Do you know who your (social media) friends are?
My aunt called me last week needing help with her Facebook account. She was irritated by the “People You May Know” window, saying, “I don’t know these people.” I looked at the people she might know, and many of them are my friends. I did notice that she had somehow become friends with some of my friends that I knew she had never met. These friends, though, are very kind and post very nice pictures from their travels.
However, I noticed that there were people on her friends’ list that she didn’t know — and neither did I. They had some mutual friends in common, but she didn’t know them personally. I deleted them for her. After all, my aunt doesn’t run a business through her Facebook account, so she doesn’t want to have “friends” that she had never met. I gave her this bit of advice — don’t accept a friend request from someone you’ve never met, even if it’s a friend of a friend. You never know if your friend is as discerning with friend requests.
As I read through the Mueller Report (yes, I’m one of those), I’m fascinated by how the Russian Internet Research Agency “instructed its employees to target U.S. persons who could be used to advance its operational goals. Initially, recruitment focused on U.S. persons who would amplify the content posted by the IRA.” In fact, the investigation found that the IRA employees posted as U.S. citizens, contacting people in the U.S. to organize rallies.
Imagine that — someone you don’t know asking you to do something. It sounds crazy, yet this is just one of the tactics of the Russian influence. How can we be a little more discerning in who we trust as “friends?” Here are a few tricks I teach my students:
1. Google Reverse Image search. Several months ago, I got a friend request from a rather attractive man. We had no mutual friends, but his picture looked too perfect. The misspelled words on his profile should have clued me in — he said he was “self-employed at Manger Square Hotel.” So I did a reverse image search on Google and found his picture on several Adobe Photoshop tutorials. He’s a model! I also found his image on a website saying he’s a designer in Bangalore. So I learned two things: his profile was fake, and this clothing designer in Bangalore might not be what it purports to be. This is how journalists uncovered Surefire Intelligence, finding its “employees” to be models from around the web. I asked my students to do a reverse image search on the pictures from the website, and they found them on tourism websites. You can also use TinEye to find pictures that exist elsewhere on the web.
2. Check for bots. If someone follows you on Twitter, check the handle to see if it’s a bot. Here are two sites to use: Botometer and Botcheck. I encourage you to use both because they employ different algorithms. I would also check out how many bots you have on your account by going to Twitter Audit. Out of Donald J. Trump’s 63 million followers on Twitter, 7.5 million of them are fake accounts. You can also check out the Hamilton 68 2.0 dashboard. It tracks the activity of Russian-linked Twitter accounts and the narratives they propagate.
3. What websites are they sharing? It’s very easy to create your own website these days, even for free. Reputable websites will be transparent about their expertise and mission, so check their About Us section. If the writers’ pictures are used, do a reverse image search or look them up on LinkedIn. Of course, many conspiracy websites will have a very professional appearance these days, so it’s important to see who writers use as sources. Some of the sources might be controversial as well. You can see who owns the website at Icann Whois. I remember reporters calling a phone number of a certain domain’s owner and found out it was the owner’s mother. Anytime you see a fact, particularly a statistic, be sure there is a link to where that evidence can be found. Also check dates of a story. If the website isn’t updated frequently, it’s probably not reliable.
4. Do you WANT to believe them? You might be enticed to share a story that you want to believe is true. Therefore, check your own biases. There are a few fact-checking websites to see if what you (or your friends) are sharing is true or false: FactCheck.org, Politifact, and Snopes. You might want to check out Red Feed, Blue Feed to see how different issues are covered. AllSides is another source to check bias in news.
To close, I would also ask yourself about what memes you share. Some memes inspire, but others amplify division. Do you really want to participate in Russia’s plan to “provoke and amplify political and social discord in the United States”?