Oct 17, 2019

Axios Login

By Ina Fried
Ina Fried

Happy Spreadsheet Day. It's the 40th anniversary of VisiCalc, or so this Excel chart tells me. (Sorry, Mitch, couldn't resist.)

Today's Login is 1,471 words, by the way, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: The changing face of disinformation

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Disinformation campaigns used to consist of trolls and bots orchestrated and manipulated to produce a desired result. Increasingly, though, these campaigns are able to find willing human participants to amplify their messages and even generate new ones on their own.

It's as if they're switching from employees to volunteers — and from participants who are in on the game to those who actually believe the disinformational payload they're delivering.

Why it matters: Understanding this changing nature is critical to preparing for the next generation of information threats, including those facing the 2020 presidential campaign.

Speaking at Stanford University Tuesday, researcher Kate Starbird — a University of Washington professor who runs a lab that studies mass participation — traced the change across the stories of three different campaigns.

1. Russian interference in the 2016 election: Starbird's work started not with studying disinformation, but with an analysis of the debate that raged on Twitter over the Black Lives Matters movement.

  • It was only after Twitter released data on Russian propagandists in November 2017 that her team realized that some of the most prolific posters — on both sides of the debate — were fictional personas created by the Russians.
  • "In a few cases, we can see them arguing with themselves," said Starbird.

2. Syria's "White Helmets": In this case, an aid group known as the White Helmets working in Syria was attacked by online critics for a host of alleged of atrocities.

  • Here Russia was actively involved in stirring the pot, but the posters themselves were neither bots nor trolls, but activists who adopted the issue as their own.
  • "These are real people who are sincere believers of the content they are sharing," Starbird said.
  • Russian media, including Sputnik and RT, made the movement appear significantly larger, though, by interviewing activists and giving them both a platform and a veneer of legitimacy.

3. Conspiracy theories tied to mass casualty events: People are predisposed to find conspiracies in every tragedy, and conspiracy theories have accompanied all manner of mass-casualty events such as the Boston Marathon bombing and Sandy Hook shooting.

  • The theories crop up organically, though Russian or other disinformation promoters can and do help amplify the messages.
  • Terms like "false flag" and "crisis actors" are applied to the victims, flipping the script of whatever has transpired.
  • "It's almost like a self-sustaining community, but you can see it's been shaped by disinformation campaigns of the past," Starbird said.
  • All these factors, she said, makes these cases the "most frightening" she's studied.

Between the lines: Not all the disinformation has come from Russia, Starbird said, but added: "They have been innovators in this space."

What's next: Starbird recommended a couple of actions for the tech companies.

  • First, she urged them to look at entire campaigns, rather than focusing on the veracity of individual posts. While Twitter and Facebook tend to look at posts in isolation, the creators of disinformation are focused on an overall campaign, a set of narratives with a larger point, she argues.
  • Starbird also suggests the tech companies discount false claims of conservative bias that, she suggests, are being leveled by the disinformation's beneficiaries.

"The people that have benefited are now in power in a lot of places," she said. "Anything the companies do to take a chunk [of their power away] is going to be called bias."

Meanwhile: Many of the next disinformation threats may be domestic, notes former Facebook security chief Alex Stamos, who now teaches at Stanford. And those will be harder for law enforcement to investigate given that in many cases there is no law being broken.

2. HBO's "Silicon Valley" takes on tech's reckoning

As HBO's "Silicon Valley" series enters its final season, the show's tagline asks "How Big Is Too Big?" in a not-so-subtle nod to the real-life tech industry issues it will parody before the curtain falls, Axios' Kia Kokalitcheva.

Why it matters: "It's almost as if breaking all the things isn't always a good thing — who could have foreseen?" co-creator Alec Berg told Axios of the ongoing backlash against Big Tech that's mirrored in the show. The cast and creators were in San Francisco on Wednesday for the season premiere.

The big picture: In a way, Berg and co-creator Mike Judge appreciate the coincidence that the show is on its last season just as the tech industry's reckoning is reaching new heights. "It's almost as if it's not a coincidence," muses Berg.

  • "You can't be quite as silly about this stuff as you used to be able to," says Judge, who spent time in Silicon Valley as an engineer in the '80s. "At first it was all these kids making billions of dollars ... and now you can't be as flippant," he adds.

