group 2.3

Fake News & False Flags – A Statistical Study

In the Article ‘Fake News & False Flags’, journalists Abigail Fielding-Smith & Crofton Black used a number of sources and statistics to firstly explore and finally reveal the role of the Pentagon and the American government in the propagation of misleading Iraq propaganda. Statistics are firstly mentioned in the sub-heading of the article: “How the Pentagon paid a British PR firm $500 million for top secret Iraq propaganda”. Most of the statistics in the article are money figures, like media operations costing over  “one hundred million dollars a year on average”, and the Bureau’s discovery of transactions worth “$540 million between the Pentagon and Bell Pottinger”. Since the reliability of these statistics play a considerable role in the article and the Bureau’s reliability, we looked into how the Bureau conducted their research and how they’ve obtained their statistics regarding Bell Pottinger, the PR firm involved in information operations and US content creation during the Iraq invasion.

The investigation ‘Fake News & False Flags’ was published by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism in collaboration with the Sunday Times. The Bureau, a non-profit news organisation researched these statistics themselves. The data however was created by the Pentagon, the US army and the Department of Defense. The Bureau “traced the firm’s Iraq work through US army contracting censuses, federal procurement transaction records and reports by the Department of Defense Inspector General. They also used Bell Pottinger’s corporate filings and specialist publications on military as a source.” So the Bureau may have found and shared the statistics, but they did not create them. They simply used US contracts and written records to find their figures.

The data shows mostly the process of a government paying an immense amount of money to make profit from a war created by false intentions and top-secret propaganda work. This data, mostly made up of dollar figures, tells the extensive story of the dollar’s consistent journey starting from the pockets of the US Department of Defence and landing into those of Bell Pottinger. During the Iraq invasion, the data clearly shows that a military intervention may have been on the media forefront, but in the background an even bigger media propaganda intervention was taking place.

More than just telling us, this data shows us that during the US invasion in Iraq, the US government was running an immense news campaign in the country they were invading. The purpose of the campaign was to advertise democracy and spread a false sense of American ‘aid’ in the American-created war-torn country. The campaign was for a huge part outsourced to professional advertising and media companies; content which the employees didn’t even know they were going to create until they got to Iraq, and unaware of the impact their work would have on Iraqi civilians’ lives and on US citizens’ false perception of the war.

Mostly involved in the promotion of these figures is the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. The statements that Lord Bell – co-founder of Bell Pottinger – gave to the Pentagon, the CIA, the National Security Council and the documents discovered by the Bureau are the main sources of the the data outlined in this investigation. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism made discoveries such as Pottinger being the source of employment for over “three hundred British and Iraqi people” and the identification of transactions worth $540 million. Overall, the Bureau provided most of the information included. Additionally, Crofton Black and Abigail Fielding-Smith, the two authors of the article contributed to the promotion of the figures by including them in their article.

In our opinion, there is no other potential interpretation of the data found in the article and the message it expresses. The Bureau’s sole purpose was to expose Bell Pottinger’s and the Pentagon’s involvement in the War. They may have hoped but not aimed for another outcome, however following this investigation, Bell Pottinger filed for bankruptcy due to their direct involvement in conflicts overseas made public.

Looking at the bold claims presented, we can see that it is supported with reliable data and trustworthy sources. The research relies on the data to conclude that yes, a substantial sum of money was indeed exchanged between the Pentagon and Bell Pottinger. The data unveils many contracts between Bell Pottinger and Us contracting censuses and transaction records. The reliability of this data and the bold titled heading is the reason this investigation and article has found so much ground. Due to the fact that the journalists used this data to make claims and built a solid foundation for source discovery, the conclusions of this article are indeed aligned with the data.

Authors: Malik Zarth, Natalia Dercz, Lorenzo Canci, Lana Al Zouheiri, Thomas De Boer and Marijn Snijders

    Facebook, an algorithm case study

Problematization

The reason for creating a fake persona for investigating Facebook’s algorithm is to gain more knowledge on how Facebook targets people and how your personal choices affect the filter bubble in which users end up.

By creating a fake persona it is possible to experiment with a different filter bubble than those in our personal facebooks, and by collecting and comparing that with the data of your own profile, gives you the possibility to investigate and analyse those differences.

Another possible research method is comparing two Facebook profiles which are hugely different. This method can be successful but the profiles aren’t customizable. By creating a fake persona it is possible to investigate one particular filter bubble.

