tweet for accuracy. Instead, the company said in a 2017 blog post, its “open and real-time nature is a powerful antidote to the spreading of all types of false information.”

Even so, the company recently banned all political ads, calling it an important step in reducing the flow of election-related misinformation. But the policy does not apply to the myriad other ways misinformation can be spread.

Tim Bajarin, president of consultancy Creative Strategies, said that while the misleading name change happened in Britain, both major parties in the U.S. will probably “go to school on how this works and how Twitter responds to this.”

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TWITTER

China’s Foreign Ministry adopts a Trumpian tone on its new Twitter account — with insults, typos …

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If you live in China, chances are you aren’t on Twitter — the American tech giant has been blocked by Beijing’s Great Firewall for more than a decade.

But for Chinese diplomats, that doesn’t mean Twitter can’t be a tool to spread their message in the West. And perhaps there’s no need to stay diplomatic on it either.

Late Monday evening in Beijing, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs began tweeting under the handle “MFA_China” and the bio: “Follow us to know more about China’s Diplomacy.”

Just a few days later, it has already made an impact. Although most of the tweets simply share video footage of spokeswoman Hua Chunying’s news conferences, the English text on the tweets often takes a combative, even Trumpian tone.

“Big guy NOT NECESSARILY threat. Unilateralism & hegemony IS,” the account wrote on Thursday, criticizing comments at a NATO summit in London about China.

Another tweet Thursday warned sardonically with an emoji that if the West thinks Chinese tech companies could be a threat, it should worry about clothes and shoes, too.

In earlier tweets, the ministry had written “LOL!” when talking about U.S. investment in China, called the United States a “moral loner” and shared an image of a ballet dancer’s battered foot in apparent criticism of the Canadian detention of Meng Wanzhou of Huawei.

A tweet on Wednesday had suggested that the United States should not criticize China’s harsh treatment of the Uighur minority because of “native Indians’ tears & blood.”

“China’s ethnic policy is more successful!” the tweet said.

Forget native Indians’ tears&blood? US politicians like @SpeakerPelosi so ignorant&hypocritical to talk about “conscience”. Ethnic minorities in China enjoy equal rights and freedom in religion and culture. China’s ethnic policy is more successful! pic.twitter.com/JyYD0pS8Mr

— Spokesperson发言人办公室 (@MFA_China) December 4, 2019

This is far from China’s first foray into English-language social media — Chinese-state-linked entities such as the Global Times and Xinhua have long used Western companies to spread messages that needled Western governments.

But there appears to have been a shift in how Chinese diplomats approach Twitter recently.

Notably, Zhao Lijian, a Chinese diplomat who pioneered combative English-language messages earlier this year, has been promoted to deputy director general of the ministry’s information department.

In July, as China faced international criticism for its crackdown on Uighurs and other minorities in the Xinjiang region, Zhao tweeted a variety of criticism of the United States — highlighting alleged religious intolerance, gun violence, Internet surveillance, income inequality and more.

Zhao, who was at that moment deputy chief of mission at the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad, took specific aim at the U.S. capital, arguing that white residents of Washington would never go to Southwest Washington because of racial segregation.

The tweet prompted an argument with Susan E. Rice, who was national security adviser in the Obama administration. Rice dubbed Zhao a “racist disgrace.” The Chinese diplomat responded with his own insult, saying that it was Rice who is a “disgrace” and that the “truth hurts.”

Zhao later said he meant Southeast Washington, deleted both tweets and shortly afterward returned to Beijing, but he was not demoted — he was promoted. He has continued to tweet frequently upon his return to China, using his 220,000 followers to promote pro-China messages and troll the United States.

Out of respect for President Trump, US & its people, on the occasion of thanksgiving day, I pay special thanks to US for squandering trillions of dollars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria… pic.twitter.com/9WMNoHdSML

— Lijian Zhao 赵立坚 (@zlj517) November 29, 2019

In interviews, Zhao has said that China needed to take to Twitter to combat U.S. influence on the platform.

But whereas Trump and other U.S. officials tweet in English to a largely domestic audience, China’s Foreign Ministry appears to be targeting international audiences with a sometimes crude message. Here it may be emulating not the U.S. president, but Russian diplomats who have used embassy Twitter accounts to mock and belittle Western democracies.

However, changing international attitudes via tweet may be an uphill battle for China. A Pew Research Center survey of 34 countries released on Thursday found considerable negative sentiment toward China worldwide, with unfavorable views of the country increasing sharply in the United States and Canada in 2019.

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Artists attempt to pit art-stealing Twitter bots against trigger-happy corporate lawyers

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Photo: Peter Power (Getty Images)

While the internet has obviously been a major boon for artists—what with the ability to show off their work to far wider audiences than humanity could have ever once dreamed—it’s also been a pretty massive benefit for art thieves, too. After all: Once upon a time, stealing someone’s artwork involved grappling hooks, inside men, and one of those little circle-knife things that lets you cut glass and hold it tight with a suction cup; now you just need a bot, and a decent set of Twitter keyword search terms.

