S1E10: The Miserable Case of @sciencing_bi

Podcast published date: 

Sep 15, 2020

SPEAKERS - Shawn Walker, Michael Simeone

Michael Simeone: This is Misinfo Weekly, a somewhat weekly program about misinformation in our time. Misinfo Weekly is made by the Unit for Data Science and Analytics at Arizona State University Library.


Shawn Walker: This week we're going to discuss a misinformation event that's a bit closer to home one that involves our university Arizona State. We're going to discuss the case of the Me Too STEM leader who created a fake Twitter account misrepresenting herself as an indigenous scholar and professor at Arizona State University, but actually didn't exist. Michael, can you talk a little bit about what happened in this case?


Michael Simeone: Yeah, so this is Dr. Beth Ann MacLaughlin, who created a sock puppet account. That faculty member supposedly worked at Arizona State University. And it caused a lot of attention recently because that sock puppet account was reported as dying of COVID-19 drawing all kinds of attention and sympathy. That attention kind of brought out the facts and exposed this person as the operator of this sock puppet account, and has had to cop to all kinds of things. All of the material around this whole event, the account, all of the tweets associated with it have been suspended and are no longer available by Twitter.


Shawn Walker: So I know a couple of weeks ago, we talked about sock puppets or a couple episodes ago, can you briefly review what a sock puppet account is?


Michael Simeone: Yeah, just for, for those who don't tune into every single podcast we make. A sock puppet account is where you create an account. But it is an identity that is not your own.


Shawn Walker: Often times, you don't link the two together, but Beth Ann McLaughlin, linked them together whenever she announced the passing of her, the professor that she created in her fake account, basically.


Michael Simeone: Yeah, it's almost like an interesting combination of a sock puppet account and a bot net, where the population of that bot net is one.


Shawn Walker: huh, that's interesting way to put it. I really didn't think about it that way.


Michael Simeone: Yeah, I don't think again, like I'm sure there are plenty of examples of people having in public conversations with accounts that they also operate.  But it just struck me as a  very interesting application of a sock puppet account where you're able to kind of both be friends with this identity that you've created. And, and then also not be that person that you've created because it's kind of like your imaginary friend on Twitter.


Shawn Walker: But then by connecting the two that basically was the thread that folks could use to eventually unravel the ruse.


Michael Simeone: Yes. And, you know, to be fair, McLaughlin's organization Me Too STEM was supposed to be about gender discrimination in the field of science.  it's come under all kinds of scrutiny about sidelining persons of color, and all kinds of bullying behaviors. We won't get into that too much here. But it's  remarkable that this account served the goals and agenda of that organization at least, ostensibly right? So this person was a kind of explicit accessory to McLaughlin's organization and the missions there in. That's why I talk about it as the kind of like a bot net with a population of one because they kind of both cross amplified each other's signals. And in a way, kind of like a bot net might.


Shawn Walker: We don't know for sure. But this looks like basically a strategic use of this account to bolster gaps in the organization or to counter criticisms of the Me Too STEM organization.


Michael Simeone: Right, a little bit of speculation here on our part, but I think there's no doubt that the use of this account was completely self serving. I don't think there's any disputing that part.


Shawn Walker: So before we get into some of the discussions of tactics and sort of issues with studying this case, how did you find out about this case?


Michael Simeone: Yes. So I got an email from a colleague who I'm co teaching a course with in the spring on information overload. And so we'll constantly send messages back to one another. Whenever something comes up that fits the idea that anything having to do with people encountering too much information or encountering misinformation and disinformation. And so he sent me something on Friday that said, can you believe this? There's no way that this isn't going to escape the national news and is very prophetic because sure enough, on Monday, it hits the national news. So read about it Monday- Tuesday morning, heard about it Friday afternoon.


