Thursday, March 12, 2015

Russia Is Hacking Your News Feed

By Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg
Mar 11, 2015 7:33 PM EDT

Now that most of our information -- and the information that news organizations use as raw material -- is delivered by technology platforms such as social networks, what we know about the world is potentially hackable. Propagandists no longer have to convince professional news organizations to spread their stories; they just have to embed them into social media news feeds. Employees of the Russian propaganda machine, in particular, seem to be focused on finding ways to game the modern news delivery system. And though their techniques aren't yet perfect, they're making significant progress.

In a recent post on, John Borthwick and Gilad Lotan of Betaworks, the New York City-based startup studio, detailed two cases in which hackers -- apparently originating from Russia in both instances -- attempted to mess with the flow of news in the West. One of the two operations succeeded and the other failed.

The first case can be called up with a Google search of the terms "ISIS France support". That will yield, near the top of the first results page, stories from Newsweek and describing the results of a poll carried out for the Russian state-owned propaganda network, Russia Today. According to the survey, 16 percent of French citizens, and 27 percent of those aged 18-24, have a positive opinion of Islamic State. This, of course, is utter nonsense: the 27 percent number, for example, is based on a sample of only 105 young French people. Yet reporters from Vox and Newsweek saw the numbers in a tweet and wrote pieces citing the poll, not realizing it was bunk.

The Vox story went viral on Twitter, spread by people who often added credulous comments endorsing the report. Eventually, the Washington Post did a lengthy piece debunking the survey -- but it sits lower in Google search results than the Vox piece.

(More here.)


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