S1E8: asu_covid.parties - the fake resistance

Podcast published date: 

Sep 03, 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.

We normally don't get a chance to talk about Instagram. But today we're going to talk about some dis and misinformation that was distributed on Instagram. We're going to use that as an opportunity to not only talk about this particular misinformation event that was targeting a bunch of different colleges and universities, but also lets us talk about misinformation on Instagram more generally. So Shawn, you were the one that kind of turned us on to this series of Instagram accounts and what they were up to to begin with. Can you talk a little bit more about these COVID party Instagram accounts?

 

Shawn Walker: Sure there's a handful of COVID party Instagram accounts. A couple of targeting large universities like ASU, University of Arizona. There are a couple accounts that were created but not active targeting other universities, such as USC etc. And these accounts were sort of anti mask rules anti University opening rules, anti restrictions on social distancing and the posts are pretty toxic, comparing a lot of the rules to Nazi Germany using Nazi symbolism, and in some ways, it seems a bit like they're kind of trolling.They're a bit of a troll account.

 

Michael Simeone: Right, once you start comparing things to Nazi Germany that kind of puts you in the category of trolling nine times out of 10. What are these accounts generally look like? So if I, if I were on Instagram, and I'm on this person's account page, you know, what's this account look like?

 

Shawn Walker: You see typical Instagram type posts. So handful of these are actual images. Some of these are screenshots with text. Some of these are like text base images, because when we think about some of the differences between Instagram and other platforms, such as Facebook, or Twitter. Instagram is visual. You cannot have a create a post and Instagram without a picture versus Facebook, Twitter, other platforms WhatsApp, etc, etc. You can create a text only the post. So these are all images with a bit of a caption and then a whole set of comments. Some number of these are actual screenshots from the ASU website or parodies of screenshots. And then a couple of pictures of concentration camps from Nazi Germany, there are also a handful of text base image posts with some pretty toxic content in there.

 

Michael Simeone: Okay, so if I'm looking at this, then basically I've got what appears to be like a pretty uninteresting Instagram account. So rather than like a whole collection of really interesting images, I've got a bunch of blocks of text, and then some kind of outrageous images peppered throughout.  That about got it?

 

Shawn Walker: Yep, I think that mostly covers it. They're a bit of sort of screenshots and modifications. So they're highlighting things. So for example, there was a mistake in one of their early pictures on ASUs website when they were showing what a classroom would look like, in the middle of COVID. And in that picture the error, the faculty member at the front of the room wasn't wearing a mask, but all the students were and that was quickly pointed out, The University corrected that picture but somehow this is one of the most recent posts in this account, circling the professor in the, you know, caption says mask for you, but not for me. And that's the kind of content that we're seeing here.

 

Michael Simeone: Okay, so some of these posts that seems like are trying to make people distrust or have a lot of skepticism about the institution of the university. It seems like some of these things are trying to sow doubts about the veracity of the science behind COVID-19. Like, as I'm looking at some of these posts myself, you know, some of these things questioning why you should even wear a mask. You know, like if masks work, why would a doctor not go to surgery when they were sick? This idea that masks are supposed to be disease proof barriers are nothing and looking through some more of these right like COVID is a hoax. So we're gonna party. The description of some of these is really interesting too. And when I say some of these, it's because the ASU COVID party's account has the description COVID-19 parties because they're during this pandemic era, not a contest to Catch COVID. And I guess this is disambiguating from some news headlines earlier in the summer about COVID parties where people were trying to on purpose get Coronavirus? But I also mentioned this because this exact account description can be found in at least a dozen other Instagram accounts. Whereas this one is called ASU COVID parties, there's Houston COVID parties, there's University of Auckland COVID parties, every single one of them has the exact same or I shouldn't shouldn't say every single one of them, about 80% of them have this exact text. 100% of them have some variation of this text.

 

Shawn Walker: And also to be quite clear, these accounts were not created by ASU, they're not associated with ASU.  Someone else has created these accounts. And there's an active lawsuit that ASU i:s involved in to have these accounts removed and to investigate the parties that created this account because, one: they're using ASU branding. So that's one of the ways it's sort of like Al Capone being caught for tax evasion versus what the actual crimes. ASU is also making claims around the spread of misinformation that's creating a dangerous environment on the campus.

 

Michael Simeone: Yeah, and this is where it starts to get pretty juicy, right? That on the one hand, this appears to be an Instagram account that is run by somebody at ASU trying to get people at ASU to party. And it's filled with all of these anti authority, anti establishment, anti science, borderline conspiracy theory type memes and images. But the general idea is everyone needs to cut loose and party because all this is a hoax and it's all going to be fun. We're gonna have a ton of fun. That's what it looks like. And I say your your borderline statement is very generous, very generous. Okay. A rare moment of generosity for me. But yeah, it gets interesting when you know when you look at the lawsuit and where The AZ Central actually posted the document of the lawsuit. The lawsuit alleges but does not provide proof or any evidence, I should say that this account is based or somehow connected to Russia. And the phone number associated with this Instagram account was was traced back to Canada. We're not looking at any material that ties this Instagram account to Russia. But ASU is in its lawsuit connecting this account to Russia. And as you know, we're kind of indicating earlier, there's an entire constellation of Instagram accounts that have very similar naming scheme like ASU COVID party, Detroit COVID party, Chicago COVID party, they're all very similar in terms of  the naming scheme, they have similar text, they have similar images, some of them have the exact same images. It's an entire constellation of Instagram accounts, and they're all allegedly owned by the same person. That's what's kind of being insinuated right now by this lawsuit.

