The Margin of Error
A blog discussing computer science, disinformation, statistics, and world events
by Hans W. A. Hanley, CS Ph.D. Candidate @ Stanford University
On March 1, 2022, five days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Reddit quarantined its subreddit r/Russia due to a high degree of Russian propaganda and outright false information. The quarantine prevented r/Russia users from entering the subreddit unless they acknowledged the high degree of misinformation. In this blog post, I take a look at how r/Russia went from a community that talked about movies with Russian subtitles to a hotbed of Russian misinformation, forcing Reddit to implement a quarantine.
On February 24, 2022, President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In response to this "brutal assault”, the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Japan, and Taiwan all leveled a heavy set of economic sanctions against Russia. With war looming, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Germany all announced that they were preparing for an influx of refugees from Ukraine.
How did we get here? What are some of the key reasons and events that led to this disaster that promises to be one of the largest on the European continent since WWII? Here, I will list some of the most pivotal events that have happened between Ukraine, the West, and Russia in the lead-up to the Russo-Ukrainian War.
Pictured here are the connections amongst different news websites. Each node represents a different website while the directed edges represent whether each website links to another one. The more blue a website, the more liberal; the more red a website, the more conservative. As seen, blue websites are clumped and well connected on the left; while more conservative websites are grouped and clustered together on the right.
I have nearly always voraciously consumed the news; each day chowing down on newsletters and long-form articles and imbibing The Economist’s Daily Espresso briefing. However, recently, I have been considering what news I have been taking in, my news diet being somewhat one-note and seriously lacking in ideological diversity. (This self-reflection was actually prompted by a recent doctor’s visit, where the physician also recommended widening my food palette). I have, as a result, been trying to balance my media diet, reading everything from the Wall Street Journal and the Economist to the Washington Post and Foreign Affairs. However, as I sought out more nutritious and diverse news, I stopped and wondered why I had only been consuming a select number and ideologically narrow newspapers in the first place. I don’t regularly use social media, so it was not the curation algorithms of Facebook and Twitter. This made me wonder if the entire structure of online news media was primed to sequester people into silos, and if so what are some of the consequences. In this piece, I explore these questions.
Countries that were invited to the U.S. Summit for Democracy. Source: https://www.state.gov/participant-list-the-summit-for-democracy/
“In the race for the 21st century between democracies and autocracies, we need to prove that democracies can deliver." Since the announcement of President Joe Biden’s Summit of Democracy, the White House has continuously echoed this refrain. The Summit, taking place between December 9-10, 2021, and bringing together more than 100 countries, seeks to reaffirm the free world’s commitment to democracy, make the case for fighting corruption, and promote human rights. However, despite the laudable goals and the diversity among participant countries, the invitee list has managed to stir up quite a bit of controversy, with several notable snubs. Freer countries like Bolivia and Sierra Leone were not invited, while less free countries like Pakistan, Iraq, and Niger were. This begs the question of whether the Summit is actually a coalition of the democratic countries of the world united against the forces of autocracy or merely a hodgepodge of Washington’s allies and regionally important partners as critics claim.
Protesters line a Delaware roadway in a demonstration against COVID-19 vaccination requirements on August 7, 2021. (Source: USA Today via Reuters Connect)
The delta variant of the novel coronavirus, which was originally identified in December 2020, has ravaged much of the world over the summer of 2021. By the end of July, at least 80 percent of new US COVID-19 cases were reportedly the delta variant. As the variant causes new spikes in cases while vaccination rates plateau in many countries, millions of people remain vaccine hesitant. This hesitancy, however, has been magnified by a steady stream of new conspiracy theories appearing on social media, pro-Kremlin outlets and websites focused on propagating COVID-19 misinformation.
