All posts by Thor Benson

Twitter Bots Are Spreading Massive Amounts of COVID-19 Misinformation

Post Syndicated from Thor Benson original

Back in February, the World Health Organization called the flood of misinformation about the coronavirus flowing through the Internet a “massive infodemic.” Since then, the situation has not improved. While social media platforms have promised to detect and label posts that contain misleading information related to COVID-19, they haven’t stopped the surge.

But who is responsible for all those misleading posts? To help answer the question, researchers at Indiana University’s Observatory on Social Media used a tool of their own creation called BotometerLite that detects bots on Twitter. They first compiled a list of what they call “low-credibility domains” that have been spreading misinformation about COVID-19, then used their tool to determine how many bots were sharing links to this misinformation. 

Their findings, which they presented at this year’s meeting of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, revealed that bots overwhelmingly spread misinformation about COVID-19 as opposed to accurate content. They also found that some of the bots were acting in “a coordinated fashion” to amplify misleading messages.  

The scale of the misinformation problem on Twitter is alarming. The researchers found that overall, the number of tweets sharing misleading COVID-19 information was roughly equivalent to the number of tweets that linked to New York Times articles. 

We talked with Kai-Cheng Yang, a PhD student who worked on this research, about the bot-detection game.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

IEEE Spectrum: How much of the overall misinformation is being spread by bots?

Kai-Cheng Yang: For the links to the low-credibility domains, we find about 20 to 30 percent are shared by bots. The rest are likely shared by humans.

Spectrum: How much of this activity is bots sharing links themselves, and how much is them amplifying tweets that contain misinformation?

Yang: It’s a combination. We see some of the bots sharing the links directly and other bots are retweeting tweets containing those links, so they’re trying to interact with each other.

Spectrum: How do your Botometer and BotometerLite tools identify bots? What are they looking for? 

Yang: Both Botometer and BotometerLite are implemented as supervised machine learning models. We first collect a group of Twitter accounts that are manually annotated as bots or humans. We extract their characteristics from their profiles (number of friends, number of followers, if using background image, etc), and we collect data on content, sentiment, social network, and temporal behaviors. We then train our machine learning models to learn how bots are different from humans in terms of these characteristics. The differences between Botometer and BotometerLite is that Botometer considers all these characteristics whereas BotometerLite only focuses on the profiles for efficiency.

Spectrum: The links these bots are sharing: Where do they lead?

Yang: We have compiled a list of 500 or so low-credibility domains. They’re mostly news sites, but we would characterize many of them as ‘fake news.’ We also consider extremely hyper-partisan websites as low-credibility.

Spectrum: Can you give a few examples of the kinds of COVID-related misinformation that appear on these sites? 

Yang: Common themes include U.S. politics, status of the outbreak, and economic issues. A lot of the articles are not necessarily fake, but they can be hyper-partisan and misleading in some sense. We also see false information like: the virus is weaponized, or political leaders have already been vaccinated.

Spectrum: Did you look at whether the bots spreading misinformation have followers, and whether those followers are humans or other bots? 

Yang: Examining the followers of Twitter accounts is much harder due the API rate limit, and we didn’t conducted such analysis this time.

Spectrum: In your paper, you write that some of the bots seem to be acting in a coordinated fashion. What does that mean? 

Yang: We find that some of the accounts (not necessarily all bots) were sharing information from the same set of low-credibility websites. For two arbitrary accounts, this is very unlikely, yet we found some accounts doing so together. The most plausible explanation is that these accounts were coordinated to push the same information. 

Spectrum: How do you detect bot networks? 

Yang: I’m assuming you are referring to the network shown in the paper. For that, we simply extract the list of websites each account shares and then find the accounts that have very similar lists and consider them to be connected.

Spectrum: What do you think can be done to reduce the amount of misinformation we’re seeing on social media?

Yang: I think it has to be done by the platforms. They can do flagging, or if they know a source is low-credibility, maybe they can do something to reduce the exposure. Another thing we can do is improve the average person’s journalism literacy: Try to teach people that there might be those kinds of low-credibility sources or fake news online and to be careful. We have seen some recent studies indicating that if you tell the user what they’re seeing might be from low-credibility sources, they become much more sensitive to such things. They’re actually less likely to share those articles or links. 

Spectrum: Why can’t Twitter prevent the creation and proliferation of bots? 

Yang: My understanding is that when you try to make your tool or platform easy to use for real users, it opens doors for the bot creators at the same time. So there is a trade-off.

In fact, according to my own experience, recently Twitter started to ask the users to put in their phone numbers and perform more frequent two-step authentications and recaptcha checks. It’s quite annoying for me as a normal Twitter user, but I’m sure it makes it harder, though still possible, to create or control bots. I’m happy to see that Twitter has stepped up.