 

Shawn Walker: If we if we kind of take that framing, even though we don't have the information that ASU has access to, it actually makes  these accounts make actually quite a bit more sense under that framing versus without that framing, because it seems a bit like information operation rather than these sort of random separate accounts that happened to have similar names, happen to have very similar descriptions, are posting similar types of Instagram posts, and sort of images, are using similar text. So it kind of makes sense in a way if we use that framing, that someone is creating accounts. And as we had discussed beforehand, it kind of looks like sort of a party or describing a party in movies rather than what actual college parties look like.

 

Michael Simeone: Yeah, and I think there's a like it's kind of ironic that you have two people who do not party describing parties and  fake parties on Instagram. I think that's hilarious. But I think you make a good point in that while the ASU lawsuit is coming out against this company or against whoever it is that they really don't specify. It's actually kind of unknown. Whoever owns this ASU COVID party's Instagram account. That is  the four corners of the lawsuit that we're talking about. The connection that you and I, that we have a hunch about, based on all the similarities across these accounts. It's OUR assertion that all of these accounts are connected, and that they're all connected to whatever entity it is that's controlling the ASU accounts. I can't find, I don't see, just to draw a bright line here, between allegations that ASU is making in their lawsuit and the kinds of more analysis that we're doing on this podcast. I don't want to confuse anybody. There is not a, the lawsuit itself is not trying to say that this is tied up in a bunch of other accounts. WE are saying that this account looks suspiciously similar to plenty of other accounts across Instagram and are alleging a connection across them.

 

Shawn Walker: So this is kind of like a It looks like a constellation. And we've talked in other podcasts about bots and bot networks. This kind of looks like a kind of constellation of accounts that are talking to each other. They're reposting similar material. They're sharing stories with each other. And so it looks a bit like consorted information operation and the culturally and narratively, it looks like an information operation from someone who's only vaguely familiar with what parties look like on a college campus.

 

Michael Simeone: Yes, and this is actually from the lawsuit further worsening  quote, "further worsening the situation. The initial investigation indicates that the parties behind this account may be located in Russia, and are using the account to sow confusion and conflict to interfere with the health of Arizona State University community are trying to worsen the pandemic here. This lawsuit is also necessary in part to discover the true identity of the parties behind this account". So we don't, we don't know. But again, you know, in the lawsuit we're saying there the allegation is this party wants to worse in the pandemic at ASU. I think the perspective that we're trying to offer here, as well as that, this isn't just about ASU, that this is part of a broader effort, it appears, to disrupt life at all kinds of colleges and universities across the United States, and indeed the world, right? We've got the University of Auckland, tied up into this.

 

Shawn Walker: And you can see the accounts that are have been created but are inactive, or to actually don't have any posts. Those accounts are for larger institutions in the US and abroad that initially, were going to be in person. So for example USC,University of Southern California, initially classes were going to be in person over the summer, they've decided to go online. So it seems like that account was created but never launched.

 

Michael Simeone : Yeah. And to let people know, we are looking at a number of these different accounts that have been searched and retrieved from Instagram, when we're talking about what we're observing and all these accounts and which ones, what their follower count was, what their impact rating was. So this is how we're looking at some of these things and evaluating them.  All of this information isn't just available on Instagram.

 

Shawn Walker: And it's also important to point out right before we started recording, these accounts, were suddenly suspended and have disappeared from the platform.

 

Michael Simeone: Yeah, that's the really that's the really crazy part, right? Is what you just mentioned there. We haven't. We haven't talked about that. In this podcast. Up until this point, we've been talking about these Instagram accounts as if they still exist.

 

Michael Simeone:  But, they do not. And so earlier this morning, we were preparing for the podcast. I've been looking at these accounts for a couple of days, actually, this whole week. And so just in case I archived the content of these accounts, using a handful of tools to like, archive the webpages to download the posts themselves. Look at who was following them. And then right when we went to record, all of a sudden when we clicked on those accounts, it just says this account no longer exists.

 

Michael Simeone: Yeah, like literally right before we were recording, trying to retrieve some of these things. So we can look at some of the images and get a better evaluation. So right at that moment, we had to switch over to the web archives that Shawn had created. And that's what we're speaking from. We're looking at an analytics platform and some of the results there to be able to look at the historical trends, specifically with the ASU COVID party's account. And then we're looking at web archives snapshots, basically, of these Instagram accounts, to be able to narrate to you what some of these images look like, and some of the text and common elements across these different Instagram accounts. But all of them are gone right now you cannot go to Instagram and find them they have been erased.

