The godfather of fake news

Christopher Blair takes a sip of his coffee.

Then he carefully focuses on one of the three screens in front of him.

He’s in his home office, 45 minutes outside Portland, Maine, on the US East Coast.

Stroking his thick beard, he looks at his bookmarks bar.

He takes another sip before his coffee goes cold, inhales long and hard, then logs into the back end of one of his many websites.

He begins by choosing a subject. Which “lucky” politician will be on the receiving end of his attention today?

Bill Clinton? Hillary Clinton? One of the Obamas?

Or maybe the subject of his story won’t be a person, but a policy. Gun control? Police brutality? Feminism? Anything that will push buttons.

Perhaps he’ll make up a controversial incident, a crime, a new law or a constitutional amendment.

“Changing” the US constitution is particularly fun – he’s already written more than 30 fake amendments. (There are only 27 genuine ones.)

Blair sits back in his chair and focuses intently on the screen. He leans forward, places his hands on the keyboard and starts the same way he does every time.

Caps lock. BREAKING. Colon…

BREAKING: Clinton Foundation Ship Seized at Port of Baltimore Carrying Drugs, Guns and Sex Slaves

The words flow from the thoughts in his head. Unconnected to reality, he needs no research, and no notes.

His fingers rhythmically tap the keys. Letters form into words, words into sentences and sentences into a blog of about 200 words.

It doesn’t take long to write.

Publish.

Blair sits back in his chair and watches the likes and shares roll in.

The Fact Checker.

More than 3,000 miles (5,000km) away in a small town an hour east of the Belgian capital, Brussels, there’s another office in another family home.

Outside, children play in the garden on a warm summer’s afternoon.

Maarten Schenk navigates the steep set of stairs to his basement office. There’s an L-shaped desk in one corner – in another, a cooler is filled with bottles of peach-flavoured iced tea.

His desk resembles Blair’s. On it, sit three computer monitors, with the machine hard drives tucked away neatly underneath.

On one of the screens, he suddenly notices a lot of activity. The US is waking up, and spiking numbers on one page catch Schenk’s attention.

He watches as one particular story is gathering momentum and is quickly being shared on Facebook and other social networks.

Schenk logs into his own website and starts to type.

His job is to tell the world that what he’s seeing online – the story that’s currently going viral about a Clinton Foundation ship, allegedly carrying drugs, guns and sex slaves – is a complete fabrication.

It’s fake news.

During the 2016 US presidential election, journalists began noticing a rash of viral made-up stories on Facebook.

Bizarrely, many of the pages appeared to be posted by people from the Balkans and, after BuzzFeed reported on an unusual cluster of pages, reporters flocked to a small town called Veles in Macedonia.

“The Americans loved our stories and we make money from them,” one faker told the BBC. “Who cares if they are true or false?”

The stories were, in the main, pitched to Donald Trump supporters. They included rumours about Hillary Clinton’s health problems and illegal dealings, stories about luminaries like Pope Francis lining up behind the Republican candidate, and other false news sure to either please or rile Trump’s supporters.

Satire – not news, not opinion, and not propaganda – is how Blair describes his work.

His aim is to trick conservative Americans into sharing false news, in the hope of showing what he calls their “stupidity”.

“We’ve gone out of our way to market it as satire, to make sure that everybody knows that this isn’t real,” he says, pointing out that some of his pages have more prominent disclaimers than the world-famous satire site The Onion.

Once his stories go viral, the Facebook comments burst forth. And that’s when Christopher Blair the fake news writer becomes Christopher Blair the crusading left-wing troll.

“The mission with the trolling first and foremost is we pull them into the comments [section underneath each fake article],” he says.

It’s then that he starts on the offensive. The faker becomes the exposer, weeding out and reporting the most extreme users among his fans.

“I can show you hundreds of profiles we’ve had taken down,” he says. He claims that he’s exposed Ku Klux Klan members and hardcore racists.

“We’ve had people fired from their jobs,” he says.

“We’ve exposed them to their families. Say what you want about me being a monster. I’m pretty proud.”