The research we’re conducting right now is ethically questionable because although we are trying to veer away from stereotypes, the persona we are creating still lives up to certain stereotypes about race and religion. Another reason why this research is ethically questionable is the project itself. Creating a fake persona to fool other users and fool Facebook’s algorithms into giving us bias, and preconceived notions of who a person should be according to their Facebook likes and shares, is a research with both great benefits and controversial ethics. This can be also problematic when Facebook users think that our fake persona is a real user. More so when our fake persona, Mohammed, has religious & political interests that some people may disagree with, and use these as a way to judge him. Lastly, there is always a possibility that real users will emotionally connect to the fake persona, which is another unethical outcome.

Fbtrex

Fbtrex is project managed as a GPL free software community and it is part of a larger project: facebook tracking.exposed. The project works as an extension of Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox and gives the ability to track Facebook’s tracking and filtering systems. The main goal of this project is to create a fairer online space for both users and developers. Inspired by the peer to peer free internet of the past, tracking.exposed have created their own manifesto in which they describe their main goals and ethics.

In particular, ‘fbtrex’ is a tool aimed to expose facebook bias and unfair algorithm systems that limit the information that a user is exposed to on a daily basis. Among media students like us,  this knowledge about Facebook’s recommendation helps us to understand that this project aims to spread more awareness and eventually to better these algorithms and filtering systems in order to create a fairer and more open online world.

We used this tool to gather and harvest data from our own personal Facebook pages and then created a fake profile page in order to highlight how different and personalised Facebook feeds become.

Fake persona

The persona we have created is Mohammed Abadi, a 25 years old Iranian Muslim man, currently living in the German capital; Berlin. Mohammed was born and raised in Baghdad in a Muslim family, where he also obtained a bachelor degree in the Arts before moving to Berlin in 2015. There, he worked on his master’s thesis in ecological design and after obtaining his degree he began to look for a suitable job in the design market.

Mohammed is an aspiring tattoo artist. Fascinated with his religion and arabic calligraphy, he aims to take away the sometimes over provocative and vulgar designs of some tattoo artists. He has also developed an interest in cars and how they have been changing over the years. Mohammed is a proponent of heteronormativity and does not agree with the LGBT beliefs.

    Furthermore, Mohammed has a passion for 19th century Russian literature and new school music, with particular interest in artists such as Migos.

Mohammed is highly passionate about his roots. He has faith and is proud to be a muslim. He is not radical, and is highly pessimistic about global news coverage on Islam, finding it biased and unfair.  Even though he has been living in Germany for a few years already, he still feels a very strong connection to the Middle East and Iraqi culture such as with his food and history. Because of this strong connection to Iraq, Mohammed finds it hard to find his place in German society and feel included.

The main goal of creating Mohammed was to find out how a Middle Eastern immigrant in his twenties would be treated within Berlin’s mainstream society. We wanted to see if his faith and ethnicity would make him feel excluded and how it might have affected his Facebook timeline, and more importantly, his Facebook recommendations.

Authors: Malik Zarth, Natalia Dercz, Lorenzo Canci, Lana Al Zouheiri, Thomas De Boer and Marijn Snijders

Facebook Algorithm Exposed

 

Our Facebook profile is Mohammed Abadi, a twenty-five year old aspiring tattoo artist. Mohammed has been born and raised in Iraq. He obtained an Arts degree at the College of Fine Arts in Baghdad. After finishing his bachelor studies, Mohammed moved to Berlin where he attended the Bard College in order to write his master’s thesis. Currently he is trying to find a suitable job, while pursuing his dreams in becoming a professional tattoo artist. Mohammed is very close to his family and highly passionate about his roots. With his passion towards religion and arabic calligraphy, he aims to take away the sometimes over provocative and vulgar designs of some tattoo artists.  He has also become very interested in cars and how they have been evolving with developing technology over the years. Mohammed is a proponent of heteronormativity and does not agree with the LGBT movement and the beliefs they share.

Process

We created the persona and fed it horizontally, which means that we did not favor one any subject more than another. We kept feeding the profile for a week and wrote down daily entries in a diary to keep track of what was liked and shared by the profile we created.

