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Marianna Spring tries to understand American politics by creating fake Americans

Larry, a 71-year-old retired insurance broker from Alabama and a fan of Donald Trump, is unlikely to run into liberal Emma, ​​a 25-year-old graphic designer from New York City, on social media. Both were authentic.

Each one is a figment of BBC reporter Marianna Spring’s imagination. She created five fake Americans of hers and opened social media accounts for them. This is how disinformation spreads on sites like Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok, despite efforts to stop it, and what effect it has on American politics. It’s part of an attempt to explain what you’re giving.

Spring and the BBC are therefore left open to accusations that they are ethically suspect that the project has used false information to reveal false information.

“We do it with very good intentions because it’s important to understand what’s going on,” Spring said. is,” she said.

Spring’s report appears on the BBC newscasts and website, and on the weekly podcast Americast (The British take on US news). She started the project in August with her midterm campaign in mind, but she hopes it will continue through 2024.

Spring worked with the Pew Research Center in the US to set up five archetypes. Along with the very conservative Larry and the very liberal Emma, ​​there’s Britney, a populist conservative from Texas. Gabriella, independent of Miami, largely apolitical. Michael, a black teacher and moderate Democrat from Milwaukee.

Using computer-generated photos, she set up accounts on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and TikTok. Accounts are passive. That is, her “people” have no friends or public comments on her.

With five different phones, each with a name, Spring tends to fill their accounts with “personality.” For example, Emma is a lesbian who follows her LGBTQ groups, is an atheist, is actively concerned with women’s issues and abortion rights, supports marijuana legalization, and publishes The New York Times and her NPR. I follow you.

These “characteristics” are essentially bait to see how the social media company’s algorithms work and what material is sent.

This image released by the BBC shows London-based reporter Marianna Spring. Marianna Spring explains how disinformation spreads on sites like Facebook, Twitter and TikTok and how it affects American politics despite efforts to stop it.
The BBC’s Marianna Spring explains how disinformation spreads on social media and how it affects American politics despite efforts to stop it.
Robert Timothy/BBC via AP

Through what she follows and likes, it became clear that Britney was anti-vaccine and critical of big business, so she was sent down several rabbit holes, says Spring. This account received material containing violent rhetoric from a group that falsely claimed that Donald Trump won the 2020 election. She also joins those who claim the Mar-a-Lago raid was “evidence” that Trump won and the state is trying to catch him, as well as groups that support conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. You are invited to

Despite efforts by social media companies to combat disinformation, Spring said there is still a fair amount of information flowing, mostly from far-right perspectives.

Gabriella, a non-aligned Latina mother who is primarily concerned with music, fashion and ways to save money while shopping, does not follow political parties. However, Republican-leaning material is much more likely to appear in her feed.

“The best thing you can do is understand how this works,” Spring said. Become.”

Most major social media companies prohibit impersonating accounts. Many offenders circumvent the rules, but offenders can be kicked off for creating them.

Journalists have used several approaches to investigate how the tech giant operates. In an article last year, the Wall Street Journal created over 100 automated accounts of his and confirmed that TikTok drove users in different directions. Markup, a non-profit newsroom, set up a panel of 1,200 people who agreed to study web browsers on how Facebook and YouTube operate.

“My job is to investigate misinformation and set up fake accounts,” Spring said. “The sarcasm is not lost on me.”

She’s clearly creative, said Ally Colon, a professor of journalism ethics at the University of Washington and Lee. But what Spring called sarcasm bothers him and other experts who believe there are unintended ways to report on the issue.

Bob Steele, a former ethics expert at the Poynter Institute, said, “By creating these false identities, she violates what I believe to be fairly clear ethical standards in journalism. “With very few exceptions, we should not pretend to be anyone we are not.”

Spring believes the level of public interest in how these social media companies operate outweighs the deception involved.

The BBC said the survey was produced following strict editorial guidelines.

“We take ethics very seriously and have many processes in place to ensure that our actions do not affect anyone else,” the network said. “Our reporting is transparent, and this survey does not provide exhaustive insight into what every U.S. It clearly states that it provides a snapshot of relevant and important issues.”

The BBC experiment may be worthwhile, but it only shows part of how algorithms work and is a mystery that people outside of tech companies largely avoid, says the University of Texas. Samuel Woolley, director of the Center for Media Engagement’s Propaganda Research Lab, said.

Algorithms also take cues from the comments people make on social media and in interactions with friends. The BBC’s Fake Americans do neither, he said.

“It’s kind of like the journalist’s version of a field experiment,” says Woolley. “We’re doing experiments on the system, but the rigor is pretty limited.”

From Spring’s perspective, if you want to see how influence operations work, you “must be at the forefront”.

Since launching five accounts, Spring logs on every few days to update each account and see what’s feeding.

“I try to be as realistic as possible,” she said. “I have these five personalities that I must live with all the time.”

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