Oxford Internet Institute of Junk Science etc.

The UK-based Oxford Internet Institute (OII) claiming to be “dedicated to the social science of the Internet” is actually an ordinary propaganda mill, despite its Oxford brand. Since 2016, it brought its pseudo-scientific research to bear on multiple topics of public debate related to the internet and social media in the US and other countries. 

Oxford Internet Institute produced junk science rejecting actual scientific evidence that Big Tech services harm adolescents’ mental health. This junk science was used in an advertorial published by Facebook in the Telegraph, UK. The Computational Propaganda Project of this “Institute” (ComProp) played a key role in creating the social media component of the Russia Hoax in November 2016.

This post contains supporting material for the article The Russia Hoax Was Aided by NGOs Peddling Junk Science in the American Thinker, December 31, 2019.

ComProp “Research”

ComProp produced a few “data memos,” the most relevant of which were the Third Debate Data Memo (Oct 27, 2016), following the 3rd Presidential candidates’ debate, and the US Elections Data Memo (Nov 17, 2016). These memos, self-published without any peer review, are styled as research papers, made bombastic claims that Trump’s advantage on Twitter was because of bots. The latter “paper” even claimed that pro-Trump bots outpaced pro-Clinton bots 5:1, and even “strategically colonized pro-Clinton hashtags.” 

This was a junk science. The authors selected hashtags which they deemed election related, and counted tweets with those hashtags, sent over the test period of nine days. Retweets were included among the tweets. The authors used the terms “automated account”, “highly automated account”, and “bot” interchangeably. Accounts that sent more than 50 tweets per day with any of the selected hashtags were declared automated. Of course, such determination is incorrect. It takes one or two clicks to retweet a tweet. A human can retweet more than 50 tweets within ten minutes, so most of OII ComProp bots were humans. Selection of election related hashtags was also biased. For example, the authors declared #factcheck and #strongertogether to be pro-Clinton hashtags – then whined that Trump supporters colonized pro-Clinton tags. Even these false conclusions didn’t claim any Russian connections. These connections were alleged later, starting on November 9.

On November 18, OII ComProp expanded its “expertise” to other social media platforms, and other subjects, including harassment and “fake news”. From its purported Resource for Understanding Political Bots:

We put together this brief write-up for people (concerned citizens, journalists, policy makers, academics, etc.) hoping to 1) understand the use and brief history of political bots, 2) develop ways for spotting political bots on social media platforms and 3) work to understand the role of companies like Twitter and Facebook in moderating bot driven propaganda, harassment, and fake news.

Automated propaganda, or computational propaganda, refers to political disinformation and harassment campaigns on social media platforms … Trump bots, however, outnumbered Clinton bots 5:1. Trump bots also worked in a more sophisticated fashion, working to colonize pro-clinton hashtags (like #ImWithHer) and spread fake news stories and disinformation on how to vote to potential Clinton supporters. Similar efforts to use political bots to affect political conversations have been undertaken by governments, militaries, and intelligence organizations in Turkey, Syria, Ecuador, Mexico, Brazil, Rwanda, Russia, China, Ukraine. Politicians and political groups/individuals in Western Democracies, however, also make use of Political bots: the US, UK, Australia, Germany, France, and Italy among them.

The text might have changed since the original.

MSM & NGOs

Although Twitter rebutted ComProp’s claims, the MSM, hungry for anything that would help delegitimize Trump, gave them wall-to-wall coverage, and made claims that went far beyond ComProp memos. This said, ComProp encouraged such embellishment. ComProp “researchers” Philip N. Howard and Samuel C. Woolley gave interviews exaggerating their already dubious memos. Following this, an entire new mini-industry of searching for Russian bots and trolls sprang up. 

 (Nov 7, 2016, The Daily Dot) How pro-Trump Twitter bots are still manipulating the 2016 conversation

This article is based on the Third Debate Data Memo, but further embellishes it, and connects the bots to Russia. It was published a day prior the elections.

According to a recent study … hashtags relating to the last general election presidential debate were flooded with tweets from Twitter bots—automated computer programs designed to tweets using predetermined scripts.

Sam Wooley, a researcher at University of Washington who co-authored the study, noted that, while his team hasn’t done a large-scale network analysis of bots supporting Trump, he has identified two primary networks … Woolley identified a second large network of bots, this one based in Russia. He noted that many of the bots reporter Adrian Chen identified as being part a Russian online propaganda network, dubbed “The Agency,” have shifted to discussing the U.S. presidential election and do so in a way that bolsters Trump’s candidacy.

The ”Data Memos” misidentified humans as bots. They didn’t attempt to detect networks of bots. Adrian Chen, the author of an article about IRA in the NYT, identified no specific bots, either. Sam Woolley made stuff up, out of thin air.

At the same time, the article praises a “new wave of bots designed to waste the time of conservative Twitter trolls by drawing them into un-winnable arguments with robotic antagonists.”