Read the complete article on the BBC web site here.

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Fact check: Donald Trump’s State of the Union address analyzed

Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech continued Trump’s tradtion of telling tall tales. Let’s separate Trump’s fake news from the facts.

Tax cuts

We enacted the biggest tax cuts and reforms in American history. Our massive tax cuts provide tremendous relief for the middle class and small businesses.

A typical family of four making $75,000 will see their tax bill reduced by $2,000 – slashing their tax bill in half.

This April will be the last time you ever file under the old broken system – and millions of Americans will have more take-home pay starting next month.

The tax cut signed into law last month is not the largest in American history, but the eighth largest, at about 0.9% of the gross domestic product. In 1981, Ronald Reagan signed the largest cut, at 2.89% of GDP.

The $1.1tn tax cut will mean lower taxes for every income bracket in 2019, but it is misleading to suggest that those cuts will last for everyone.

Over time the cuts disproportionately save money for the wealthiest. Some of the tax cuts phase out in 2025, meaning that by 2027 Americans earning less than $75,000 will see tax increases. More than 75% of the savings will go to people who earn more than $200,000, according to Moody’s, or about 5% of taxpayers.

The top 1% of earners will save hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, through the cuts, according to the Tax Policy Center. The president’s family could save as much as $11m, according to an analysis by the New York Times. The tax plan also eliminated the estate tax, which only affected a few thousand families with extraordinary wealth.

The stock market

Small business confidence is at an all-time high. The stock market has smashed one record after another, gaining $8tn in value. That is great news for Americans’ 401k, retirement, pension, and college savings accounts.

It’s true that the stock market is booming: the Dow Jones surpassed a record 26,000 points and saw its fastest-ever 1,000-point gain during the last year.

The stock market is not the economy, however, and does not reflect marginal wage gains and growing inequality. A Federal Reserve report published last year, for instance, found that the wealthiest 1% of American families controlled 38.6% of the country’s wealth in 2016.

Coal, energy and cars

We have ended the war on American energy – and we have ended the war on clean coal. We are now an exporter of energy to the world.

Thanks to a natural gas boom over the last 15 years, the US has become a global energy power. This success of natural gas – cheaper, more accessible and cleaner than coal – has marginalized the coal industry, limiting Trump’s efforts to save the industry.

Coal jobs and production declined for decades, collapsing 33% from 2011 to 2016, according to studies by Columbia University and the Department of Energy, due to competition from natural gas, automation and a shift away from coal in Asia.

Trump has tried to resurrect coal’s fading fortunes. He rescinded a rule that tried to keep coal mining waste out of waterways; ordered a revocation of Obama’s Clean Power Plan; and lifted a ban on mining leases on federal land. In 2017, coal exports increased compared to 2016, according to the Energy Information Association. Still, there has only been about 1% growth in coal jobs over the last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The phrase “clean coal,” coined by the coal industry, is itself controversial. The term applies not to any coal itself but power plants that remove heavy metal pollutants in the burning process and bury carbon emissions in the earth. Even such “clean” coal-fired plants still emit large levels of pollutants.

Many car companies are now building and expanding plants in the United States – something we have not seen for decades. Chrysler is moving a major plant from Mexico to Michigan; Toyota and Mazda are opening up a plant in Alabama. Soon, plants will be opening up all over the country. This is all news Americans are unaccustomed to hearing – for many years, companies and jobs were only leaving us.

Chrysler is not moving any plant from Mexico; it is keeping the Mexican factory and investing in a Michigan one. Toyota-Mazda have planned for a $1.6bn factory in Alabama, to open in several years. Several of the plans Trump is touting have been in development for several years and the US has steadily increased jobs since 2010, according to the same Bureau of Labor Statistics figures the president earlier cited.

Read the complete article on The Guardian newspaper web site.