Coronavirus vs. Climate Change

Post Syndicated from Thor Benson original

IEEE COVID-19 coverage logo, link to landing page

Whether their state is opening up or locking down again, Americans are generally staying home more during the COVID-19 pandemic. One result has been a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, which could be as much as 7 percent lower in 2020 than they were in 2019. What remains to be seen is if we’ll be able to keep emissions at this level once the pandemic is over and people return to a more regular lifestyle.

In addition to the fact many Americans are telecommuting instead of driving to an office, more people are ordering groceries from home. Online grocery sales in the U.S. went up from $4 billion in March to a record-setting $7.2 billion in June.

Because we tend to assume the lazy option is the less eco-friendly option, you might think people ordering groceries online is worse for the environment. But research has shown that having vehicles delivery orders to multiple households, which is how Amazon Fresh and other vendors operate, is significantly better for the environment than having many people in cars going to the store individually. Not only do these service vehicles delivery to several homes on one round trip, they also follow the fastest route to each home, which makes the whole system pretty efficient and can reduce the carbon emissions associated with grocery shopping by 25 to 75 percent.

(Bad news if you use services like Instacart, which has one driver collect groceries for one person at a time: Because they’re not delivering multiple orders during one trip, they don’t really benefit the environment.)

Jesse Keenan, an associate professor of architecture and a social scientist at Tulane University who has studied sustainability extensively, tells Spectrum that getting groceries delivered is also not more eco-friendly if you’re getting groceries delivered but driving to do other errands in the same day. In that case, you’re just having someone do one of your multiple errands.

As for telecommuting, it’s not necessarily the case that everyone will be going back to work in an office once the pandemic abates. Now that some people have gotten used to working from home and have proven to their employers that they can be just as productive there as they were in the office, many companies may choose to continue having employees work remotely part or all of the time once the pandemic ends.

That would be good news for the environment and for corporate bottomlines.

Mikhail Chester, an associate professor of civil, environmental and sustainable engineering at Arizona State University, tells Spectrum that he can imagine some businesses seeing employees continuing to work remotely as a great way to save money.

“Right now, there are companies out there that were renting office space—they had a lease, and the lease expired and all of their employees have been working from home—and they probably made the decision that they’re getting the job done as effectively with a remote workforce and leasing a physical space is not really that necessary,” Chester says.

He adds that work and shopping are just two of many activities that people might continue to do virtually even when they don’t have to. Chester noted that pre-pandemic he used to fly a lot to attend conferences and meet with research partners but has now switched to doing these things virtually, which might be something that outlasts the pandemic.

Keenan says that the effect of more people working from home instead of traveling to an office or another brick-and-mortar business might depend on the city they live in, as many people use public transportation to get to work in some cities, which is better than driving to work.

“The problem is that service-based employment that is able to work from home is disproportionately in cities where many people take mass transit,” Keenan says. “But, small reductions—even in cities—could add up to reduce emissions on the margins. I think less business travel is more likely to have an aggregate impact. With Zoom, there could be fewer conferences and business travel—hence reducing air miles that are carbon-intensive.”

Michael Mann, a professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University and a leading expert on climate change, tells Spectrum that he expects that after the pandemic ends, there will be some long-term changes in how people approach work and other activities. But he doesn’t think these long-term changes are going to be nearly enough to beat climate change.

“In the end, personal lifestyle changes won’t yield substantial carbon reductions. Even with the massive reduction in travel and reduced economic activity due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ll only see at most about 5 percent reduction in carbon emissions [this] year,” Mann says. “We will need to reduce carbon emissions at least that much (more like 7%), year-after-year for the next decade and beyond if we’re too stay within our ‘carbon budget’ for avoiding dangerous >1.5°C planetary warming.”

People living more sustainably is important, and we should encourage it in any way possible, but if we’re going to beat climate change, Mann says we need major changes to how society operates. He says we need to “decarbonize” all forms of transportation and generally transition away from fossil fuel use across the board.

The fact we’ve seen such a significant reduction in carbon emissions this year is one good thing that’s come out of this terrible pandemic we’re facing, and overall, this reduction will likely be sustained as long as the pandemic remains a major issue. Perhaps that will buy us some time to get our climate change plans together. However, as Mann says, if we’re going to really beat climate change, it’s going to take a lot more than people making changes in how they live their daily lives. It’s going to take major changes to the economy and how we power the things we use.

“The main lesson is that personal behavioral change alone won’t get us the reductions we need,” Mann says. “We need fundamental systemic change, and that means policy incentives. We won’t get that unless we vote in politicians who will work in our interest rather than the polluting interests.”

