Trump’s Twitter Following Jumps, Sparking Fears of a Bot War

Twitter has been one of Donald Trump’s key tools ever since he started running for president, so it’s no surprise that his account is closely followed by millions of users, and his every tweet is parsed for intelligence about his intentions.

More recently, however, attention has focused on the fact that Trump’s already large Twitter following appears to have increased substantially, and that many of these new followers seem to be “bots” or automated accounts. This has triggered fears in some circles of a looming “bot war.”

According to a number of tweets, including one that got a lot of traction on the social network, Trump’s following increased by as much as 5 million in a matter of days, and most of the new followers were automated or fake accounts.

https://twitter.com/txmockingjay/status/869389023898370048

A spokesman for Twitter, however, told BuzzFeed this report was not true, and a comparison that the news site did between Trump’s current personal Twitter profile and an archived version of the page shows that it has only increased by about 300,000 in the past few days.

While it may not have grown by several million in just a few days, Trump’s account has added more than 2 million followers this month, according to Mashable. It has added about 7 million since February, the site said, and more than half of them have blank profiles.

A report from a third-party service called Twitter Audit shows that more than half of those following the president’s account are suspected of being fake or automated (although BuzzFeed notes that the site’s methodology for detecting fakes is not foolproof).

These large increases, and what appears to be a huge number of automated followers, have sparked a number of theories, including one from Newsweek that suggested the president or his team might have purchased fake followers, something celebrity accounts occasionally do.

But another theory being promoted by some observers is that the bots are part of a deliberate build-up for a forthcoming “bot war” between the Trump administration and its critics, one that might be part of a Russian attempt to influence public opinion related to the president.

Malcolm Nance, a retired U.S. Navy cryptologist and intelligence expert, said he believes that the increase in bots following Trump could show that “Russian cyber warfare support [is] ramping up for @POTUS” and that this kind of behavior is a “key intelligence indicator.”

Intelligence sources working for a number of agencies including the FBI have suggested that agents working for or with the Russian government may have tried to influence the outcome of the U.S. election. And Facebook recently released a report that indicates organized groups tried to influence public opinion via fake accounts sharing hoaxes or misinformation.

Hillary Clinton Blames the Russians, Facebook and Fake News for her Loss

Looking back on her failed election campaign, former Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton said she takes responsibility for every political decision she made, but “that’s not why I lost,” she told attendees at the Code conference in San Francisco on Wednesday.

In addition to press attention focused on her use of a personal email server—which Clinton called a “nothing-burger” that the New York Times “covered like it was Pearl Harbor”—the former Secretary of State said she was subjected to an unprecedented campaign of fake news and social engineering on Facebook, orchestrated by Russian agents and an army of bots.

Clinton said that while her campaign was using social media to reach out to potential voters and supporters, Republican groups were engaged in the “weaponization of technology” to push a message about her and the risks of electing her president.

“Here’s what the other side was doing,” she told interviewers Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher of Recode. “Through content farms, through an enormous investment in falsehoods, fake news, call it what you will—lies—the other side was using content that was just flat out false, and delivering it both above and below the radar screen.”

In terms of Facebook, Clinton said that the “vast majority” of news items that appeared on the social network about her were fake. This orchestrated campaign was “connected, as we now know, to a thousand Russian agents [and] connected to the bots, which are just out of control,” she said.

Clinton referred to a recently declassified report from the Director of National Intelligence, which said that a number of intelligence agencies agreed there was Russian involvement in the campaign.

“Read the declassified report that came out in early January,” Clinton said. “Seventeen agencies all in agreement—they concluded with high confidence that the Russians ran an extensive information war campaign against my campaign to influence voters in the election.”

These fake news stories helped convince potential voters not to support her, Clinton said. And the former Secretary of State said she and her campaign were convinced of Russian government involvement in a disinformation campaign and other dirty tricks early on.

“We went and told anyone we could find that the Russians were messing with the election and we were basically shoo’d away,” Clinton said. “We couldn’t get the press to cover it.”

Clinton also referred to Cambridge Analytica, a data-analysis company that specializes in using demographic and psycho-graphic data about online behavior to target political and advertising messages. Some have credited the firm—which is controlled by Robert Mercer, a prominent backer of the Trump campaign—with helping to sway the election.

The former Senator said that it’s important for people in the technology world and the business world to understand the connections between “domestic fake news operations” and the sophisticated attempts by Russian cyber agents to influence user behavior.

“How did they know what messages to deliver?” Clinton asked, referring to the Russians. “Who told them? Who were they colluding with?” She also called on Facebook to do more about fake news on the network. “They’ve got to curate the news more effectively,” she said. “They’ve got to help prevent fake news from creating a new reality.”

