Grassroots or Astroturf?
A look at online at spending around the pipeline protests, a royal mystery and some other tidbits
Roberto Rocha, Jeff Yates and I found that oil and gas companies, and groups linked to them, have spent an estimated $110,000 since the start of the year on Facebook ads that denounce the First Nations-led protests that have targeted rail transport in Canada in the past month.
Some of the groups try to position themselves as grassroots groups, but are actually receiving industry money - a practice called astroturfing.
As Fenwick McKelvey told us: "What you see here is an example of monied interests being able to exploit simple loopholes and basically being able to buy seeming public legitimacy for a time, at least until people call them out on it."
One thing we didn’t get to expand on as much as I’d have liked in the piece is the Conservative leadership candidates who were spending big on ads against the protest.
Erin O’Toole, one of the biggest spenders, ran 30 ads in both languages, at an estimated cost of $14,000 against the protests, and calls the protestors “foreign-funded radicals” and “eco-extremists.”
I’ve previously mentioned this, but O’Toole is working with Jeff Ballingall (Ballingall is his social media manager) who is the founder of Ontario Proud, Canada Proud and Alberta Proud, all right-wing Facebook pages. And, Ballingall is the Chief Marketing Officer for The Post Millennial (one of two executives listed on the masthead), which has been questionable in its reporting on the protests and blockades, in using the words “domestic terrorism” or trying to create links when none exist.
Come for the Shakespearean references, stay for the stats
I was entertained by the always-excellent Caity Weaver and her dive this past weekend into what, exactly, is going on with @SussexRoyal and @KensingtonRoyal on Instagram.
The premise is this: At first, William and Kate and Harry and Meghan all used @KensingtonRoyal on Instagram. But in April of 2019, Harry and Meghan created @SussexRoyal, and at the rate they were gaining followers, they should have overtaken @KensingtonRoyal easily. But, they did not. Why?
One hypothesis she floats in the piece: that bots are being used to inflate follower numbers.
And bot territory is a strange place, where it can be hard to figure out what’s real and what’s not.
What I like so much about this piece is that it functions both as a primer into how journalists working in the disinformation landscape go about reporting, and how difficult it is becoming to get solid numbers on social media.
But inauthentic activity is somewhat unverifiable. One of the biggest challenges of unearthing fake followers, for the layman, is that many of the tools for doing so have disappeared.
Alex Taub, a founder and the former C.E.O. of the social media analytics company SocialRank, described the current social media landscape as “like a black box.””
It stems from the spring of 2018, when TechCrunch reported that Instagram had abruptly limited the amount of user data developers outside the company could access. (Mark Zuckerberg was about to testify before Congress regarding the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which a political consulting firm collected and sold the personal data of nonconsenting Facebook users.)
The move impaired the ability of third parties to perform widespread data analysis. In so doing, it granted all Facebook and Instagram users more privacy — including those accounts operating as bots.
But not only has it become more difficult for third parties to perform data analysis, it is more difficult to as an average user to perform an analysis on the accounts you do run. I was pulling some statistics the other day for a Facebook account and a Twitter account I manage, and neither give the option of viewing all the data in more than a two-month period at one time. Instead you have to download the data, and view it in a spreadsheet.
I used to be able to easily sort the top Facebook posts for an account for the year, now I can’t do it at all. Transparency is no longer the watchword.
Back to the royals: by the end of the piece you can draw your own conclusions, but you’ll be much better versed in the world of online manipulation too.