DNA Databases in the U.S. and China Are Tools of Racial Oppression

Post Syndicated from Thor Benson original

Two major world powers, the United States and China, have both collected an enormous number of DNA samples from their citizens, the premise being that these samples will help solve crimes that might have otherwise gone unsolved. While DNA evidence can often be crucial when it comes to determining who committed a crime, researchers argue these DNA databases also pose a major threat to human rights.

In the U.S., the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has a DNA database called the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) that currently contains over 14 million DNA profiles. This database has a disproportionately high number of profiles of black men, because black Americans are arrested five times as much as white Americans. You don’t even have to be convicted of a crime for law enforcement to take and store your DNA; you simply have to have been arrested as a suspect.

Bradley Malin, co-director of the Center for Genetic Privacy and Identity in Community Settings at Vanderbilt University, tells IEEE that there are many issues that can arise from this database largely being composed of DNA profiles taken from people of color.

“I wouldn’t say that they are only collecting information on minorities, but when you have a skew towards the collection of information from these communities, when you solve a crime or you think you have solved a crime, then it is going to be a disproportionate number of people from the minority groups that are going to end up being implicated,” Malin says. “It’s a non-random collection of data, as an artifact, so that’s a problem. There’s clearly skew with respect to the information that they have.”

Some of the DNA in the FBI’s database is now being collected by immigration agencies that are collecting samples from undocumented immigrants at the border. Not only are we collecting a disproportionate amount of DNA from black Americans who have been arrested, we’re collecting it from immigrants who are detained while trying to come to America. Malin says this further skews the database and could cause serious problems.

“If you combine the information you’re getting on immigrant populations coming into the United States with information that the FBI already holds on minority populations, who’s being left out here? You’ve got big holes in terms of a lack of white, caucasian people within this country,” Malin says. “In the event that you have people who are suspected of a crime, the databases are going to be all about the immigrant, black, and Hispanic populations.”

Malin says immigration agencies are often separating families based on DNA because they will say someone is not part of a family if their DNA doesn’t match. That can mean people who have been adopted or live with a family will be separated from them.

Aside from the clear threat to privacy these databases represent, one of the problems with them is that they can contain contaminated samples, or samples can become contaminated, which can lead law enforcement to make wrongful arrests. Another problem is law enforcement can end up collecting DNA that is a near match to DNA contained in the database and end up harassing people they believe to be related to a criminal in order to find their suspect. Malin says there’s also no guarantee that these DNA samples will not end up being used in controversial ways we have yet to even consider.

“One of the problems you run into is scope creep,” Malin says. “Just because the way the law is currently architected says that it shouldn’t be used for other purposes doesn’t mean that that won’t happen in the future.”

As for China, a report that was published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in mid-June claims that China is operating the “world’s largest police-run DNA database” as part of its powerful surveillance state. Chinese authorities have collected DNA samples from possibly as many as 70 million men since 2017, and the total database is believed to contain as many as 140 million profiles. The country hopes to collect DNA from all of its male citizens, as it argues men are most likely to commit crimes.

DNA is reportedly often collected during what are represented as free physicals, and it’s also being collected from children at schools. There are reports of Chinese citizens being threatened with punishment by government officials if they refuse to give a DNA sample. Much of the DNA that’s been collected has been from Uighur Muslims that have been oppressed by the Chinese government and infamously forced into concentration camps in the Xinjiang province.

“You have a country that has historically been known to persecute certain populations,” Malin says. “If you are not just going to persecute a population based on the extent to which they publicly say that they are a particular group, there is certainly a potential to subjugate them on a biological basis.”

James Leibold, a nonresident senior fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and one of the authors of the report on China’s DNA database, tells Spectrum that he is worried that China building up and utilizing this database could normalize this type of behavior.

“Global norms around genomic data are currently in a state of flux. China is the only country in the world conducting mass harvesting of DNA data outside a major criminal investigation,” Leibold says. “It’s the only forensic DNA database in the world to contain troves of samples from innocent civilians.”

Lebold says ethnic minorities like the Uighurs aren’t the only ones threatened by this mass DNA collection. He says the database could be used against dissidents and any other people who the government sees as a threat.

“With a full genomic map of its citizenry, Chinese authorities could track down those engaged in politically subversive acts (protestors, petitioners, etc.) or even those engaged in ‘abnormal’ or unacceptable behavior (religious groups, drug users, gamblers, prostitutes, etc.),” Leibold says. “We know the Chinese police have planted evidence in the past, and now it is conceivable that they could use planted DNA to convict ‘enemies of the state.’”

As Leibold points out, world powers like China and the U.S. have the ability to change norms in terms of what kind of behavior from a major government is considered acceptable. Thusly, there are many risks to allowing these countries to normalize massive DNA databases. As often happens, what at first seems like a simple law enforcement tool can quickly become a dangerous weapon against marginalized people.