Clinton called her use of a personal email server a “nothing burger,” that got turned into “the biggest scandal since Lord knows when.” New York Times covered it “like it was Pearl Harbor.” She said “I take responsibility for every decision I made, but that’s not why I lost.” Talks about the “weaponization of technology” by various groups, as well as the Russians and Cambridge Analytica. “Here’s what the other side was doing — through content farms, through an enormous investment in falsehoods, fake news, call it what you will — lies — other side using content that was just flat out false, delivering it both above and below the radar screen — look at Facebook, vast majority of the news items were fake — connected as we know now to 1,000 Russian agents, connected to the bots, which are just out of control, see reports now about Trump’s account and all the fake accounts following him…

Clinton noted that she had no control of the Russians, which she said “weaponized” technology against her. She cited the deluge of false articles that circulated on Facebook in the months preceding the election that were “connected to the 1000 Russian agents,” and WikiLeaks, which spent the month before the election releasing a daily trove of emails from her campaign Chairman John Podesta.

Google searches for WikiLeaks, she said, were highest in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, swing states crucial to her victory that she narrowly lost. But, she said, the Russians couldn’t have acted unilaterally; they had to have had support from Americans. “How did they know what messages to deliver?” she asked about the Russians. “Who told them? Who were they colluding with?”

“It’s important for people in tech and business to understand the marriage of the “domestic fake news operations,” the sophisticated Russian cyber units and the Republicans’ more flush data repository, Clinton said.

“Putin wants to bring us down,” Clinton said. “It’s way beyond me. …. I believe that what was happening to me was unprecedented. Over the summer we went and told anyone we could find that the Russians were messing with the election and we were basically shoo’d away. …. We couldn’t get the press to cover it.”

Clinton said platforms like Facebook have got to get better at curating news. But she also said that her supporters put off taking more action on fake news because she was thought to be in the lead. “I don’t know enough about what they could have done in real time,” Clinton said. “I also think I was the victim of the very broad assumption I was going to win. I never believed it, I always thought it would be a close election.”

Bill Simmons Is Moving His Sports Media Empire Again

When sportscaster Bill Simmons left ESPN and subsequently started a new publication called The Ringer, in partnership with the blogging platform Medium, it was seen as a huge loss for Disney-owned ESPN. Now, Simmons is on the move again — this time to Vox Media.

Vox CEO Jim Bankoff told the Wall Street Journal he sees Simmons and The Ringer as a strong brand that will fit well with the company’s portfolio. Vox Media, whose financial backers include NBCUniversal, operates a range of sites including The Verge, Recode and the sports-blog network SB Nation.

Simmons will retain ownership of The Ringer and its various offshoots, which include a successful podcast that he started while at ESPN. Bankoff said Vox and Simmons will share the advertising revenue from those assets, although the exact ratio was not made public.

Before he left in 2015, Simmons was one of the stars of the ESPN universe, thanks to the audience he had built up for Grantland, the standalone sports and culture site he created for the network. His departure was seen by many as a sign that ESPN was losing traction with sports fans, and he made no secret of the fact that the parting was acrimonious.

Sources at ESPN, meanwhile, said at the time that Grantland was mostly a vanity project for Simmons and didn’t really generate enough traffic or advertising revenue to make it worthwhile for the site to continue, in part because of Simmon’s $3-million salary.

After leaving the sports network, Simmons signed a high-profile deal with HBO to produce and star in an interview show called Any Given Wednesday. But despite his passionate following in the sports world, the program failed to generate much positive buzz, and it was eventually shelved just four months after it launched.

When the show launched, HBO became an investor in Simmons’ holding company, which produced the show and his other ventures. It’s unclear what role the broadcast network will have in the current relationship with Vox, or whether Simmons will continue working with HBO as well.

Several months after he left ESPN, Simmons announced that he was starting a new venture called The Ringer, and that it would be hosted by Medium, the blogging platform founded by Twitter co-founder and former CEO Evan Williams. At the time, the site was busy signing up to host a number of external publishers and content companies.

Earlier this year, however, Medium announced that it was pivoting its business away from advertising revenue to a subscription-based model, which reportedly took a number of its publishing partners by surprise and made them rethink their desire to be hosted there.

Vox Media, meanwhile, said that if The Ringer experiment works well, the company may consider opening its platform and network up to other publishers or content creators in the same way. “We may do others, but we will be very selective,” Bankoff told the Journal. “We only want to work with the best and with sites that are consistent with our approach.”

Bankoff, a former executive at AOL, joined what became Vox in 2008. At the time, the company consisted primarily of SB Nation, a network of hundreds of individual blogs written by fans of different local sports teams.

In addition to sites like The Verge, Polygon and Vox, the company also owns Recode, which was previously known as All Things Digital and was at one time co-owned by the Wall Street Journal. In 2015, NBCUniversal invested $200 million in Vox, giving it a theoretical valuation of almost $1 billion at the time.

Court Finds Man Guilty for Liking Defamatory Comments on Facebook

In what appears to be a first, a court in Switzerland has fined a man the equivalent of over $4,000 just for clicking the “like” button on what a judge said were defamatory Facebook comments.

The comments in question suggested that Erwin Kessler, who runs an animal-rights group, holds racist and anti-Semitic views. The defendant (who wasn’t named in the court documents obtained by Agence France Presse) clicked “like” on some of the comments and linked to some of the posts.

