5 - 16 July 2021 

 

Online via Zoom 

Digital Methods Initiative - Summer School 2021

 

Fake everything: Social media’s struggle with inauthentic activities

This year’s Summer School has as its theme the so-called ‘faking’ and detecting of inauthentic users, metrics and content on social media. The uptick in attention to the study of the fake online could be attributed in the first instance to the ‘fake news crisis’ of 2016, where it was found that so-called fake news outperformed mainstream news on Facebook in the run-up to the U.S. presidential elections that year. That finding also set in motion the subsequent struggle around the occupation of the term from a type of news originating from imposter media organisations or other dubious sources to a ‘populist’ charge against mainstream and elite media that seeks to delegitimate sources found publishing inconvenient or displeasing stories.

In its study we have had calls to cease using the term, fake news. There also has been a variety of classification strategies. Both the expansion as well as contraction of the term may be seen in its reconceptualisation by scholars as well as by the platforms themselves. The definitional evolution is embodied in such phrasings as ‘junk news’ and ‘problematic information’, which are broader in their classification, whilst the platforms appear to prefer the terms ‘false’ (Facebook) or ‘misleading’ (Twitter), which are narrower. 

On the backend the platform companies also develop responses to fake activities. They would like to automate as well as outsource its detection and policing, be it through low-wage content moderators, volunteer fact-checking outfits or user-centred collaborative filtering such as Twitter’s ‘birdwatchers’, an initiative they say born of societal distaste for a central decision-making authority, found through qualitative interviews. They also take major decisions to label content by world leaders (and indeed have world leader content policies), which subsequently lands platform decision-making in the spotlight.

More broadly there has been a rise in the study of ‘computational propaganda’ and ‘artificial amplification’ which the platforms refer to as ‘inauthentic behaviour’. These may take the form of bots or trolls; they may be ‘coordinated’ by ‘troll armies’, which has been outlined in Facebook’s regular ‘coordinated inauthentic behaviour reports’. As its head of security policy puts it, Facebook defines it (in a roomy and plainspeak manner) as ‘people or pages working together to mislead others about who they are or what they are doing’. Occasionally data sets become available (by Twitter or other researchers) that purport to be collections of tweets by these inauthentic, coordinated campaigners, whereupon scholars (among other efforts) seek to make sense of which signals can be employed to detect them.

Other types of individuals online also have caught the attention of the platforms as ‘dangerous’ (Facebook), and have been deplatformed, a somewhat drastic step that follows (repeated) violations of platform rules and presumably temporary suspensions. ‘Demonetisation’ also is among the platforms’ repertoire of actions, should these individuals, such as extreme internet celebrities, be turning vitriol into revenue, though there is also the question of which advertisers attach themselves (knowingly or not) to such content. Moreover, there are questions about why certain channels have been demonetised for being 'extremist'.

On the interface, where the metrics are concerned, there may be follower factories behind high follower and like counts. The marketing industry dedicated to social listening as well as computational researchers have arrived at a series of rules of thumb as well as signal processing that aid in the flagging or detection of the inauthentic. Just as sudden rises in follower counts might indicate bought followers, a sudden decline suggests a platform ‘purge’ of them. Perhaps more expensive followers gradually populate an account, making it appear natural. Indeed, there is the question of which kinds of (purchased) followers are ‘good enough’ to count and be counted. What is the minimum amount of grooming? Can it be automated or is there always some human touch? Finally, there is a hierarchy in the industry, where Instagram followers are the most sought after, but ‘influencers’ (who market wares there) are often contractually bound to promise that they have not ‘participated in comment pods (group 'liking' pacts), botting (automated interactions), or purchasing fake followers'.

 

Information

For all details about this Summer Course, please visit the Digital Methods website below. 

Instructions, project descriptions and welcome package (as they become available)

 

Course information:

  • Dates: 5-16 July 2020
  • Tuition fee: € 895
  • Registration deadline: 5 May 2021
  • Academic director: Richard Rogers
  • Organizers: Guillén Torres, Esther Weltevrede
  • Academic level: all graduate levels - Master's, PhD candidates and professionals/scholars
  • Credits: 6 ECTS 
  • Field of study: New Media and Digital Culture
  • Location: Online via Zoom or in-person. Media Studies, Turfdraagsterpad 9, 1012 XT Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Summer school philosophy

The Digital Methods Summer School is exploratory and experimental. It is not a setting for ‘just’ tool training or for principally tool-driven research. Substantive research projects are conceived and carried out. Participants are encouraged to ‘span time with their issue’ and the materials. In other words, we heed Alexander Galloway’s admonition about data and tool-driven work: “Those who were formerly scholars or experts in a certain area are now recast as mere tool users beholden to the affordances of the tool — while students spend ever more time mastering menus and buttons, becoming literate in a digital device rather than a literary corpus.”[1] We encourage device and corpus literacy! The device training we ask you to do prior to the Summer School through online tutorials, and at the Summer School itself, in a kind of flipped learning environment (if you'll excuse the overused phrase), we would like to believe that you have familiarised yourself already with the tools (and are driven, to complete the thought). During the Summer School we will discuss and tinker with the nitty-gritty, aim to invent new methods, techniques and heuristics and create the first iterations of compelling work to be shared.

[1] Alexander Galloway (2014)." The Cybernetic Hypothesis," Differences. 25(1):107-131. See page 127.


About the Summer School

The Digital Methods Summer School, founded in 2007 together with the Digital Methods Initiative, is directed by Professor Richard Rogers, Chair in New Media & Digital Culture and Department Chair at Media Studies, University of Amsterdam. The Summer School is one training opportunity provided by the Digital Methods Initiative (DMI). DMI also has a Winter School, held the first week of January. Both Schools have a technical staff as well as a design staff, drawn from the ranks of Density Design in Milan. The Schools also rely on a technical infrastructure of servers hosting tools and storing data. 

In a culture of experimentation and skill-sharing, participants bring or log on with their laptops, learn method, undertake research projects, make reports, tools and graphics and write them up on the Digital Methods wiki. The Summer School concludes with final presentations. Often there are subject matter experts from non-governmental or other organizations who present their analytical needs and issues at the outset and the projects seek to meet those needs, however indirectly.

Please see previous Digital Methods Summer Schools, 2007-2020. See also previous Digital Methods Winter Schools, 2009-2021.

The Digital Methods Initiative was founded with a grant from the Piet Mondriaan Foundation, the public cultural funding organization. The Digital Methods Summer and Winter Schools are self-sustaining.

Credits and completion certificate

Completion certificate and transcript for 6 ECTS are granted to participants who follow the Summer School program, and complete a significant contribution to a Summer School project as evidenced by co-authorship of the project reports as well as final (joint) presentation slides. Templates for the project report as well as for the presentation slides are supplied. Please note that certificates of completion and the transcripts are the same. There are no other certificates or proof of participation supplied.

participant registration
 participant registration