 

Shawn Walker: And this is different than many of the other misinformation events we've discussed in the past. Most of those, well, some of the information of course is gone, some of the posts are deleted, some of the accounts are suspended. In this case, all of the accounts that you know these COVID party Aukland,  USC, ASU, U of A  all of those accounts are gone now. So the entire event has disappeared like it never happened except for the news coverage, except for the lawsuit and except for the archives that we and if anyone else created them, that they have created besides that, it's like this never happened and never existed.

 

Michael Simeone: Yeah, and I think this is an interesting point, because, you know, the way I heard about it is, I know someone in my family, who is a freshman at ASU this year. And that person told me the Friday before move in weekend, that they had received these mysterious messages from an ASU COVID party's Instagram account, talking about all this partying that's going on, and it actually directly syncs up with the Friday the 14th spike in activity of this ASU COVID party's account that we're looking at right now. We're looking at a time series graph of their activity. And on Friday the 14th, they've got a nice spike of activity. This is the same time that the person I'm speaking about received messages from this account. And if we didn't investigate any further or if we didn't look underneath this rock, I think we would just shrug our shoulders and say, well, that's really bizarre, who would do that? What a bunch of irresponsible behavior and move on. But the fact that it gets, that ASU and ASUs legal team and ASU as an organization comes out and kind of puts pressure on them and starts evaluating them and does an initial investigation that starts to shine some light on what's going on, and then starting to look at how this is connected, potentially, to a bunch of other Instagram accounts. If none of that activity happened in the very short period of time that happened between Friday the 14th, and today, the 21st, then we just wouldn't know that this was a misinformation or disinformation effort at all.

 

Shawn Walker: The ASU COVID account, these are all really small accounts, small number of posts, they have only a handful of followers. They're were more often than not they were following more than they were being followed. And so these would actually just have fallen under the radar if it wasn't for the lawsuit if it wasn't for the DM this account was sending to students at various universities or for the news coverage that was happening.

 

Michael Simeone: Yeah. And I think, again, this is one of those things where when we start thinking about, because whenever we look over these cases, we always ask what we can learn. But this because its approach was to pretend to be something else, which like, you know, a lot of bots, that's kind of their game, right is to pretend to be a real person. I don't know if this is necessarily a bot account, or like a sock puppet account. But, when we look at this, if these accounts rolled up and disappeared, there's so much content on Instagram. There's so much material on Facebook on all these platforms. I don't think anyone's going to give it a second thought. But what does happen is even if nobody attends any of these parties, because the account disappears. And I guess it's possible that the account disappeared because of the lawsuit, but I'm not exactly, I don't know if we can bank on that either. 

 

Michael Simeone: I mean, it could also be because Instagram and its parent company, Facebook, they have rules about what types of information you can post about COVID masks and we can say all of the posts from this account contain inaccurate information contain misinformation, and I'd argue, purposeful dis information about COVID. And about masks.

 

Michael Simeone: Yep. And  look when we think about these kinds of accounts, there's a number of outcomes that are perfectly acceptable from a mis and a disinformation perspective. It is completely acceptable and it's a win if this material lands and if people read this stuff and think, oh yeah, masks are garbage, I don't need to listen about masks. I'm going to think about my university as an authoritarian state. That's, right, that is a successful transmission of harmful or confusing ideas. But if people don't listen to that at all, if they get a notification like that on their phone, and they just dismiss it and say, Oh, this is nuts, like I'm not, I'm not gonna have any part of this whatsoever. Notice that there's still the impression that someone at ASU was trying to throw a COVID party and that still damages the reputation or your trust in your peers, right? If your student at ASU and you see that people are having COVID parties, you think of your peers just a little bit less, or maybe a lot a bit less as a result of interacting with this stuff. So even if these posts only last for seven days and then disappear, and you never hear from them again, and no one actually believed, explicit word for word, any of the content in there, they still think that it represented somebody at their school, and that makes them have less faith in collective action to stop the virus in the kind of integrity of their peers, etc, etc. So notice there's multiple ways to succeed. If your goal is to sow confusion, or chaos, or generally disorient people and erode their trust in institutions and everyone else.

 

Shawn Walker: Yeah, completely, I would add a couple more to that list. There is also a lot of content about ASUs policies regarding staying safe for COVID. So we have  an app or at website, that if you're on campus and working on campus, or attending class, you have to check in to see do you have symptoms, you have to wear a mask in the classroom, you have to stay six feet apart. And there are a whole multitude of posts in this account that are criticizing each one of those steps to say those are all overreaches, or those are all ineffective. It's it's also distilling a lack of trust and undermining a trust in that process that the universities created. So you're starting to kind of hollow at  that I mean, all of these, of course, are about decreasing our level of trust, our level of comfort, kind of instilling chaos. So if you start to see this, maybe your parents saw this, your parents are gonna say, well, do you really want to be on campus, if everyone's partying and you're going to sit next to somebody, maybe six feet away, but you're going to be in the same classroom with someone who's not wearing a mask and going to a COVID party, that's going to start to make students, parents, faculty, the community, everyone's going to be uncomfortable, and then we're going to spend a whole bunch of time trying to figure out what's going on and wasting a lot of resources in investigating these potentially non existing COVID parties, rather than going about the business of the university and doing other things to keep people safe.