Shawn Walker: So I heard about it, not from a colleague, but I'm part of a Facebook group called the Professor Is In and the woman who leads this group and talking about different issues in academia and job searches and such. She posted the initial sort of death announcement for lack of a better term of when McLaughlin said, you know, the person who's behind this Sciencing Bi account had passed away of COVID. And I became more interested in reading the comments because senior faculty from Arizona State University were really interested in what happened because McLaughlin claimed that the fake professor was forced to teach in person in the spring semester after, ASU had already gone online during COVID. So if this was true, then that would have been violating university policy. And  the senior faculty were really concerned about this and wanted to bring it to the attention of the faculty senate and of the administration. So we went through this whole process, or I watched this process, where they were trying to figure out where she was located. Like where in the university. Yes, we try to figure out what department or what school she was in. Which, ASU is fairly unique, and, dare I say, innovative in our structure. And I think that made it easier for McLaughlin to create this fake persona. And for no one to really notice that. Because in a more traditionally structured university, it would be obvious what department this person in Neuroscience and in STEM would be and if you go check that department or school they're not there, that's a problem. But ASU, we have very innovative structures  in the schools. So faculty are co located in interdisciplinary teams, so it's really obvious to us that we go, Oh, she's not in our school, but she must be in some other school.


Michael Simeone: Yes, I think that the way that ASU organizes into schools instead of colleges means that people are distributed all over the place in terms of where they are organizationally, that doesn't necessarily adhere to what we would think about as a conventional disciplinary home. So if someone is  in natural science of any kind, they might not necessarily be in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, studying geology or or something like that. Right. They might be in the School of Space in Earth Exploration, or in a center out of something like, that with a very specific role. So a lot of different intellectual recombining is going on with your organization. But that means that your departmental or school affiliation, it's plausible that you could be in many different places. That really helped things out in terms of creating this character that felt believable. Do you think?


Shawn Walker: Yeah, it's  often at ASU you and you want to find someone who does work similar to you, we don't have the usual spaces, you know. Colleagues that might do work with you could be in really uniquely named schools or could be co located with other disciplines that a  traditional, more traditional University wouldn't have. So it would make complete sense. We're always trying to figure out where other people are. And it doesn't seem odd to us that someone's in a different school or in a different college.


Michael Simeone: Yeah, so I thinking about how we heard of it. There are some kind of bones of this lie, Right, there gangplanks of this of this fictional narrative. One is that this person was a Hopi scientist and scholar who worked at Arizona State University, which is this really big university with a lot of different academic and intellectual schools that are broken up into kind of cross functional groups. So we've got this, this fictional person, working at a real university that might be difficult to  navigate, especially from people who don't work at ASU. And then we've got this death of that scholar because of  them being compelled to teach during the covid 19 outbreak. And so those are the, in my mind, those are the three kind of gangplanks of this fictional narrative, as it pertains to the recent news. I realized that there is, because Twitter deleted it, there's an unrecoverable history there of interactions between this sock puppet account and all kinds of scientists and scholars, but from the best of our ability to glean, it seems like this person had some kind of a following, and had relationships and interactions on a consistent basis with all kinds of highly educated scientists on Twitter.


Shawn Walker: Yeah, so let's see a little more real quick about why is this so difficult to study? So we know if we go to Beth McLaughlin's account, or if we go to the Sciencing_Bi account.   We both see that this account is now been suspended. So you can't see see any of those tweets? So that means that basically all the data trails that of how this account has been acting, at least we know this account, the Sciencing Bi account was active, at least before January. But we can't go back and look at that data because it's no longer archived anywhere. And Twitter's just kind of blocked off access to that information.


Michael Simeone: Right. So looking at the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, January in 2019, is the only record of Sciencing_Bi.  I think I'll just refer to it as Sciencing Bi from here on out, but that Twitter account, that's the the only capture from that site, but it's also inassessable. All for the last couple days now because of some kind of error that I'm not sure why. So yeah, irrecoverable. A lot of the stuff that's going on here, and I think that that might or that definitely complicates our ability to understand what really happened here, leading up to this dramatic death, or kind of theatrical social media death of this scholar. Which got all this attention and created the situation that we're in now.


Shawn Walker: And also briefly to mention, for those that don't know, the Internet Archive, and their Wayback Machine is a publicly accessible archive of large portions of the web that go back all the way to the middle 90s. So you can see what you know, ASUs website looked like in 1990. And be confused about what design was like back then or or look at Amazon in the early days or the White House, but they also archive a lot of Twitter pages or Twitter account profiles. And they happen to attempt to archive this Sciencing Bi account one time back in January, and that archive was incomplete. So we know the page existed at that moment in time, we just can't see any of that content, and there aren't any archives before or after. So we're still left questioning how long this account really existed. So how long was it that Beth Ann McLaughlin created this ruse and this fake account and curated these relationships with people?


