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.

Relat­ed sto­ry: Every day is April Fools’ Day on the internet

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:
Trump wins by wide mar­gin as top lure for spam campaigns


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