 

Michael Simeone: Yeah. And here's what I think a big takeaway is from this. And I, you know, especially going from the range that you mentioned, from the signs that you see on campus every day, all the way up to the trustworthiness of the institution. And that is when people say that misinformation or disinformation is supposed to sow confusion. Confusion is a catch all for a lot of different things. So you can be confused by thinking one thing is true, or maybe it's not true. But you can be confused about facts. But it's also possible to be confused about risk communication. And so this is one of those situations where risk communication, right the kinds of things that you're saying explicitly to people about risks, and the risks that they face and how they can mitigate them, and risk signaling, which is all your actions and other kinds of behaviors that signal the risk environment. All these different things are short circuited by mis and disinformation. That is another kind of confusion. And so if you're getting people to distrust the signs or every school that is trying to open in person this semester, has copious signage and communication. In fact, they are betting explicitly or implicitly on their ability to communicate well with their student body and their faculty and staff. If you sow distrust in those communications, then you are ruining or you are interfering with that risk communication. If parents think that everyone is partying at the university that interferes with the university's risk signaling about trying to represent themselves in implicit and explicit ways as a safe and responsible place where everyone is compliant, right? Lots of students this semester across the country have to sign or agree to new codes of conduct that keep them and their peers safe. Just by suggesting that there are these massive parties going on  that basically buck the trend of protecting anybody and COVID interferes with that risk communication, interferes with that risk signaling. That's a kind of confusion. Not all confusions are alike. This is a complex result. We don't know if all of this was on purpose. But we just want to show that the injury of an account like this can be pretty severe. Even though it's a pretty simple account with not a whole lot of posts, and maybe not thousands and thousands of followers, it can still have a very complex and very significant harmful effect.

 

Shawn Walker: And I think it's important to say too, that the bar for success in a misinformation campaign is pretty low. So you know, any of those effects, even if those effects are slight, anything that we've talked about is a win. And if they sow more chaos, they take up more time or even hit multiple levels of each. That's even better. That's even a bigger win. So it doesn't take much for one of these campaigns to be effective and successful.

 

Michael Simeone: Yeah, it's  asymmetrical How much time did it take to boot up all those Instagram accounts, create however many means and then recycle them all across 20 or 30 accounts. Well, I think you would rather pay someone to do that then pay all of the lawyers and investigators it took for just one institution to try to fight this back. So the amount of harm and resources expended on the ASU side is much greater than the resources expended and the risk and damage on whoever is responsible for this ASU COVID party's Instagram account. And possibly, if they are also coordinate some of these other Instagram accounts, this is a very efficient effort.

 

Shawn Walker: And in that eye of efficiency, these accounts are relatively new. For example, the ASU COVID parties account their first post was on the fourth of August, and it only took about 10 days for that content to start to successfully move about the network and get some interactions. So it's not like a sleeper account that's been hanging out for years and years which we often saw in the 2016 election, there were many accounts controlled by the IRA, the Internet Research  Agency, which is an arm of the GRU Russian Intelligence. Many of those accounts that they used during the 2016 election were years old. And they've been curating certain profiles over time, curating certain followings. And then they just kind of flip the switch and start to then propagate a bunch of misinformation during the election. So that's what happened in 2016. In this case, these accounts were created, they only were there for a handful of days or weeks before they actually became effective.

 

Michael Simeone: Yeah, and I think context is everything here with a college or university, you only need to reach one person or two people on a floor of a dormitory in order for this to be effective, because they talk about it. They're living next to a bunch of their peers. So they're eating in a physically distant way, but they're still socializing in some ways with their peers. So talking about this kind of stuff does the work of the Instagram account without having to pass everything through the Instagram account.

 

Shawn Walker: And  I also find it curious that the account basically portrays itself to be basically a resident assistant in the dorms. So there's one specific post in the account that saying, you know, I'm a CA in the dorm. If there are parties, I'm not going to tell anyone, you know, I'm there to be supportive not to get you in trouble. So I basically pledge to not tell if you have parties. So it's very interesting that they're kind of trying all of these different techniques. And similar to like, when we talked about QAnon and conspiracy theories, there's basically a whole repertoire that they lay out there, and they say, basically, if any of these 24 things that I've talked about is a bit sticky for you, that's how I'm going to engage you. You can discard all the other ones. But if there's one specific post that kind of riles you up or is something that resonates with how you feel right now. Now, I've captured you and now you're going to talk about it. You're going to follow me you're going to propagate this information.