Most of the liked and shared content was news posts from both Western and Middle Eastern media channels. Another category we focused on, were pages concerning the events and information about Berlin. We also fed the profile with posts about Iraqi culture, such as history or food. Due to our fake persona being religious, “he” paid a great deal of attention to posts about Islam and Muslim communities. Mohamed aspires to be a tattoo artist, therefore we also liked posts about tattoo art. Moreover, he is a fan of the Porsche brand and cars, so we added him to numerous Porsche lovers groups.

During the week of feeding our fake persona, we installed a data collecting tool called fbtrex. The mechanism scraped all the public posts on the timeline of Mohammed’s profile and made it extractable.

After a few days of feeding and nourishing our fake profile we collected the data of the public posts, downloaded it and inserted into an Excel sheet. Afterwards, we organised the data and filtered the important information from the data out of the irrelevant pieces that were included. Finally,  we visualised the found data by creating graphs in Rawgraphs.io.

Findings

Analysing the raw data obtained by harvesting our persona facebook feed provided results that revealed suspected profiling, selection and consequent isolation of certain characteristics and attributes of our fake persona.

-News                     201 41,1 %

-Infotainment          11 2,2 %

-Culture                  50 10,2 %

-Religion                 37 7,5 %

-Food                      1 0,2 %

-Cars                      27 5,5 %

-Tattoo                    30 6,1 %

-School                   2 0,4 %

-Government          4 0,8 %

-Brand                    8 1,6 %

-Personal               120 24,4 %

Total                       491 100 %

The extracted data revealed that the Facebook algorithm specifically focused on certain attributes we implemented in the profile. Our fake persona liked and shared posts from various Facebook sites, such as The Guardian and personal pages of Berlin tattoo shops. Facebook registered this behavior through their algorithm and ‘fed’ back content that was clearly targeted according to facebook’s profiling of our fake persona. Findings show that even though the created persona lives had lived studied and worked in a major european capital said persona’s facebook feed is extremely targeted and filtered based on the middle eastern heritage and cultural connection of our fake persona. This is furthermore reflected in the extracted data of news pages that the facebook algorithm provided to our fake persona. While our persona liked both middle eastern and western news the data revealed that most content presented was from middle eastern news sources. Moreover, posts related to religion and culture were clearly focusing around the middle east and were presented more often than pages related to western culture like cars and tattoos.

Conclusion

By doing this project, we realized that with personalization algorithms Facebook users indeed do not have much control on what is presented on their feed. The pages we like, content we share is chosen by us, therefore what we see on our starting pages depends on what we engaged with, however we cannot regulate what exactly we see. Surely, there was not enough time for us to see the real filter bubble and how it influences the content we are being exposed to. On our profile, news and Middle Eastern posts were the most popular on the feed, however we mostly liked content related to these subject matters, hence it was impossible for Facebook algorithm to show us anything else.

Authors: Malik Zarth, Natalia Dercz, Lorenzo Canci, Lana Al Zouheiri, Thomas De Boer and Marijn Snijders

 

Facebook Algorithm exposed: The story of

Mohammed b Abadi

We performed a research on Facebook’s algorithm systems in relation to filter bubbles. The reason behind conducting such an investigation is that most of us are already aware of the existence of filter bubbles but do not know the way they truly work. Most importantly however, we are oblivious to its impact on our daily thoughts and actions. We therefore chose to use data journalism techniques to get a sense of how Facebook algorithms work. Our method was to create a fake profile, feeding it scripted information and collecting the data through the harvesting tool, Fbtrex.

Facebook Algorithm exposed: the story of Mohammed Abadi 

The Profile

We created Mohammed Abadi, a twenty-five-year-old aspiring tattoo artist who was born and raised in Baghdad, Iraq. Mohammed obtained an Arts degree at the College of Fine Arts in Baghdad, and afterwards moved to Berlin where he attended the Bard College in order to write his master’s thesis. Currently, he is trying to find a suitable job in Berlin but Mohammed’s main goal is to pursue his dream to become a professional tattoo artist. He is also very close to his family and his culture, interested and involved in Arabic cuisine. He is a practicing Muslim and has a passion for Arabic calligraphy; he therefore aims to take attention away from the sometimes over-provocative and vulgar styles of some tattoo artists. Mohammed is also very interested in cars and their evolvement alongside developing technology, with a special interest in Porsche. Mohammed is a proponent of heteronormativity and does not agree with the LGBT movement and the beliefs they share.