Michael Simeone: Right, so  we can't know just by looking at Twitter, there would have to be significant investigation to really find out how much this goes. So, again, I don't want to over represent our perspective and what kind of data we have available to understand this. At the same time, though, I feel like there's some important kind of things that we can understand about misinformation events that we can derive from this particular incident that can be really helpful going forward.


Shawn Walker: So if we don't have access to these two Twitter accounts, because they've both been suspended by Twitter itself, what information do we have left?


Michael Simeone: So what we have is any work that journalists did to capture images of tweets. That's part of our record, any replies that exist on Twitter that might have left a kind of mirror image of the account, if you will, to use a metaphor, we still have access to those. Shawn, can you think of any other data that we might be able to use to help reconstruct what happened here?


Shawn Walker: So we also have access to the articles themselves, but remember, there really aren't any news articles about this account until the incident happened. So basically right at the time of the account being suspended, that's when journalists were writing news articles about this. So we have that data. And we just have the general conversation and comments around this account. But  that's all the data that we actually have access to at this moment in time.


Michael Simeone: Yeah. And so I think that might hit on a kind of first lesson learned from this event. Where there, I mean, there are uncountable lessons learned from something like this. However, but one thing that that's kind of important to take home is that because of this account suspension, then a lot of what happened before this event is irrecoverable. A lot of what happened around this event is irrecoverable. And our best perspective into it is actually people writing stories about this staged death of a fictional character on Twitter. But because so much stuff has been suspended, it's hard for us to gauge how big of a deal this was. Like did it generate a 100 people viewing it on Twitter, did it generate 500 people viewing it on Twitter were thousands of people tuned into something like this? That's a little bit harder to gauge. 


Shawn Walker: And after the event, this became a story for the popular press the mainstream media. So it was discussed on local television stations in Phoenix, Arizona. It was published by the New York Times, The Arizona Republic newspaper, as well as various academic blogs and news outlets. So we have a whole constellation of news media. We also have stories from people who had interacted with the Sciencing Bi account over time. So that's kind of the breadcrumbs that are left, sort of the trail that's left but we can actually go back to the account itself and look at this because since you know, Twitter's removed this information, and no one archived this account in advance because no one thought this account was really fake until recently.


Michael Simeone: Yeah, and I'll say one more word about why it's so difficult to tell what happened. Because by the time that you and I get clued in about something like this, then we want to search on Twitter using the Twitter interface for  developers to be able to see what kind of data is in there. The most recent tweets that that interface is going to return are the ones of people talking about this scandal, not necessarily the people who were tied up in that scandal, if I can make that distinction. So basically, Twitter will only return so many tweets to anybody searching it unless you have very special privileges. But most of the time, if you're a researcher or anyone else, then there's a limit. And if something has happened, where everyone's talking about that thing, and then you search for that thing, well, you've got a big blob of tweets that are talking about the scandal, but you don't really have as much access to all the social media information that predated that scandal. So it creates some compounds there. It's very difficult to tell how significant something was because everyone's already talking about how significant it was. And that's the data you get, instead of the stuff you were looking for in the first place.


Shawn Walker: So to put it recently, maybe when we're gathering information from Twitter or other social media platforms, we have a bias towards information that's more recent, rather than the historical data that in many cases like this is actually really important to get access to  that's sort of been cut off.


Michael Simeone: Yep, yep. 100%. And so because of that, so this is a long way around. But because of that, we don't know exactly how well attended this funeral was online on Twitter. And I say funeral because the person in charge of the sock puppet account actually did a Twitter eulogy. And that is available. Some of those screen captures are available on Twitter. But I'll read an excerpt.  "I don't know what her students or my students who loved her will do. She made a million First Nations indigenous contacts for my organization. (I'm glossing there.) I don't have the lifetime of goodwill or knowledge of everyone she helped". That event has something like 375 likes 465 likes, depending on where it is on that thread. That particular eulogy seemed to generate moderate impact there. But any other tweets associated with this person's death? We just don't know. So that is just one small piece of the puzzle. 350, 465 likes and 25 retweets, you know, that's, that's something but you know, that's not that's not a huge amount in a world where thousands and thousands of retweets are possible. That's really going viral.