 

Michael Simeone: Right and really first success. As you said, it's a low bar. We just need people talking about it. We don't even need people necessarily believing it, we just need people saying like, Can you believe it? Is it actually possible? Could they be having COVID parties at the university? That is all you need to create the doubt. And like I said before, that's how you interfere with the risk communication. Because now people are, when they're hearing about the official line about how you should behave, they have in the back of their head. Oh, I don't know if this is working. I don't know if I can trust this system. So yeah, as you said, a low bar. And not really, you know, we don't need people to circulate all this content on Instagram on their own, right? The effects don't need to be measured on social media. The way it starts is on social media, but the impacts are not measurable just on social media alone.

 

Shawn Walker: Can you imagine how quickly the emails flooded into the president's office around this account, especially once the news coverage started? This has just been sort of more successful than their wildest dreams I imagine.

 

Michael Simeone: Two more things about this account to speaking about the harm and veracity One is, it seems like a lot of the comments that we're seeing, were kind of pushing back on this account, and kind of giving them grief. But at the same time, this is one of those situations where you push back and you resist the misinformation, but it's, it can still draw attention to it, and give it the kind of purchase that maybe you didn't intend, but it's still very productive to the idea of interfering with everybody's mutual trust. You know, the other thing is AZ Central actually mentioned that one alumnus threatened to cut off support for Arizona State University because they thought the account was affiliated with the university. So this is mentioned in the lawsuit, right? But the possible losses of reputation are incalculable, too, right? And so, obviously, I think, you know, you want to be thinking about the health and well being of students who are misinformed and health and well being of people impacted by that. But when you're thinking about the actual strategy of trying to employ a misinformation or disinformation event like this, using all of these different Instagram accounts, if you've got people not trusting the university that they, that they are donating to that is another layer of damage. Again, that might not have been anticipated. But that is a consequence. And the cost to produce the content is just nothing like the cost of the effect.

 

Shawn Walker: Well, and to think about this specific moment in time during a pandemic, when universities are seeing, you know, enrollment, international students, especially their enrollment lower, or decline, and so funding is an issue for universities. So the fact that creating this fake account, folks might think that it's associated with the university or even actual students, and that might harm the financial status of the university, that generates a lot of negative publicity on the university, especially during the first week of classes because classes just started yesterday, the 20th, that was the first day of classes. And so there's like timing is just impeccable for this information operation.

 

Michael Simeone: Yeah, and why target universities? I mean, we're talking for the last few minutes about some university specific, harmful outcomes. But why target universities? Well, they're a point of controversy right now.  It's in the news that universities are trying to open and that they're struggling in all kinds of ways. Most people are paying attention to a lot of high profile instances where large, prominent universities are having to roll back their in person plans and go to online learning. And so universities right now have a lot of attention on them from the public. And people are waiting with bated breath about what some of the decisions are going to be. Are there going to be coronavirus outbreaks. So not only is this a kind of time where the students are coming back and that that timing is really impeccable, as you mentioned, but also just where universities are right now in the United States, which is not terribly funded. Really kind of the source of a whole ton of attention in terms of their plans around Coronavirus, and because they bring a lot of people together. I think people are kind of anxious about whether or not some of these openings are going to make Coronavirus worse. And so, roll all those things together, they make a really nice target. Again, we're conjecturing about why targeting universities at this point. But it seems like an awfully convenient pathway for lots of different harmful consequences for misinformation or disinformation efforts.

 

Shawn Walker: And there have been a lot of questions about can we actually trust students to follow these guidelines. And so accounts like this, taking the persona of a student or a group of students, people pointed this and say, See, I told you that students couldn't trust  to use PPE or to not party or to gather and follow any of the rules. This just fits right into those concerns that we have. Yep. Yeah, in some ways, it's kind of custom made to think about or to activate people's anxieties. I mean, if we step back for a second and we look at these accounts, in context, then it starts to make sense what this account actually is . That it's probably fake, that we see  this constellation of accounts that it's connected to. So it's probably a whole set of accounts that are trying to do this. But that's not what happens when the average person loads this account. I mean, when I first saw this account, there were some things that I can't say out loud on this podcast that kind of popped into my mind, I just couldn't believe. And you know, I had to calm down for a second.

 

Michael Simeone: You're saying you believed it for a split second, you thought it was actually true?

 

Shawn Walker: Yeah, for I was just like, come on, because I'm teaching classes in person. And I just, I'm like, come on. Just why, come on? Can we have nice things? And then I stopped for a minute after my initial reaction. And think about it some more. I see these other accounts. And I see some of the comments other things. And actually reading the comments is kind of heartening, because I see a whole bunch of students from ASU and some folks that aren't from ASU. And it's not because I'm looking at their profiles, but people say that students say their student at ASU when they're replying to comments, They're like, No, you can't do this, this has to be fake. This is what we're doing. This is how we're staying safe. So it's heartening once you dive into it, but if you look at it at a surface level, kind of like in previous episodes when we talked about evaluating a headline and image, and you just kind of make a quick evaluation based on limited information, this, like feeds on that. And it's just like a homerun to just feed into those feelings and make you pretty angry and just disappointed in people and think, oh, wow, ASU students, they're really messing up. That's not actually the case here. But if you don't look under the surface, it's going to confirm those fears.