Russian troll factory paid US activists to help fund protests during election

RBC said it had identified 118 accounts or groups in Facebook, Instagram and Twitter that were linked to the troll factory. Photograph: Sergei Konkov/TASS

Russian trolls posing as Americans made payments to genuine activists in the US to help fund protest movements on socially divisive issues, according to a new investigation by a respected Russian media outlet.

On Tuesday, the newspaper RBC published a major investigation into the work of a so-called Russian “troll factory” since 2015, including during the period of the US election campaign, disclosures that are likely to put further spotlight on alleged Russian meddling in the election.

RBC said it had identified 118 accounts or groups in Facebook, Instagram and Twitter that were linked to the troll factory, all of which had been blocked in August and September this year as part of the US investigation into Russian electoral meddling.

Many of the accounts had already been linked to Russian disinformation efforts in western outlets, but RBC said its sources at the troll factory had provided screenshots of the internal group administration pages of some of the groups, as proof they were run from Russia. It also spoke to former and current employees of the troll factory, all of whom spoke anonymously.

Perhaps the most alarming element of the article was the claim that employees of the troll factory had contacted about 100 real US-based activists to help with the organisation of protests and events. RBC claimed the activists were contacted by Facebook group administrators hiding their Russian origin and were offered financial help to pay for transport or printing costs. About $80,000 was spent during a two-year period, according to the report.

The main topics covered by the groups run from Russia were race relations, Texan independence and gun rights. RBC counted 16 groups relating to the Black Lives Matter campaign and other race issues that had a total of 1.2 million subscribers. The biggest group was entitled Blacktivist and reportedly had more than 350,000 likes at its peak.

Last month, CNN also reported that US authorities believed the Blacktivist Facebook group and Twitter account were the work of Russian impostors.

The Internet Research Agency, one of the companies believed to run the trolling operations, has long been rumoured to be a project of Evgeny Prigozhin, a shadowy businessman known as “Putin’s chef”, who ran Putin’s favourite restaurant in St Petersburg and later won billions of dollars worth of state catering contracts. A number of semi-legitimate news aggregating websites appear to be run by the same people as the troll operations.

Google has said Russian operatives spent tens of thousands of dollars on targeted ads on YouTube, Google and Gmail, according to reports. Last month, Facebook released a statement saying it had found $100,000 of ad spending on about 3,000 ads that it linked to 470 “inauthentic” accounts that it had linked to Russia. The company later clarified that the ads focused on “divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum”.

The company estimated that about 10 million Americans saw the ads, but interestingly also specified that only 44% of the impressions took place before last November’s election, making the Russian campaign look more like an attempt to sow general chaos rather than a narrowly focused electoral drive.

Read the complete article on The Guardian newspaper web site.

Facebook and Google promote politicized fake news about Las Vegas shooter

Facebook and Google promoted false news stories claiming that the shooter who killed more than 50 people in Las Vegas was a Democrat who opposed Donald Trump. The misidentification spread rapidly from dark corners of the internet to mainstream platforms just hours after hundreds were injured at a festival near the Mandalay Bay casino, the latest example of fake news polluting social media amid a breaking news story.

The flow of misinformation on Monday illustrated a particularly grim trend that has increasingly dominated viral online propaganda during US mass shootings – hyper-partisan trolls battling to blame the tragedy on opposing political ideologies.

On 4chan, the anonymous message board and a favorite platform of the “alt-right”, some noted that Danley was a registered Democrat. Soon after, Gateway Pundit, a conspiracy-laden blog that earned White House credentials under Trump, published an evidence-free story headlined, “Las Vegas Shooter Reportedly a Democrat Who Liked Rachel Maddow, MoveOn.org and Associated with Anti-Trump Army”. The piece was based on a review of Facebook “likes”.

Despite the fact that the claims were unproven and coming from non-credible sources, Facebook’s “Safety Check” page, which is supposed to help people connect with loved ones during the crisis, ended up briefly promoting a story that said the shooter had “Trump-hating” views, along with links to a number of other hoaxes and scams, according to screenshots. At the same time, Google users who searched Geary Danley’s name were at one point directed to the 4chan thread filled with false claims.