Shawn Walker: Well, and I think this is a great place to point out the difference between what we're seeing on social media so what we're seeing around this eulogy versus now there's a New York Times article, Washington Post article, news, you know, CNN picked this up. So there's actually been a lot more activity post suspension than pre suspension.


Michael Simeone: Yeah, and this is another takeaway, right? So if the first takeaway was some of this stuff is recoverable. And the second takeaway is, if many major journalistic outlets have stories about this, it can't help but seem like a bigger deal than 25 retweets. And we can't measure everything in retweets, right? I'm not trying to be completely unfair, but we run the risk of the coverage about that thing, making it seem like it was a much bigger deal than it was. Now, it's a bigger deal for lots of reasons. But when I say big deal, I mean, how much of an impact did it have on social media, in terms of just the influence and audience reached. This is something that we've tossed around as the Paw Patrol paradox. Where in the, you know, we had indicated that that case, were something like, you know, 40 tweets ended up being the focus of a New York Times story, that ended up being national news, and so just something very small gets represented in the newspaper, as something that's much bigger than it is. A lot of times, because it's very difficult  in the journalistic form represent something that on social media is in a network form. And so that can be a tough thing. Not trying to say that that's easy. But I think an inadvertent effect is that it can maybe amplify the size of the social media event that it's narrating or describing or trying to report on.


Shawn Walker: So this network that, you know, we can think of, if you're not familiar with networks, kind of think of a spider web and how there's all these connections and points in the web. That's kind of what the network would be. So how is this account --


Michael Simeone: --every Twitter account is a point in that web right.


Shawn Walker: And so how is this how is Beth Ann's account? How is the the Sciencing Bi account? How are they connected? And how are they connected with is Greater Me Too STEM community as well as a STEM community? And we don't know. But because of the juicy details. I mean, you know, as soon as someone told me about this, and I read this online. I was interested, I'm like, what the heck is going on? A professor dies of COVID at my university?  I mean, I'm intrigued. I'm just like, you know, let's figure this out. So of course, there's these hooks into this narrative that make it a great news story. And then it turns into potentially something larger than it actually was just because of the narrative and the drama that's surrounding it.


Michael Simeone: Yeah, yeah, exactly. And I think you know, the attention about, you know, how kind of reprehensible it is to exploit the identity of native peoples to create some kind of Twitter account that you can hold up for what you think is some kind of tokenized heroism. That is worth people paying attention to. That is worth news stories, right? Not trying to say that those aren't worth paying attention to, or to be careful that if something's in the newspaper reporting on social media, that we don't assume that this is a viral event with thousands and thousands of people. We should think about these events differently in some ways, but then pay attention to some of those things that are moral and ethical problems that it doesn't matter if it's one tweet or 10,000 tweets.


Shawn Walker: So in some ways we can take this back to Plandemic, for example, and Dr. Mikovits. And she is saying, I'm a famous scientist.  And she's not.  You know, she was just beginning in the fields, and then she left. So in other ways, you know, where the news could be describing this is that this account was very influential. And we don't have any evidence of that just because the data is not there.


Michael Simeone: Yeah. Yeah. So thinking through, we've got some problems with recovering what happened. We've got some problems with how we represent social media, and how we understand social media events through journalism, that can be a very complicated thing. And then the other thing, I think that  is a thing worth talking about in the aftermath of something like this is all of the downstream consequences that weren't necessarily intentional. You know, a lot of times we think about misinformation in terms of  tactics, but it can be really helpful to think about it in terms of effects instead. You know, Shawn, would you characterize this as any kind of disinformation operation, on the part of McLachlan?


Shawn Walker: I would characterize the creation of the account and curation of that over an extended period of time. So we know this account was active for at least eight months, and I believe it was longe..but..


Michael Simeone: 

Longer than a year. Yeah, cuz that was January 2019. So definitely like a year and a half for sure.

Shawn Walker: So this she kind of curated this account as a long game. And I would argue then this purposeful curation of this sock puppet account, as like posing as, a legitimate professor at ASU.  I would consider that disinformation because remember, Mis versus Dis is the intention. So this is it. She did intentionally created this fake account with this fake persona.


Michael Simeone: Right, so her intent was pretty straight like, again, to the best of our ability to ascertain.


Shawn Walker: Yes, the intent was to deceive.


Michael Simeone: Right. Right. Got it. Got it. Yeah, there's some other consequences here.