 

Michael Simeone: Yeah. And it's pretty tough to look under the surface on Instagram, especially if you're masquerading as a convener of social events. It would make sense that you just got started in August, it would make sense that you're just sharing the content that you're sharing. In fact, it's not like people are publishing, you know, research on Instagram or anything like that. Right. Like, as you mentioned, it's not really a text heavy platform. It's made for people just flipping through images and getting impressions. 

 

Shawn Walker: Let's break this down for a second. So let's talk a little bit about in research, we call these affordances. So kind of the features, the design of the interface. So what is it about Instagram that might make it a little more difficult for us to go under the surface? What about its design? Can you say a little bit about that?

 

Michael Simeone: Yeah, I mean, I think we don't. Most of the time, if you're on Instagram, there's not a lot of information about your account that really means anything. You might have a location, you might have a quick sentence about yourself, you might have a picture. But there's not really a lot of information required to have any kind of interaction on the platform. So that is a big barrier for people trying to understand who one another are on something like this.

 

Shawn Walker: And if we look at the design, so if you go to, I'm looking at the archived copy of this ASU COVID parties, but if you go to any Instagram accounts, so you can do this with us. When you load a profile, you see   that profile image So you see that profile image, how many followers they have, how many of their following, you know, basically a tiny bit or profile text. And then all you see is this grid, you see this grid of images below, and you can mouse over them. You see how many people like them, you see how many comments there are, but then you have to go into those pictures, click on them to bring those comments up and then scroll. So you have to kind of forcibly go into that other layer versus other platforms like Twitter or Facebook, those kind of comments auto load or in Twitter replies and some of those threading the auto loads versus Instagram. You just kind of skim these images, you skim the profile, and you you really have to work at going under the surface.

 

Michael Simeone: Yeah, another way thinking about it is you know, Twitter supports easy access to threaded conversations. Facebook, is built on easy access to threaded conversations, even Parlor supports some kind of threaded conversation, although not nearly in the same way that Facebook and Instagram do or sorry, Facebook  and Twitter do. And just as a reminder, right Parlor is, the sort of like, how would you describe Parlor?

 

Michael Simeone: I would describe Parlor as a microblogging platform that has attracted the attention of conservative politicians and right wing conspiracy theorists.

 

Shawn Walker: So it's kind of like, like a version of Twitter with less features.

 

Michael Simeone: Yes, yes. And actually, the notifications in Parlor are a nightmare. But that's another, that's another matter altogether.

 

Shawn Walker: That's a total episode. That's a different episode. Right?

 

Michael Simeone: That is right. Who will tune in to listen to a critique of the notification system of Parlor? Maybe two people in the world?

 

Shawn Walker: That sounds like a bad Saturday  Night Live skit?

 

Michael Simeaon: Ya, it does, it does.

 

Shawn Walker: Notifications from Parlor as read  by Jack Handy.

 

Michael Simeone: But if we look at but if we look at Instagram, right, like you just get a couple, like there's some crucial clicks that you have to make our taps in order to get to those comments. I don't know. I just don't think that Instagram is built to have that kind of conversation. And most of the time, Instagram's job is to just present to you an endless stream of images. And like most of the time, if you like it or make a comment on it, that's it. But then you're kind of moving on to the next set of images. This goes back to what we were saying before. You don't actually need to believe that it's 100% true. You don't need to read the comments or on Twitter, right? There's a lot to be made by comments on other tweets and boosting other tweets. That's how a lot of misinformation disinformation efforts work. But you know, sometimes with Instagram, yeah, you can build up somebody's profile, so they're more prominent and they show up in your feed. But with something like this, all you need to do is just have that image scroll by and you see it associated with ASU and you're like, dammit, we got people thinking like this? I just feel worse about things right now. That's all you need. You don't need any other kind of engagement beyond that.

 

Shawn Walker: So I feel like this accounts is designed to be like this La Brea Tar Pit that you just you look over these posts, scroll through the account once you don't want to go any further And just like you said, you're just like, damn it, I'm so disappointed. This just can't. And then if you're a donor, you know, you just hit forward to, you know, crow@asu.edu to the President, and you're like, what's going on? And it's just, it's just perfectly designed to feed into those feelings.

 

Michael Simeone: Yeah. And I well, I'm not sure if I follow the La Brea Tar Pit. Are you saying that it's meant to be a tar pit because you look at it and walk on by? Or do you think that this account actually ensnares people for deeper engagement?

 

Shawn Walker: I think this account kind of ensnares people in a set of feelings that they have  in the back of their mind. Oh, I see what you're saying and sort of in their gut about what's happening. So you just kind of see this account and you just kind of are stuck in these murky feelings about yeah, maybe opening was a bad idea. Maybe we can't keep students safe. Maybe students aren't going to be responsible. So now you're just stuck in this pit of, this confirms all of my deepest fears and suspicions about a university opening. Look what's happening, and you're just stuck there, and how do you get out of that?