Kessler has sued a number of people who participated in those discussions, which began in 2015 during a debate over which animal-rights groups should be allowed to participate in a vegan street festival, according to a Swiss newspaper that covered the story.

Several of the people who made specific comments about Kessler have been found guilty of defamation, but Swiss legal experts said the defendant in the most recent case is the first to have been fined just for “liking” such comments.

According to court documents, the judge in the case ruled that by clicking the “like” button, the defendant “clearly endorsed the unseemly content and made it his own.”

To complicate matters, Kessler was convicted of making racist comments (something that is illegal under Swiss law) in 1998, and briefly served time in prison. But the judge in the recent case said that the defendant had failed to prove that the comments he “liked” were accurate.

Defamation law as it applies to social networks is a grey area in a lot of countries, including the United States, although the U.S. First Amendment provides a lot more protection for an individual’s right to freedom of speech than is found in some other jurisdictions.

Even in the U.S., there have been a number of defamation cases involving social media, including a case in which singer Courtney Love was sued for making derogatory comments about a fashion designer and was forced to pay $350,000 to settle the case.

In Britain, a newspaper columnist was convicted earlier this year of making derogatory comments about a writer on Twitter and was forced to pay damages of $30,000.

The Swiss case, however, appears to be the first in which a man has been found guilty of defamation just for clicking the “like” button on someone else’s comments on Facebook.

In her decision, the Swiss judge argued that by doing so, the man had made the comments “accessible to a large number of people,” since Facebook showed them to all of his friends and followers. Doing this was an “affront to Kessler’s honour,” the judge ruled.

In a Canadian case, a woman was found guilty of making disparaging comments on Facebook about a neighbor, and was held responsible not only for the damage her own comments caused, but also for subsequent comments made by her friends.

Here’s Why Facebook Opened Instant Articles up to Google and Apple

If there’s one thing you can usually count on with Facebook, it’s that any new feature the giant social network introduces will be designed primarily to benefit Facebook, in most cases by getting users to spend more time inside the company’s walled garden.

That’s why an announcement Facebook made on Thursday is unusual. The company said it is opening up the technology behind its mobile-focused Instant Articles feature so it works with similar services offered by Google and Apple.

With one step, publishers will now be able to use a Facebook software tool to produce articles that fit the Facebook IA standard, and also comply with Google’s competing AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) standard and the Apple News format.

This doesn’t mean Google or Apple will get any more access to Facebook’s platform than they would have before, but it does represent a kind of truce in the mobile news war, and in that sense it is a tacit admission of failure by Facebook.

By supporting Google and Apple’s technologies, the company is essentially admitting that Instant Articles by itself wasn’t enough to entice publishers.

For the past two years or so, ever since it launched Instant Articles as a limited trial with partners like the New York Times (and Time Inc., which owns Fortune), the social network has been trying to get media companies to adopt it.

In a nutshell, the feature takes articles that have been formatted for the web and strips them down to make them load more quickly in Facebook’s mobile browser.

Initially, this was an appealing idea for many publishers, who either didn’t have the financial resources or the skills to make their stories load faster in mobile browsers. But at the same time, it was a problematic deal in many ways.

Facebook offered anyone who participated in the program 70% of the revenue from ads that Facebook was able to sell, or 100% of the revenue from ads they sold themselves. But this revenue didn’t exactly start pouring in for many of those who signed up.

The company made a number of tweaks to try and improve the situation, but it didn’t really move the needle for many media companies, especially since one of the main ways Facebook sped up the loading of pages was by blocking certain types of ads.

In addition to that, some publishers were leery of giving Facebook even more control over their content. The giant social network already accounts for a huge amount of the traffic that many media outlets get from the web, and uses its algorithm to control who sees their content and when.

Some, like the Washington Post, jumped in with both feet, but others — including Bloomberg, the Wall Street Journal and ESPN — balked.

Even the New York Times, a launch partner, eventually stopped participating in Instant Articles, and so did The Guardian (which also pulled out of Apple News). In part, that’s because both papers were focusing on their digital subscriptions and membership programs, and Instant Articles wasn’t really helping.

Many publishers seem to be more interested in Google’s AMP standard, which is more open than Facebook’s. Although the search giant is in charge of the technology, it is an open-source project that makes its code public and theoretically allows anyone to take part in developing it.

There are still concerns on the part of some media companies that Google has too much control over AMP, and that it is interested primarily in promoting its own advertising networks and technologies, but AMP still seems to have gotten more uptake than Instant Articles. It also supports subscriptions and paywalls, which Instant Articles doesn’t.

Apple News, meanwhile, got off to a slow start, with many publishers seeing extremely low traffic from articles they formatted for the service. But more recently there is evidence that some sites are seeing improved traffic from their Apple News articles.

Apple also recently hired a managing editor for Apple News, a position that didn’t exist before, which suggests that it might be looking to beef up the service and possibly even expand it.