Shawn Walker: I would say it's disinformation because of the sort of long. fake game that she's created with this fake account. But the consequences of that I can't imagine, I would posit that she didn't intend, you know, the blowback in the university, the blowback on her, and having her account be deleted. I don't think that, I would imagine, a lot of that wasn't thought through. And we can't know unless we talked to her.


Michael Simeone: Yeah. So let's talk about those consequences. So it feels like some short term consequences were on purpose, like installing yourself by proxy back into a community of scholars and scientists that it seems like she was kind of on the outside of at this point.


Shawn Walker: Yes, in a way you could think of, you know, she could potentially be creating this account as a way to address concerns that were expressed about this Me Too STEM organization and it's lack of inclusion of scholars of color.


Michael Simeone: Yeah. And then her position. She was a former assistant professor working outside of the universities. This Twitter account kind of gave her a different kind of access to people currently working in universities. Yes. So that was a kind of, that seems like, an immediate consequence that was probably on purpose. And then giving her kind of cache for having a friend who was a Hopi scientist, right. Many people kind of now looking at this say, wow, this is kind of  very transparent, right, just trying to burnish her image by using underrepresented peoples as props to show how virtuous she is. And that this is really a kind of elaborate virtue signaling.


Shawn Walker: True, but you also need to think about in academic communities, you know, there's a lot of trust. We say we're in a certain position, then, you know, so and so vouches for you and then you're part of, your kind of now in and you're part of that community. So we're not doing background checks on each other at conferences or even online, we just kind of do an initial check of an account. And then we're like, yes, that's part of our community now. So she used that as a tool to then create a larger network within those communities. 


Michael Simeone: Yeah. So those are the intended consequences is leverage the trust habits of people in academia to burnish her own image, and then to maybe gain access to certain conversations and circles. And then, I think, you know, you've pointed this out The idea of using a large university as just a kind of location where this person might be untraceable. But, I think, that was definitely a technique for concealing this person's identity in a way that helped propagate the lie. But let's talk about some unintended consequences of this. When when you think about unintended consequences of this dis information. Where do we start to see these unintended mis information consequences?


Shawn Walker: Well, potentially, so these are all guesses, on our part, because we haven't talked to--


Michael Simeone: --you know, educated guesses, but but fair guesses.


Shawn Walker: Okay. So I think that the sort of hunt within ASU by its own faculty to try to find out what happened and to try to write any wrongs by the administration. I don't think that's an intended consequence, nor than  ASUs internal search, once faculty went to administration. Then the university is trying to figure out like, what the heck is going on? Why would someone be teaching in a classroom when we've told you  the university shut down, what's going on? So that hunt internally, and that there's a drama, then that led to an even more intensive review of both of these Twitter accounts to try to figure out well, that person's not here. So what's really going on?


Michael Simeone: Yeah, and the confusion created was certainly a downstream effect. That certainly isn't a direct consequence, but an indirect consequence of this stuff. And yeah, I tend to be on the side reading about this. That this person didn't design this whole thing as a way to confuse Arizona State University. But this is what happened. It momentarily confused some folks at Arizona State University trying to figure out what happened. It also created a phenomenon of indeterminate size at this point on social media that linked ASU to the brutal, negligent treatment of a faculty member that resulted in their death because of their handling of pandemic teaching. Which, if it's 350 likes on Twitter or 10,000 likes on Twitter, there are plenty of people who deal with public relations that would pay lots of money to undo people having, in front of their eyeballs, this idea that a university indirectly killed one of their professors.


Shawn Walker: So there's the sort of anger, confusion, distrust that's emerging from the faculty when this was initially announced that this professor that we found out didn't exist passed away of Covid. Due to supposed  negligence on the university's part. And then there's also the public persona. And all of this is happening at probably one of the worst possible times. Is its when the university is just about to reopen for classes in the fall. And they're saying to the public, here are plans, here's how the university is going to be safe. And in the middle of this conversation, this sort of confusion and misinformation about a fake faculty member just causes a bunch of chaos.


Michael Simeone: Yeah, there's no way this is helpful as people look around the room and say, okay, everyone's going back to school sooner or later. This kind of news creates that kind of confusion that misinformation, and disinformation campaigns are kind of known for but again, this isn't an example of somebody saying, least to our best knowledge, right? We probably guess that this isn't somebody who said you know, what I'm gonna do with this account is I want to damage the reputation of a university. This is a long game that I've been playing for years, that's going to culminate in a way to really inflict maximum harm on the reputation of another school. Maybe it happened. It just seems like all the other pieces that we have thinking through this, this was more of an unintended consequence.