In order to create a realistic persona, we researched places from his childhood city, Baghdad. We liked the Facebook pages of popular cafes, museums and popular news networks related to Iraq. Moreover, in terms of his political and religious interests, we liked and shared posts created by ‘Al Jazeera’, ‘Iraqi News’, ‘Iraq Solidarity News’ and Koranic pages such as Koran al Karim’ which shares daily Quran surahs. Our persona was meant to be a modern, young, artistic man who practices his religion faithfully and who is very politically aware and involved, especially when the subject revolves around Islamophobia and people’s misperception of the Muslim religion. However, we still tried to maintain a more accepted modernity of Mohammed by sharing posts on his creative passions such as beautiful calligraphy and music as we did not want his page to be purely political and religious.

Creating a fake persona on Facebook is ethically questionable, because although we are trying to veer away from stereotypes, the persona we are creating still lives up to a large degree to these stereotypes surrounding race and religion. Another reason why this research is ethically questionable is the project itself. Creating a fake persona is not only misleading for Facebook algorithm systems but for other users as well. The result is a biased feed along with preconceived notions of who a person should be according to their Facebook likes and shares. This can also be problematic when Facebook users believe in the existence of our persona. Lastly, there is always a possibility that real users will emotionally connect to the fake persona, which is another unethical outcome. However, we find that it is for the greater good that Facebook’s filter bubble is being exposed.

 

Extracting the Data


For the extraction of the data we used a tool called Fbtrex, which is a project managed as a GPL free software community and is part of another project: Facebook tracking.exposed. The latter functions as an extension of Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox. Its aim is to help users track and filter Facebook’s algorithm system. The main goal of this project is to create a fairer online space for both users and developers. Inspired by the peer to peer free internet of the past, tracking.exposed has created its own manifesto in which it describes its main goals and addresses ethical questions relating to the project.

In particular, Fbtrex is a tool aimed to expose Facebook’s potential bias and unfair algorithm systems that limit the information to which users are being exposed on a daily basis, namely, filter bubbles. Among media students like us, this knowledge about Facebook’s recommendation system helps us understand the importance in using such tools to spread awareness and eventually improve these algorithms. Hopefully in the future, this might result in fairer filtering systems and a less secretive online world. As social media users, we are being exposed to only a fraction of what we would see on our feeds if it weren’t for the selection led by these algorithms and filter bubbles. We used Fbtrex to gather and harvest data from our own personal Facebook profiles, then created a fake profile page in order to highlight how different and personalised Facebook feeds become. One of the downsides of Fbtrex is that the tool doesn’t collect all data. The tool exclusively collects timeline posts that are public, cutting out a large chunk of uncollected yet vital data; for example, friend requests. This is unfortunate because friend requests can be very important in the process of getting deeper into a filter bubble.

We inserted the harvested data into an excel worksheet for further analysis. We categorised it and arranged it transparently and easily as possible. When the data was processed, we uploaded it into rawgraphs.io to make this abundance of information more understandable.

Findings

As weeks went by, we saw interesting things happening on Mohammed’s profile. Below we present the findings in numbers:

 

media bubble chart

-News                     201          41,1 %

-Entertainment          11           2,2 %

-Culture                  50           10,2 %

-Religion                 37           7,5 %

-Food                      1              0,2 %

-Cars                      27             5,5%

-Tattoo                    30            6,1 %

-School                   2               0,4 %

-Government          4               0,8 %

-Brand                    8               1,6 %

-Personal               120            24,4 %

Total                      491          100 %

Figure 2: Posts categorised by type of post and who posted it

The main finding was the uncountable amounts of friend requests he received from Muslim men around the world, especially from Bangladesh and Iraq. Their profiles indicated a rather radical approach to their culture. This showed a bias in Facebook’s recommendation systems, which was something that we wanted to see in our results.

Mohammed never liked radical pages or videos, nor did he watch any radical content but was simply sharing news about the mistreat of Muslims around the world. Facebook however, only recommended him Islamic content and people who they thought he could potentially know because of their shared faith. This data definitely followed the narrative we thought this project would follow once choosing a persona like Mohammed: Facebook’s algorithm tends to put people in the same social circle, group them together depending on their ethnicity or religion, and perhaps a bias towards the Muslim faith. Although Mohammed was not radical, he was suggested to make significantly more radical Facebook friends.