A protester holds a sign reading “No to health pass” during a demonstration called by the “yellow vest” (gilets jaunes) movement against France’s restrictions, including a compulsory health pass, to fight the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Paris, France, July 31, 2021. (Source: REUTERS/Sarah Meyssonnier)
After French President Emmanuel Macron announced the implementation of “health passes” to encourage COVID vaccination and help curb the spread of the delta variant, far-right and Eurosceptic parties took advantage of fears surrounding the vaccines to spread COVID misinformation, to promote antivax messages and protests, and to elevate their political positions. As associated protests raged across France and COVID cases spiked, several inauthentic accounts further amplified these antivax messages, illustrating the malign effects of the combination of fear and misinformation.
As Alex Jones’ InfoWars and other fringe sites spread conspiracy theories about a military accident that occurred in 1967, a prominent network of Iranian Twitter accounts exploited these same conspiracies to promote antisemitic and anti-Israel sentiment in the United States.
As Canada undergoes a national reckoning surrounding the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at schools that were used to forcefully assimilate indigenous children, the discoveries have been weaponized by Chinese state media and officials. They have seized upon the opportunity to pillory Canadian society and the West in attempts to shift focus from the ongoing repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang, which the Canadian and United States governments have officially recognized as genocide.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the origin of the coronavirus has remained unclear. Many scientists have asserted that the most probable source was an animal from a food market in Wuhan, China. In March 2020, though, Chinese state officials pushed back with the claim that the virus was brought to Wuhan by U.S. Army servicemen participating in the World Military Games — an accusation the DFRLab investigated as part of its February 2021 report, “Weaponized: How rumors about COVID-19’s origins led to a narrative arms race.” With renewed interest in the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, though, several pro-Kremlin media outlets are echoing talking points from the Chinese government alleging that the “lab leak” theory — the notion that COVID-19 accidentally leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China — is a U.S.-backed stunt to blame China for the pandemic.
A Palestinian stands on a house that was destroyed in an Israeli air strike during the fighting between Israel and Hamas in May 2021, in the northern Gaza Strip on June 29, 2021. (Source: REUTERS/Mohammed Salem)
In April 2020, a set of Iranian accounts began promoting the anti-Israel hashtag #COVID1948. #COVID1948 connects the founding of the state of Israel to the novel coronavirus, implying that Israel has been far worse for the world than the current COVID-19 pandemic. As initially reported by the Stanford Internet Observatory, after attaining a peak in May 2020, the hashtag largely fell into disuse. However, in the wake of the 11-day 2021 Israel-Hamas war, #COVID1948 was promoted vigorously by a group of Iranian accounts, gained renewed popularity, and trended throughout the world, including the United States.
After the Nigerian federal government issued an order effectively blocking access — which the government referred to as a “suspension of services” — to Twitter on June 4, 2021, industrious users have turned to virtual private networks (VPNs) to circumvent the suspension. As a result, Nigerian hashtags trended in regions popular as exit nodes for VPN providers, including Turkey, the Netherlands, and Canada.
© FT montage; Getty Images | A man wearing a QAnon t-shirt at a Trump rally.
QAnon seemingly has been kicked off of every platform imaginable. Google, Triller, YouTube, Etsy, Pinterest, Twitch, Discord, Spotify, Vimeo, Patreon, and even the fitness company Peloton have taken steps to eliminate the movement from their platforms. So how is the QAnon movement continuing to thrive? Who exactly is hosting their website's materials? In this post, we take a look at who is hosting different QAnon websites and what websites are contributing to the spread of the conspiracy.
If you're curious, QAnon followers sell coffee. They run their own QAnon blogs; they have their own QAnon social media sites; they have their own QAnon books. Since 2017, QAnon has exploded with sites targeting audiences in Germany, France, Sweden, the UK, the Netherlands, Australia, and even Japan. In this blog post, I talk about the litany of different QAnon sites and how popular they have been over the last 3 years.
Welcome to The Margin of Error! On this blog, I discuss my computer science security and privacy research, computational perspectives of social, political, and economic phenomena, and a litany of different interesting topics!