Shawn Walker: And we also have to think of the different groups here. So when faculty become uncomfortable for specific reasons . Administration, they have issues and become uncomfortable, and then parents thinking about sending their children. So this impacts these different groups initially as this story develops, but we also know that the correction doesn't travel as far as the initial misinformation. So the impact of the sort of initial reports that an ASU faculty member passed away due to COVID because they were forced to teach, even though that was untrue, that initial misinformation spread a lot farther than the correction. Because the misinformation is really interesting. And the correction, that didn't happen, kind of boring in some ways.


Michael Simeone: Yes. And, again, won't travel as quickly or as far. What will travel quickly and far is the kind of absurd, at times absurd, and you know, completely kind of unethical use of native peoples and native identities and whatever this person's understanding of native culture was really as a commodity to help out her own image. That is another kind of unintended, I don't know, it's tough to say, but those consequences I do not want to underestimate. So there's probably some of those consequences that were maybe intended or seen as like a necessary means to an end. But then there's, you know, when you put this kind of image out there and and ingratiate it to other people for a very long time period of time. You know, I don't want to sell short, exactly how damaging it is to just have white people dress up as native people, and then pal around with people on Twitter. That is a damaging and corrosive and deeply unethical thing.


Shawn Walker: I think that's the most infuriating part of this entire story is that she took an underrepresented group and then basically infiltrated that group with a fake persona for her own purposes. That's, that's unconscionable. And then killed off that person. Virtually.


Michael Simeone: Yeah, as part of as part of a theatrical that would again, boost this person's image and I, this isn't a political commentary show, but at the same time, you can see how people's sympathies can be exploited. So that if, as this person did, advertise this person who is kind of actively fighting for justice, and to make right a lot of structural wrongs, and that they are a champion and a symbol of this. That is exploitative of people's sympathies. That is exploitative of people's reflexes to want to see justice, sometimes symbolically performed. And that is a vulnerability. So people using virtue signaling as a vulnerability to exploit people for misinformation or for disinformation. That isn't something that we hear every day.  We're more used to hearing about how people will lie to under educated voters and exploit them that way. We don't hear a lot of lying to very educated people and exploiting them through different means.

Shawn Walker: And so if we think about possible outcomes of that now, there might be increased scrutiny of legitimate scholars online for people to kind of prove who they are or unconsciously folks might be, okay, I need to investigate this person a little more to make sure that they're real. And that's something they might not have done before this Sciencing Bi account was found out to be a fraud.


Michael Simeone: Yeah, there's an enormous toxic cloud emitted by this masquerade. And by this treatment of native identity and of native culture, that I am not qualified to speak on in an authoritative way at all. But it is important to just recognize that this is a huge consequence of this particular brand of sock puppet activity.


Shawn Walker: So we could say in summary, this, this is not make the lives of our indigenous colleagues and scholars any easier. This just makes it more difficult.


Michael Simeone: Yes, yes, certainly 100%. And when we think about, you know, some of those downstream consequences that have really systemic and long lasting effects, this kind of goes up there at the top, but there's other kinds of distrust added to this, as well that you mentioned. The trust relationships that people form on Twitter could be damaged. How we even evaluate appeals to people's, like this, this whole organization wasn't advertising itself as doing bad stuff, right? The official mission of this organization is something that many people agreed with as being kind of serving justice and doing some very important issues.


Shawn Walker: It does damage to those kinds of causes as well. It makes people more skeptical. It basically, we can think of this, as tainting everything that this organization and these accounts were connected to. There's some bit of tainting some much stronger than others, some just sort of a little bit, but these important causes that these accounts were connected to now have to do even more work. And this is all unnecessary because of this scandal. 


Michael Simeone: Yeah. And so in kind of looking at all of this as an event, you know, we can see if there's a narrow band of consequences that were probably definitely intended. Some consequences that might have been intended, and a lot of them that are going to last a while, that are going to last a lot longer than this person's individual reputation. And when I say this person, I mean the person behind the sock puppet account, Professor McLachlan. This kind of work has consequences that are really instructive for us to be able to see that, you know, any kind of miss or disinformation event has some short term consequences. But it is always important to evaluate some of those longer term or durable consequences that may seem subtle at first, but are definitely worth paying attention to.