Terms like “T-shirt,” say, or “that would look great on a T-shirt,” or anything else that might clue Twitter-trawling robots in to images they could slap on unauthorized articles of clothing (a T-shirt, possibly), which would then be purchased by unsuspecting shoppers.

But as our ancestors always used to say: Where there’s an algorithm, there’s a way to fuck with that algorithm for our own collective amusement. And so people on Twitter have begun encouraging these art-scraping bots to focus their interest on, well…non-traditional forms of art.

Some, as in the first of the above images, are just outright admissions of the theft-to-come. But others go even further, attempting to pick a fight between the thieves and the rabid forces of corporate copyright law. And while it seems unlikely that any of these companies in question will actually get sued out of existence by the wrathful Disney gods—alas—it is possible that they’ll be forced to tune their art-lifting algorithms to be more discriminating, and thus less widespread in their larcenous habits. (Although it also seems possible that people will buy these shirts when they do pop up on stores in order to be part of the moment, or to engage in some standard-issue internet irony, because truly, humanity is a paradoxical beast.)

In the meantime, always remember: Mickey Mouse smells like farts.

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Targeting Xinjiang?

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targeting-xinjiang?

Is Harry Potter’s Ginny Weasley tweeting you about how great life is in China’s western region of Xinjiang? She might be a bot

It looks like there’s another Twitter bot campaign in the making, but it’s not targeting US elections this time. Instead, it’s primarily focused on the region of Xinjiang in western China, where UN experts say that over a million people are being held in detention camps.

A researcher from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) says she found a “massive spambot network in the making” that’s trying to influence Twitter discussions on the issue. And strangely, they appear inclined to represent themselves as celebrities.

The accounts discovered last week have surfaced at a crucial time for China. On Tuesday, the US House of Representatives passed a bill that would require the US administration to identify and sanction officials responsible for the mass internment of Uygurs and other members of ethnic minorities in the country’s Xinjiang autonomous region.

Beijing opposes the bill and says the camps exist to prevent terrorism and separatism.

Twitter is no stranger to pro-Beijing campaigns on its platform. In August, Twitter suspended 936 accounts originating from China for what it said was a “coordinated state-backed operation” to sow political discord in Hong Kong. The social network shared a list of the accounts, saying it represents the most active portion of a larger “spammy network” of 200,000 accounts sharing content against the anti-government protests in Hong Kong. The other accounts were suspended before they were substantially active, Twitter said.

But unlike the Hong Kong campaign, the newly discovered accounts were created this year rather than having been repurposed. Earlier research from the ASPI on anti-protest bots showed that many of the accounts have been around for years, sometimes tweeting about things completely unrelated to China, like bacon, K-pop and hot tubs.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the new accounts is that they seem to have a thing for Western celebrities. Many of the more than 375 accounts use profile pictures of actresses like Kiera Knightley and Bonnie Wright, known for starring as Ginny Weasley in Harry Potter.

It’s part of the reason why the accounts weren’t hard to spot. They were identified based on a combination of their attributes and their behavior, ASPI researcher Elise Thomas told Abacus. In addition to pictures of celebrities, things like consistent naming patterns, tweeting random quotes or saying hello to themselves are all signs that the person retweeting you might not be real.

Compulsively sharing quotes from Chinese President Xi Jinping seems to be another sign of a potential bot. (Picture: Screenshot from Twitter)

Another dead giveaway? These new accounts seem obsessed with retweeting the Chinese state-owned tabloid Global Times, which has been using Twitter to staunchly deny abuses in Xinjiang.

The media outlet rose to prominence in China for its nationalist views and sharp attacks on critics of the Chinese government. Recent articles have accused scholars researching Xinjiang of working for US intelligence agencies and called reporters liars. The website has also been sharing glowing reports of life in the autonomous region under the Communist Party.

Global Times also sought to amplify its message through legitimate means by paying for ads. In June and August, Twitter had more than 50 promoted tweets from the media outlet, an investigation from The Intercept showed. As part of its wide sweep of pro-Beijing bots in August, Twitter said that it would no longer accept advertising from state-controlled media.

We reached out to the Global Times but didn’t receive a response.

So far, the origin of the accounts discovered by ASPI is unknown, and there’s no evidence that the campaign was state-sponsored. It also appears that their activity has been limited and they haven’t picked up a large number of followers.

In addition to the Global Times, the accounts have been sharing posts from other Chinese state media outlets, as well as statements from Chinese government bodies and diplomats. The Hong Kong protests were another favorite topic for the accounts.

Some of the accounts highlighted by ASPI’s Thomas seem to have already been removed. In response to our inquiry, Twitter said it takes action against millions of accounts each week for violating policies in this area.

“Improving the collective health of public conversation is a top priority for our company,” the company said in a statement. “Platform manipulation, including spam and other attempts to undermine the public conversation, is a clear violation of the Twitter Rules.”

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