 

Michael Simeone: Yeah. So in some ways, we can think about some mis and disinformation efforts like a, like a haunted house, where they invite you in. And then you're just kind of trapped there and somewhat by your own curiosity, but then sometimes, like this, it's more like a rotten bologna sandwich on the sidewalk where you walk by, you're not interested in it at all, but you accidentally step in it, and it's stuck to you and you're just smelling it all day and it just makes your day worse. It makes you think worse about all kinds of things. This is more like a rotten bologna sandwich. 

 

Shawn Walker: Make it stop, make it stop! Okay. That was that, that visualization or that smell or that taste is not what I needed. I was afraid you were gonna say it's like this bologna sandwich you see on the street and pick it up and eat it.

 

Michael Simeone: But yea this, is to your point, these things are sticky, and they kind of kick around your mind and make you trust less about what you've heard, and they might make you less likely to trust in the future.

 

Shawn Walker: So I think the take home of the stickiness is that there are different types of sticky. There are types of sticky where you then, you join a comminity. So once you start to see that content, then you become part of that community, you start engaging with that community. In this case, I think it's less that you're getting engaged with this account. But the feelings that this account brings up are the fears that this account kind of feeds, then you're stuck with those, you're stuck in those feelings. And that just makes those just a bit stronger. 

 

Michael Simeone: Right. Right. So a lot of times when people are coached about mis and disinformation, one of the things you don't hear all the time is if you encounter something that's suspicious, or that you don't really trust, take a second to deal with your feelings and clear them out. That's not advice that we typically give to folks. Right? When and when I say we, I mean, the kind of typical boilerplate mis and disinformation training has nothing to do with squaring your feelings so you can move on with your day and not having it affect your future judgment. But maybe it should.

 

Shawn Walker: Well, and so if we go back to maybe our first episode, we had those sort of eight tips for to figure or determine when something  might be mis or disinformation. In this case, we can't go to other sources to know whether this is true. Because it's not about whether the content in this account is fact or fiction. It's not, it's about, well, is this an actual student at ASU? Is this actual?  Are these parties actually happening? How do we confirm that? How do we have other sources? We can't go look at the New York Times, or we can't look at the Arizona Central or the State Press, the student newspaper at ASU. Or we can't call the university and say, Hey, can you tell me what's with these parties? Those tips don't work for this type of misinformation campaign.

 

Michael Simeone: Now, you could click the links. So if you click on the followers, or the people that this account is following, it's all women in bikinis on the beach or at parties. It is some kind of representation of parties from like a beer commercial. That's it. That seems like a suspicious thing. So that strategy might work where you might click on that and say, this just looks like a bunch of photos of not real people. Maybe that could be a giveaway? But  maybe not. But I take your point that, you know, a lot of times we think about misinformation and disinformation training at the level of fake news, or what news are you reading, but a fake social media account and a fake events coordinator? That's normally not something that's in fake news training or a fake news detection algorithm. Or when people think about typically the vectors for misinformation, they might not think about somebody pretending to be an RA at their dormitory trying to throw a party.

 

Shawn Walker: Yeah, and this accounts not linking to problematic news sources. This account is just producing its own fake content that happens to have a lot of Nazi symbolism in it, which is pretty uncomfortable.

 

Michael Simeone: Yeah, and in some ways,  the kind of giveaway that it's not trustworthy is just how simplistic the logic is, but you know that that route involves a level of engagement that most people might not be willing to give this when they're just scrolling through on their Instagram account, or if they get a direct message from somebody that says, hey, you know, we're having  a COVID party, do you want to come?  In some ways, going to that person's profile and vetting them as misinformation or disinformation source. That's, most people probably aren't going to do that. They're just going to say, Oh, this is this is foolish, I'm not gonna get involved with that. But that's kind of the point. Now, all of a sudden, because you dismiss it, you now have this in your head that it's probably some silly idea that somebody had.  If you go over there and like, click around and then try to validate it and see if it's actually a misinformation source. You know, I think you could get to the bottom of it. I think, a sensible person after enough time could maybe figure it out. But at the same time, that's a lot of work. When the kind of checkpoint to get there is to get an absurd message from somebody and say, you want to know what I'm going to do? I think I'm going to go investigate that person, rather than say, I ju st don't want to spend any time on this because I just don't agree with this idea at all.

 

Shawn Walker: Well, and most folks aren't going to spend all day looking at this account and the accounts its connected to, like we do. Most people have different hobbies than we do.

 

Michael Simeone: Yes, I think that is an understatement. Most people have different hobbies than we do. Yes. So, okay, so thinking as a way to kind of close out this conversation I, I like that we were able to think about Instagram a little bit. First off as something that's so visual, that you might have different habits surrounding it. And therefore misinformation, efforts that use Instagram are going to capitalize on Instagram habits and they're not going to look at, they're not going to resemble things like Twitter or Facebook, because people behave slightly differently on those platforms. What are some other things that we can kind of take away by thinking about Instagram today?