Shawn Walker: And I'd say oftentimes those consequences happen after the news media and other organizations have shifted their attention away from this situation and moved on to something else. Everyone's still kind of reeling and will be reeling from this for quite a while to come.


Michael Simeone: Yes.


Shawn Walker: And this is not uncommon in misinformation events that, like you're saying, these long term impacts. And oftentimes when we cover these stories, by we, I mean, sort of, you know, the public in general, when we pay attention to these stories, we're looking at them as the short term impact, not the longer term impact. So in many ways we can, there are parallels between this and for example, natural disasters. There's a short term, you know, initial disaster, and then there's a whole long rebuilding process to recover from that disaster. That's something that can happen in high profile misinformation events, too, is the initial event. And then there's a long recovery phase to try to address what happened to that community as a result of the misinformation event.


Michael Simeone: Yeah, and this seriously interferes with people's ability to deal with loss. When someone loses a colleague for real, this might be hanging over that event. When, so our ability to be resilient and to adapt to things and to come back after loss is damaged in multiple kinds of capacities by stuff like this. And I still can't emphasize enough that this is a different profile of person who is taken in by misinformation or disinformation. Then a lot of times. How many articles are published out there, Shawn, do you think that are about people who have low information or spend way too much time online, or are older and don't have access to a lot of social interactions? And that's what really makes them vulnerable to misinformation. Would you agree that there's a right now a kind of canonical profile of somebody who is vulnerable to misinformation?


Shawn Walker: Yes, we've created the persona that propagates misinformation as you know, low education, low expertise, and that makes them vulnerable to misinformation. But like you're saying, this is the opposite of that population. These are supposedly the experts in their fields. And there's the other ones that were kind of fooled, and I'm using air quotes here in "fooled." But this sort of con was perpetrated on them for over at least a year and a half.


Michael Simeone: Yeah. And another thing I'll add to that is trust or distrust of institutions. A lot of times when we think about misinformation and conspiracy theories, distrust of institutions is a big deal. It is a predictor for if someone is going to believe in a conspiracy theory or a disinformation narrative. Here, though, you know, you've got a lot of people who are participating in some of those institutions that some of those other people might not trust so much. So we've got people where the institutions are really working for them, or a part of those institutions. And they're highly educated and they probably have encountered a How to Spot Fake News one page helpful document before and their past right?


Shawn Walker: Our favorite.


Michael Simeone: But, here we are, right misinformation and disinformation adapts so rapidly that right there isn't a rule of thumb to be able to spot fake news because the next time it rolls around, it's not fake news. It's a it's a fake person. 


Shawn Walker: And I thing that's one of our goals is that we want to break some of those stereotypes that only folks that are non experts propagate misinformation, is that these campaigns can be created by others.  You know, other state actors, you know, state governments, or folks that are part of your community. So this misinformation doesn't only come from one source, and it can be tailored to fool just about any community. That's what's so difficult about this. is that it was purposely curated. It looks like this was purposely curated to fool this community of highly educated experts. So that kind of blows this persona away that well, experts aren't vulnerable to misinformation. Everyone's vulnerable to mis and  dis information, right? Education is, might not be the fix here. I don't want to say it's it's not effective in some situations. But if we just rely on what, what we view of ourselves in terms of like our intelligence or our education or we know all about that. So we're fine. Feels like that's really a step towards being vulnerable than being protected. Yeah, I think that's a great take home from this case, is that universal vulnerability to misinformation. Everyone is at every single level. They just have different vulnerabilities.


Michael Simeone: Yeah, I think that's a pretty good place to wrap it. Do you have any other thoughts on this?


Shawn Walker: As you're saying that I was like, No, this happens offline, too, all the time too. People who represent themselves and we buy into this like, this is really complicated and hard. And I think it's just important to acknowledge the difficulty, and that this happens in all spaces online, in person over the phone, everywhere, you know.


Michael Simeone: Yeah, actually, I think that's a great place to end.

Thanks for joining us for questions or comments, use the email address datascience@asu.edu. And to check out more about what we're doing, try library.asu.edu/data.