The rightwing users’ successful manipulation of social media algorithms to politicize a tragedy speaks to a relatively new pattern of online abuse. While users of Twitter and Reddit memorably misidentified the suspect behind the Boston marathon bombing in 2013, fake news during global tragedies and terrorist attacks over the last year has increasingly gone beyond careless reporting and retweeting to overt exploitation and targeted disinformation campaigns.

“It’s getting more polarized. There’s this mad scramble to paint the guy as a Democrat or a Republican, so they can cheer,” Brooke Binkowski, managing editor of fact-checking website Snopes.com, said in an interview. “A lot of this is pushed by trolls deliberately to muddy the conversation.”

False content can quickly move from social media to legitimate news sources, she added: “People are putting out crap information on purpose … It’s really easy to get shit into the news cycle by being on Twitter.”

On the flipside, some conservatives on Twitter have theorized that leftwing social media users have attempted to falsely paint Paddock as a rightwing individual. Some have speculated that liberals are posing as white nationalists and Trump supporters and following a Twitter account that has the same name as the suspect, in hopes of proving he is a conservative.

In reality, the suspect had no known “affiliations” that could explain the massacre, according to one of his brothers, who spoke out on Monday.

Beyond the politically charged fake news, a wide range of hoaxes and irresponsible reporting clouded social media on Monday. A number of viral tweets posted fake accounts of missing victims, according to BuzzFeed.

Some celebrities were also quick to spread unverified claims before police had offered any official confirmation of the basic facts of the shooting. Sia, a pop singer and songwriter with 3.2 million followers on Twitter, posted that 20 people were dead before police had released details on the number of casualties, adding, “take cover there are multiple shooters on the loose”.

Police have said there were no other suspects.

Source: This Guardian newspaper article.

 

The future of fake news: don’t believe everything you read, see or hear

A new breed of video and audio manipulation tools allow for the creation of realistic looking news footage, fake news, like the now infamous fake Obama speech.

In an age of Photoshop, filters and social media, many of us are used to seeing manipulated pictures – subjects become slimmer and smoother or, in the case of Snapchat, transformed into puppies.

The University of Washington’s Synthesizing Obama project took audio from one of Obama’s speeches and used it to animate his face in an entirely different video.

However, there’s a new breed of video and audio manipulation tools, made possible by advances in artificial intelligence and computer graphics, that will allow for the creation of realistic looking footage of public figures appearing to say, well, anything. Trump declaring his proclivity for water sports. Hillary Clinton describing the stolen children she keeps locked in her wine cellar. Tom Cruise finally admitting what we suspected all along … that he’s a Brony.

This is the future of fake news. We’ve long been told not to believe everything we read, but soon we’ll have to question everything we see and hear as well.

For now, there are several research teams working on capturing and synthesizing different visual and and audio elements of human behavior.

Software developed at Stanford University is able to manipulate video footage of public figures to allow a second person to put words in their mouth – in real time. Face2Face captures the second person’s facial expressions as they talk into a webcam and then morphs those movements directly onto the face of the person in the original video. The research team demonstrated their technology by puppeteering videos of George W Bush, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump.

Face2Face lets you puppeteer celebrities and politicians, literally putting words in their mouths.

On its own, Face2Face is a fun plaything for creating memes and entertaining late night talk show hosts. However, with the addition of a synthesized voice, it becomes more convincing – not only does the digital puppet look like the politician, but it can also sound like the politician.

Canadian startup Lyrebird has developed similar capabilities, which it says can be used to turn text into on-the-spot audiobooks “read” by famous voices or for characters in video games.

Although their intentions may be well-meaning, voice-morphing technology could be combined with face-morphing technology to create convincing fake statements by public figures.

You only have to look at the University of Washington’s Synthesizing Obama project, where they took the audio from one of Obama’s speeches and used it to animate his face in an entirely different video with incredible accuracy (thanks to training a recurrent neural network with hours of footage), to get a sense of how insidious these adulterations can be.