Facebook showed Mohammed a fair amount of posts from Middle Eastern news media channels, comparing to news posts of Western media. This is particularly interesting because we fed the profile equally with Western and Middle Eastern media and still there was significantly a more Middle Eastern news in our feed.

This became more intriguing when we looked into more detail at how we fed the profile with cultural posts. We spent a considerate amount of time liking cultural posts, along with content about cars and tattoo posts. Despite the effort, we did this type of content returning on our timeline or data.

Overall, Facebook draws people deeper and deeper in the bubble and focuses on a few factors instead of all the things a profile is interested in. This can be related to the fact that the algorithm is looking for posts which have a lot of traffic, those posts are more probable to be controversial, so the algorithm tries to show as much disputable posts as possible.

What we see in the graphs is that the timeline of Mohammed mostly consisted of single posts. The number of pictures and group posts came on a solid second place.

 

Data Journalism Reflection

In the times of ongoing digital developments, rapidly increasing production of data and fake news, it is crucial to be able to support journalistic stories with data, numbers and statistics. Data journalism is a subfield of traditional journalism, with a main method of working with data sets and information in order to derive stories. It serves to make citizens more aware and involved with the social matters, while using open source data to help make stories more reliable.

Our research fits in the field of data journalism because we tried to make a story out of a collection of raw data in order to expose a problem which would otherwise be kept secret. Additionally, this is a good example of investigating from a user perspective; there was no algorithm study into Facebook; a black, closed box in essence. This research can be conducted by anyone with even basic computer knowledge and an ability to use Excel and visualization tools in order to represent the data. The assignment would fall under the field of data journalism only if it would have been done on a bigger scale and if it would try to expose online patterns or stories unknown to the general public.

From the beginning, this course seemed exciting and interesting. A new way to look at articles, online content and news networks, we acquired a more critical angle towards the way things are written and especially the way data is used to backup information or attract readers. Whilst learning about several different ways of conducting data journalism and constructing our own fake profile, we certainly became more aware of how the world of data journalism works and the importance it carries.
Throughout the classes we obtained several skills that were helpful in conducting our own research. For example, the visualisation and explanation of data through graphs gave us a solid idea of what we wanted to do in our assignment. Moreover, none of us had a clear vision of what data journalism was in the first place, hence learning about these skills and hearing from professionals turned out to be very interesting.
In practice, this helped us in doing our assignment with more ease. At first, we were not completely on the same page as to how we should start our project, disagreeing entirely on who our persona should be. In the end however, everyone focused on achieving the same goal.

Although we commenced this project with the hopes of finding interesting results that would expose Facebook’s bias, we are still satisfied with these findings; the friend requests from somewhat radical men proving our initial point.
Overall, the project and the course itself gave us a new perspective on journalism and data. Most importantly, it gave us new ways of approaching the data that’s available to us and use that to hone our academic skills.

 

Group Reflection 

At the beginning of the course, we divided the tasks in our group according to each team member’s individual skills. We constantly tried to work accordingly to our functions, enabling every group member to efficiently contribute to the project.  Most of the content was created and edited by Lana, the storyteller. Furthermore, her passion for writing and telling stories was reflected in each blogposts. Malik, our finder, was mostly involved with searching for sources concerning the information we were including in our project. Moreover, he was constantly looking for evidence in the form of data, collecting information with Fbtrex and critically examining this data.  The shapers of our group, Marijn and Thomas had an important role within our project, shaping the team work. They focused on the division of tasks and the quality of our work. Visualizer of the group, Lorenzo was focused on visualizing our project and presenting the data in aesthetic, informative and accurate images. He was mostly concerned with the visual and aesthetic aspects of our presentation and blog posts and was responsible for creating the graphs that present our findings. Natalia, who was the team-worker of our group contributed to all functions, while making sure we make the deadlines and upload the assignments in the right place. She played an important role in managing the group, dividing task and creating a good atmosphere within the group. Moreover, she coordinated the schedule of our project and was the person of contact if there were any issues within the project.

Overall, we tried to stick to our roles, so each team member could unfold their individual strengths and skills and feel comfortable with their tasks. Nevertheless, we tried to escape this comfort zone at times involving each member of the group in all aspects of the project. As we were working together to make our Facebook profile interesting and to find out more about Facebook’s filter bubbles, it was essential to function as a group critically collecting, examining and evaluating the data we gathered.

In conclusion we learned a fair amount about data journalism and how one can with little research materials conduct quite a good research just through the analysis of data.