Undergraduate researchers launch site to battle bots, sockpuppets, and all things fake news
by Jeremy Gerlach
What if we told you that what goes “viral” isn’t random anymore?
Picture this: vast, virtual armies of bots and sockpuppets—fake and duplicate social media accounts—spreading misinformation, controlling which topics trend on Facebook, Twitter, and other popular sites.
When people don’t know how to spot these artificial influences, says Mary Margaret Herring ’20, a communication and philosophy double major from Henrietta, Texas: “We can be more easily manipulated.”
But fear not, denizens of digital discourse: Knowledge is still the best antidote, and at Trinity, our Tigers are gathering plenty of it.
Herring, along with communication professor Aaron Delwiche, has spent her summer helping to launch Propaganda Critic, a website meant to help the public identify and expose digital propaganda techniques. The site presents a balanced approach to digital propaganda, teaching people of all ages how to recognize examples of propaganda techniques and logical fallacies used across the political spectrum.
“It’s not a secret that we live in a time where many Americans inhabit different political universes,” Delwiche says. “Both on the right and the left, we have all these digital tools—Twitter, Facebook—that allow us to create our own personalized echo chambers, and that’s not healthy for our democracy. But we have to recover our ability to engage in civil, rational disagreement.”
Delwiche originally launched Propaganda Critic in the mid 1990s, worrying that the rise of the internet would open the floodgates on a fresh wave of propaganda, eroding this rational approach to political debate. Decades later, Delwiche and Herring have the site revamped, redesigned, and ready to dive into the very perils the site predicted in its origin, thanks to funding from a Mellon Initiative grant.
Delwiche says the renovated Propaganda Critic examines new tech, such as bots, sockpuppets, trolls, and data mining, that’s already been unleashed on the public “to disastrous effect.”
“The cool thing about fighting propaganda is you get to hit every shelf in the library,” Delwiche says. “So at a bare minimum, our project includes aspects of history, political science, communication, art and graphic design, coding and computer science, sociology, and psychology.”
At Propaganda critic, you’ll learn how to tell the difference between benevolent “helper bots” - silent workers that update your Facebook feed, find you that perfect Tinder match, and fill out your search on an engine like Google - and more nefarious influences, such as“deceptive bots”, which pretend to be human users, and can be used to overwhelm discussion by actual humans on Twitter feeds, website comment threads and beyond.
Visitors will also gain access to a host of practical tools - links to bot identification sites such as Snopes and Botometer - and real-world, current case studies ranging from ISIS propaganda to left-wing and right-wing political techniques used right here in the U.S.
Beyond this technical knowledge, Delwiche and Herring also give visitors a larger view of the propaganda problem.
“But we also want people thinking about traditional approaches to propaganda—the logic, language, and psychology behind these techniques,” Delwiche continues. “That’s an approach that’s pretty ‘Trinity.’ Looking at this issue in an interdisciplinary way, that’s who we are.”
Delwiche and Herring aren’t alone in their fight against “fake news.” Brandon Guzman ’19, a communication major from Austin, Texas, spent his summer doing concurrent research on computational propaganda, or how artificial waves of fake and duplicate accounts can control what trends on sites like Twitter. Aided by communications professor Jennifer Henderson and funded by a grant from the McNair Scholars program, Guzman is examining how these artificial influences are affecting Maryland’s 2018 gubernatorial race
“Suddenly, a topic that someone wants to become important can become important,” says Guzman.“‘Going viral’ is no longer a random thing—it’s pretty insidious.”
And in turn, Guzman and Herring aren’t the only students using research to fight real-world problems at Trinity. The duo is part of more than 130 Tigers conducting undergraduate research at Trinity this summer across the sciences and the humanities—with topics ranging from fake news to microbial art palettes and X-ray source analysis in globular clusters.
“At Trinity, we get to come here every day, and we’re researching a topic that’s just so prescient right now,” Guzman says. “There’s news coverage, investigations going on in Congress right now about this issue, but there’s very little research that’s been done so far.”
“This is such an empowering experience,” Herring adds. “The research we’re doing right now is relevant; it’s needed. I feel I’m making a big impact, and it’s amazing to think about, at such an early phase in my academic career, that I’m getting these opportunities.”
Guzman and Herring's projects are both supervised by faculty in Trinity's Department of Communication. Herring is working with professor Aaron Delwiche, and Guzman is working with professor Jennifer Henderson. For more information on the opportunities provided by Trinity's communication department, visit its homepage.