Disinformation Rising on Social Platforms as Policing Wanes

Social media companies appear to be reducing efforts to combat misinformation at a time when the capabilities to foist false narratives is reaching new levels of sophistication. As a result of staff cuts at Alphabet, Google’s YouTube subsidiary is reportedly left with one person overseeing worldwide misinformation policy. Twitter eliminated its safety and trust division, while Meta also made changes to its disinformation filtering. Meanwhile, The Guardian has unearthed Israeli misinformation contractors operating under the name “Team Jorge” that says it manipulated more than 30 presidential elections worldwide.

Operating for the past two decades under mastermind Tal Hanan, who works under the pseudonym “Jorge,” the group has used hacking, sabotage and automated disinformation to manipulate public sentiment on social media “to covertly meddle in elections without a trace,” according to The Guardian.

A key service is a software package called Advanced Impact Media Solutions, or Aims, that “controls a vast army of thousands of fake social media profiles on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Telegram, Gmail, Instagram and YouTube.” Some of these fictive avatars are even said to have accounts with credit card companies and Amazon, as well as Bitcoin wallets and Airbnb accounts.

Operating as a private company, Team Jorge has provided services in countries including the U.S., Europe, Africa, South and Central America, where it offers “to covertly meddle in elections” and “also works for corporate clients,” The Guardian reports.

The group was exposed by activist journalists who acquired undercover footage and provided material to The Guardian. When contacted, Hanan refused to answer The Guardian’s questions, but denied wrongdoing. The investigation “reveals extraordinary details about how disinformation is being weaponized,” the news outlet writes.

The Guardian exposé was published Tuesday, the same day The New York Times reported that “faced with economic headwinds and political and legal pressure, the social media giants have shown signs that fighting false information online is no longer as high a priority” as it was during the height of COVID-19 and the 2020 elections.

“I wouldn’t say the war is over, but I think we’ve lost key battles,” Media Matters for America president Angelo Carusone told NYT.

Last summer, advocacy groups such as MMA were concerned when Meta said it was scrapping CrowdTangle, a filter watchdogs described as “indispensable” to finding false information online. Meta hinted it was developing something better, and one month later introduced Sphere, an AI-powered content verification app.

And YouTube tells NYT “it had a dedicated team working on the midterms and removed more than 10,000 videos about the elections.” None of the companies contacted by NYT  — including Google, Twitter and Meta — said they would cease battling against misinformation.

A 2023 USC-led study involving more than 2,400 Facebook users found that “platforms — more than individual users — have a larger role to play in stopping the spread of misinformation online.”

House Panel Issues Subpoenas to Tech CEOs for Information on Content Moderation, The Wall Street Journal, 2/15/23

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