Beyond fake news there are many other implications, said Nitesh Saxena, associate professor and research director of the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s department of computer science. “You could leave fake voice messages posing as someone’s mum. Or defame someone and post the audio samples online.”

Read the complete article on The Guardian web site.

 

The New Yorker’s David Remnick on the dangers of normalizing Donald Trump – video

David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, discusses the dangers of normalizing a Donald Trump presidency during a live chat hosted by the Columbia Journalism Review, in partnership with the Guardian and Reuters. The event, titled ‘Covering Trump: what happens when journalism, politics and fake news collide’, was held at the Columbia Journalism School in New York.

Source: The Guardian newspaper post.

Fox News’s ‘Swedish defence advisor’ unknown to country’s military officials

 Nils Bildt appears on Fox News on Thursday 23 February billed as ‘national security advisor’. Photograph: Fox News


Nils Bildt appears on Fox News on Thursday 23 February billed as ‘national security advisor’. Photograph: Fox News

Swedish military and foreign-affairs officials have said they know nothing about a man who appeared on Fox News in the US billed as a “Swedish defence and national security advisor”.

Swedes, and some Americans, have been wondering about representations of the Scandinavian nation in the US since President Donald Trump invoked “what’s happening last night in Sweden” while alluding to past terror attacks in Europe during a rally on 18 February. There was no major incident in Sweden the previous night.

Trump does seem to get much of his security intelligence and other information from television and ‘other sources’ and not White House intelligence community, according to Trump’s many tweets.

Following Trump’s comments, Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly convened an on-air discussion on Thursday over Swedish immigration and crime between a Swedish newspaper reporter and a man identified on screen and verbally as a “Swedish defence and national security advisor”, Nils Bildt.

Bildt linked immigration to crime and social problems in Sweden, lamented what he described as Swedish liberal close-mindedness about the downsides of welcoming newcomers and said: “We are unable in Sweden to socially integrate these people.”

But the Swedish defense ministry and foreign office told the newspaper Dagens Nyheter they knew nothing of Bildt. Calls to Swedish officials on Saturday were not immediately returned.

Bildt is a founding member of a corporate geopolitical strategy and security consulting business with offices in Washington, Brussels and Tokyo, according its website. His biography speaks to expertise on defence and national security issues, saying his experience includes serving as a naval officer, working for a Japanese official and writing books on issues ranging from investment and political climates to security issues with working in hostile environments.

But security experts in Sweden said he was not a familiar figure in their ranks in that country.

“He is in not in any way a known quantity in Sweden and has never been part of the Swedish debate,” Swedish Defence University leadership professor Robert Egnell said by email to The Associated Press on Saturday. He and Bildt — also known then as Nils Tolling — were in a master’s degree program in war studies together at King’s College London in 2002-2003, and Bildt moved to Japan soon after, he said.

The network said O’Reilly was expected to address the subject further on Monday’s show.

Trump started this fake news when Trump appeared at a Florida rally last week.

“You look at what’s happening last night in Sweden. Sweden! Who would believe this? Sweden!” he said.

Well, the fact is nobody should have believed it. You can bet any time Trump uses the words ‘believe me’ Trump is probably lying as this article explains.

Swedes – and many other nationalities – were bewildered by the outburst: nothing major had taken place in Sweden that night. Staff at Sweden’s US embassy were so flummoxed that they sent a note to the White House asking for an explanation. They later got one from the president himself, on Twitter, in which he referred to a report on Fox News from the night before.

The film claimed that there had been a surge in gun violence and rape following a record number of asylum applications in 2015. Police interviewed for the report appeared to confirm that there had been a huge rise.

But those officers later said their words had been taken out of context and that they were not talking about refugees and migration. The Swedish cameraman who filmed them said the same. The film-maker, Ami Horowitz, defended the segment.

The data tells us that there was no surge in gun violence or rape in 2015, when Sweden accepted more than 160,000 refugees. The rate of gun deaths in Sweden in 2015 stood at 0.32 per 100,000 population, compared with 4.04 in the US – 12 times that of Sweden.

Sources for article here and here.