 

Shawn Walker: Well, in that the way that this account is designed, it's it's not about what we would fall into like traditional misinformation campaigns. It's not about tweeting out, you know, links to incorrect news stories or linking to fake news sources. This is just about creating this persona that can lead to doubt and doing it in a visual, with a visual medium. So we're not talking about text here. I mean, we have images with text, I guess. But we're, you know, we're doing this in a visual way with screenshots, with Nazi images, with Holocaust images in ways that are actually pretty disturbing. But they're so disturbing that you actually don't want to lift the lid because you're afraid of what's under the surface.

 

Michael Simeone: Right. So it appears just kind of disturbing and  radical, but that's the point. So again, thinking back to Instagram, in order to see something or for something on Instagram to be effective, you don't necessarily have to engage it in a really in depth way. Now, this is true on on Twitter and Facebook as well. But it feels like there's something particular to the use of Instagram, on a college campus context and using Instagram  as a kind of events coordination, that you don't have to provide a lot of details. Instagram is cryptic

 

Shawn Walker: When we skim visual information in a different fashion than we do textual information. So I'm able to scroll through this profile, just kind of skim through a whole series of pictures. Now I'm like, I just can't do this. And I'm like, crap, like, you were saying, you know, this is this is problematic, who is this student, is a student in my class, is this a student sitting next to me? And this is a different type of engagement and a different type of sort of visual skimming that we would use versus what we would use on other platforms that are more text heavy.

 

Michael Simeone: Yeah. And Instagram is, you know, pretty good at indirect influence. So a photograph of you using a product without mentioning anything about that product, but just kind of building up your lifestyle image so that that product does better. That kind of indirect influence is just perfectly fine. We see a similar kind of thing I think in something like this. You know, for an event that's on Facebook, there are details that are normally expected . For events on Instagram, it's kind of not a platform built toward events coordination. So just dropping all these cryptic hints and details and building it up. That's the kind of indirect kind of influencing that sometimes can be commonplace on Instagram, where it's kind of similar to in some ways, like an old school viral marketing campaign where folks would go into forums of enthusiasts for whatever thing that they were trying to sell, and then try to engage people in those communities, and try to bring them around eventually to affiliating with a particular idea or product or story. This uses some of those similar tactics where you're not obligated by the conventions of the platform or how people use it. You're not obligated to disclose details, you're not obligated to give specifics. It's perfect for innuendo and innuendo was a terrific vehicle for causing the kinds of damage that we've been talking about today.

 

Shawn Walker: And the interactions in the platform really push you towards visual and then a lot of surface level interactions. So liking, sending, little less so commenting This account doesn't actually use the full affordances of Instagram, these posts don't have hashtags. The profile doesn't have a hashtag, which are common tools to spread information and Instagram to insert yourself or connect yourself with other communities. And this account doesn't use any of that. Yeah. And I think there's a specific reason for that,  right? It's banking on local transmission of these ideas, rather than network transmission of these ideas. Right? Because that's going to be much more effective, especially given our current environment.

 

Michael Simeone: Yeah, we're not interested in kind of USA wide notoriety of the ASU COVID parties hashtag that's not important. So why hash tag anything that we're not interested in that kind of influence. It's more important to use this as the beginning of a word of mouth, word of mouth trend, which is, you know exactly how I heard about it, which is someone who is a freshman received a message and talked about it, and this person talked about it with all their friends and their friends talked about it with all their friends and it created a buzz and so in that way, it succeeded in a way that you, I think, we could have seen coming.

 

Shawn Walker: Yeah, I find it very quizzical that this account instead of using hashtags is actually DMing, or sending a direct message to actual ASU students to try to engage with them. And to get them to engage with this content. I think that's just such a much more effective strategy that they're using instead of hash tagging. Because then you have this local buzz like we're saying and we're kind of repeating this, but this this local buzz and that and we're at a point right now where we feel very vulnerable. So having any local buzz about an account like this and the activities that this account is like purporting that are taking place on campus, just is going to spread like a fire.

 

Michael Simeone: Yeah, I think that's a great thought to end on, in that the spread of misinformation and disinformation. Sometimes we can get too hung up on the digital aspect of it, about where it's going on the platform about how many likes or retweets or anything like that, that it may get. This is a nice instance of how a mis information or disinformation effort really leverages those human social networks that are not digital, and uses those as a way to exploit and gain as much advantage and erode as much trust as possible.

 

Shawn Walker: And finally, I want to note that this example, takes excellent advantage of the context. So we have this pandemic that's happening, universities are opening, there's heavy scrutiny of what the universities are doing. So a good information operation is going to take advantage of that context, and then allow that to spread in a way that if they don't take advantage of the context, this would just kind of not exist, and nobody would pay any attention.

 

Michael Simeone: Yeah, I think that's a great place to end and it gives people plenty to think about in terms of how to think about material that they encounter, and how to best kind of be thoughtful about what they do with the information that they encounter. 

So thanks for joining us, and we will catch you in the next one. Be well and be thoughtful. For questions or comments, use the email address datascience@asu.edu and to check out more about what we're doing. library.asu.edu/data