‘Fake news’ economy is a gold mine for truth hackers, propagandists

Global underground market traffics in digitally driven, bogus content

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Fake news is the new computer virus.

Bob Sullivan, journalist and one of the founding members of msnbc.com

That’s the conclusion I came to when reading a remarkable new report from computer security firm Trend Micro. If you doubt the massive efforts of underground “hackers” to influence you—and the massive cash they can make doing so—flip through the pages of this report. A few years ago, it could have been written about the spam, computer virus or click fraud economies. Today, “news” has been weaponized, both for political gain and profit.

While Americans bicker over who might have gained the most from hacking in our last presidential campaign, they are missing the larger point: Massive infrastructure has been put in place from China to Russia to India to make money off polarization. The truth is for sale in a way that most people couldn’t have imagined just a few years ago. As the report crucially notes: There’s no such thing as “moderate” fake news. Whichever side you’re on, if you play in extremism, you probably are helping make these truth hackers rich.

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Here are some highlights from the report, but you should really read it yourself.

“(Russian) forums offer services for each stage of the campaign—from writing press releases, promoting them in news outlets, to sustaining their momentum with positive or negative comments, some of which can even be supplied by the customer in a template. Advertisements for such services are frequently found in both public and private sections of forums, as well as on banner ads on the forums themselves.”

Misusing the internet

Many services have a crowd source model, meaning users can either buy credits for clicks, or “earn” them though participating in others’ campaigns.

“(One service) allows contributors to promote internet sites and pages, flaunting a 500,000-strong registered user base that can provide traffic (and statistics) from real visitors to supported platforms. It uses a coin system, which is also available in the underground.”

A price list claims the service can make a video appear on YouTube’s home page for about $600, or get 10,000 site visitors for less than $20.

Such services aren’t limited to Russia, of course. According to the report, a Middle Eastern firm offers “auto-likes on Facebook (for) a monthly subscription of $25; 2,200 auto-likes from Arabic/Middle East-based users fetch $150 per month … (another service) has a customizable auto-comment function, with templates of comments customers can choose from. Prices vary, from $45 per month for eight comments per day, to $250 for 1,000 comments in a month.”

In China, the report says, “For … less than $2,600 spent on services in the Chinese underground, a social media profile can easily fetch more than 300,000 followers in a month.”

Appealing to extremists

It goes on to claim that fake news campaigns have incited riots and caused journalists to be attacked. Here’s an example of the latter:

“If an attacker aims to silence a journalist from speaking out or publishing a story that can be detrimental to an attacker’s agenda or reputation, he can also be singled out and discredited by mounting campaigns against him.

“An attacker can mount a four-week fake news campaign to defame the journalist using services available in gray or underground marketplaces. Fake news unfavorable to the journalist can be bought once a week, which can be promoted by purchasing 50,000 retweets or likes and 100,000 visits. These cost around $2,700 per week. Another option for the attacker is to buy four related videos and turn them into trending videos on YouTube, each of which can sell for around $2,500 per video.

“The attacker can also buy comments; to create an illusion of believability, the purchase can start with 500 comments, 400 of which can be positive, 80 neutral, and 20 negative. Spending $1,000 for this kind of service will translate to 4,000 comments.

Manipulating opinion

“After establishing an imagined credibility, an attacker can launch his smear campaign against his target.

“Poisoning a Twitter account with 200,000 bot followers will cost $240. Ordering a total of 12,000 comments with most bearing negative sentiment and references/links to fake stories against the journalist will cost around $3,000. Dislikes and negative comments on a journalist’s article, and promoting them with 10,000 retweets or likes and 25,000 visits, can cost $20,400 in the underground.

“The result? For around $55,000, a user who reads, watches and further searches the campaign’s fake content can be swayed into having a fragmented and negative impression of the journalist. A more daunting consequence would be how the story, exposé or points the journalist wanted to divulge or raise will be drowned out by a sea of noise fabricated by the campaign.”

The key for all these attacks, the report notes, is appealing to the more extreme nature of our political discourse today.

“In the realm of political opinion manipulation, this tends to be in the form of highly partisan content. Political fake news tends to align with the extremes of the political spectrum; ‘moderate’ fake news does not really exist.”

Recognizing false content

The reports offer tips for news consumers to avoid being unwitting partners in a fake news campaign. The target of fake news is the general public, the report notes, so “ultimately, the burden of differentiating the truth from untruth falls on the audience.”

Here are some signs users can look out for if the news they’re reading is fake:

  • Hyperbolic and clickbait headlines
  • Suspicious website domains that spoof legitimate news media
  • Misspellings in content and awkwardly laid out website
  • Doctored photos and images
  • Absence of publishing timestamps
  • Lack of author, sources and data

Another story related to fake news:
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