Yes, but: The show still manages to poke fun at the tech industry's zeitgeist, such as a bright green Lime scooter ending up in a big trash can, and a reference to Facebook's countless apologies over the last two years and pledges to "do better."

  • "We missed the WeWork guy," Berg and Judge told Axios when asked if there's anything they didn't get to tackle on the show. Production was too far along by the time the office co-working company's IPO troubles (and peculiarities like founder Adam Neumann's $6 million brand fee to his own company) hit the headlines.

Go deeper: Silicon Valley, get ready for your closeup

3. Book to chronicle Apple after Steve Jobs

Most of the hottest new books about tech companies have focused on startups and companies barely a decade old — but Silicon Valley stalwarts like Apple haven't lost all their literary luster yet.

Wall Street Journal reporter Tripp Mickle will write an as-yet-untitled book for William Morrow about the iPhone maker's last decade, roughly since the death of co-founder Steve Jobs in 2011, Kia reports.

The intrigue: Jobs famously came back to Apple in 1996 and propelled it to new heights of success with the iPhone 11 years later. But since his death and under current-CEO Tim Cook, the company's introduction of major new hardware product lines has slowed.

  • "[The Apple Watch] was the first product that was launched without Steve, and how does that change the process?" says Mickle, who's keenly aware that a number of books about Apple have been published, though none really capturing this most recent era.

The big picture: Apple is still an ultra-successful and stable company, so don't expect a tale of tragic meltdown from Mickle.

  • "Apple has a net $100 billion in the bank —they're the opposite of WeWork," he remarks, in reference to his WSJ colleagues' newly announced book about the troubled office co-working company.

Meanwhile: New York Times reporter Mike Isaac's Uber book, "Super Pumped," will be turned into a Showtime series with "Billions" creators Brian Koppelman and David Levien at the helm, Variety reports.

Go deeper: Silicon Valley, get ready for your closeup

4. FCC's Pai to face lawmakers on key 5G spectrum

FCC chairman Ajit Pai. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The debate over a proposed private sale of valuable airwaves that are key to companies' 5G plans will get aired before Congress Thursday, Margaret Harding McGill reports.

Why it matters: Midband airwaves are coveted for 5G service because they can carry more data than lower-frequency spectrum while traveling greater distances than high-frequency airwaves.

  • Satellite companies, wireless providers and nearly every other sector the FCC regulates have been wrangling for months over midband spectrum known as the "C-band."
  • A Morgan Stanley research note this month estimated the C-band spectrum is worth between $10 billion and $30 billion.

Driving the news: Republican Sen. John Kennedy is using his perch on the Senate appropriations financial services subcommittee to press FCC chairman Ajit Pai on spectrum auction programs at a Thursday hearing.

State of play: A group of satellite providers is pushing the FCC to allow them to privately sell their spectrum licenses. But cable companies — and Kennedy — want the FCC to run a public auction, with a portion of the proceeds going to government coffers.

The players: Broadcasters and cable companies currently use the spectrum to receive programming and are worried about losing access.

The big questions: How much spectrum will be freed up, who will run the auction, and whether any of the proceeds will end up in the U.S. Treasury.

Bottom line: The wireless industry says these airwaves are essential for U.S. 5G deployments, but an airwave auction that doesn't send sizable proceeds to the U.S. Treasury is proving to be a tough hurdle with Congress.

5. Cozy Bear didn't hibernate as previously thought

A wooden sculpture made of linden representing Russian President Vladimir Putin riding a bear at a souvenir shop in Saint Petersburg. Photo: Mladen Antonov/AFP via Getty Images

Cozy Bear, the less-discussed of the two Russian hacker groups that breached the Democratic National Committee in 2016, had been thought to be scaling back operations since that election, but a new report finds the group instead became more covert, Joe Uchill reports.

The big picture: The report, from cybersecurity firm ESET, shows that Cozy Bear switched to a different toolkit after 2016, continuing to target the Ministries of Foreign Affairs in at least three European countries and the embassy of a European country in Washington, D.C.

Joe has more here.

6. Take Note

On Tap

Trading Places

  • Mozilla has hired longtime Astraea Foundation head J. Bob Alotta to serve as VP of global programs.


7. After you Login
Screenshot: CNET editor Leslie Katz's Twitter feed

Check out this shot, which won Chinese photographer Yongqing Bao the Natural History Museum of London's annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year award.

Ina Fried