(Nov 9, 2016, National Democratic Institute) The distributed denial of democracy

The National Democratic Institute (NDI) is a federal funded supposedly non-partisan (or even quasi-governmental) organization with a mandate to spread democracy abroad. Somehow, the federal funding of NDI is mixed with the money and influence of the Open Society Foundation (George Soros), UN agencies, EU, multiple foreign governments, Amazon, Google etc. Despite being forbidden to operate in the US, it has been fighting Donald Trump tooth and nail. 

This article doesn’t mention ComProp or any other alleged research. It just alleges connection between Trump’s election, bots, “troll farms”, Russia, and misinformation.

 Social media and the Internet have had a drastic effect on the surprise results of yesterday’s election in the United States, driving the spread of information—and misinformation—at times bringing voters together and, perhaps more often, pushing them apart. As the spotlight shifts off of the U.S. in the aftermath of November 8, it’s important to recognize that this is not a uniquely American trend.

…Through “troll farms” of professional online provocateurs, automated bots pumping out thousands of comments, or a “Web Brigade” of crowdsourced online abuse, authoritarian regimes are engaged in a long-term and well-resourced program of undermining the democratic rights … 

Some have framed DDoD attacks as primarily a Russian problem, but Freedom House’s 2015 report, Freedom on the Net, noted the presence of paid trolling operations across governments in all of the world’s regions.

It is, however, Russia that is the most noted offender. A report from the New York Times Magazine in 2015 noted that many of the thousands of paid trolls that fill unmarked government office buildings in Russia reported quotas requiring them to produce dozens of blog posts and hundreds of comments each day. 

Many of these themes went straight to the so-called Intelligence Community Assessment. This article was followed by: 

  (Nov 11, 2016) Event: The US Election and Disinformation @ IFTF 

Director of Research Samuel Woolley gave a talk on November 11, 2016 at an event sponsored by the National Democratic Institute and the US State Department. The theme of the event, which was held at the Institute for the Future, was the role of disinformation during the US Election.

 (Nov 10, 2016 – Backchannel, Wired) How Bots, Twitter, and Hackers Pushed Trump to the Finish Line

This article mixes bots, hackers, and Russia together, and mentions Samuel Woolley, one of the “researchers” with the Political Bots / Computational Propaganda. Selected quotes:

The 2016 presidential election season is, at last, over. Polls and the press were reasonably certain Hillary Clinton would emerge as the country’s first female president. But the winner, to the shock of many, was Donald Trump…

Following the third debate, automated pro-Trump accounts on Twitter pumped out seven times more messages than pro-Clinton accounts. …

In October, the New York Times reported that Russia was behind not only the hack of the DNC, but also the hack of Podesta’s email account …

This article also contains some interesting revelations:

According to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the group received no information, hacked or shared otherwise, to release about Trump or his campaign. (There’s now a Change.org petition calling on Trump to pardon Assange.)

Twitter offered Trump a workaround of what he considered the biased mainstream media …

Google co-founder Eric Schmidt had expressed interest in acting as an outside adviser to Team Clinton, while Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was “hungry to learn” about politics from Clinton’s inner circle, according to emails between Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Clinton campaign chair John Podesta. Clinton’s campaign also considered Apple’s Tim Cook and both Bill and Melinda Gates as possible vice president picks.

On November 17 – the same day when OII ComProp uploaded its US Elections Data Memo – multiple MSM outlets used it to blame Trump victory for social media fake news – and have been branded with this term themselves forever. 

(Nov 17, 2016, The New York Times) Automated Pro-Trump Bots Overwhelmed Pro-Clinton Messages, Researchers Say

An automated army of pro-Donald J. Trump chatbots overwhelmed similar programs supporting Hillary Clinton five to one in the days leading up to the presidential election, according to a report published Thursday by researchers at Oxford University.

…Their purpose: to rant, confuse people on facts, or simply muddy discussions, said Philip N. Howard, a sociologist at the Oxford Internet Institute and one of the authors of the report. If you were looking for a real debate of the issues, you weren’t going to find it with a chatbot.

“They’re yelling fools,” Dr. Howard said. “And a lot of what they pass around is false news.”

The role fake news played in the presidential election has become a sore point for the technology industry, particularly Google, Twitter and Facebook. On Monday, Google said it would ban websites that peddle fake news from using its online advertising service. Facebook also updated the language in its Facebook Audience Network policy…

(Nov 17, 2016, The Daily Beast) How Pro-Trump Twitter Bots Spread Fake News

According to a new memo compiling data from the election by a team of researchers including Oxford University Professor Philip Howard, automated pro-Trump activity outnumbered automated pro-Hillary Clinton activity by a 5:1 ratio by Election Day. And many of those auto-Trumpkins [sic!] were busy spewing lies and fake news …

In a conversation with The Daily Beast, Howard described how the pro-Trump bot networks began to use pro-Clinton hashtags, injecting memes, links, and political messages into pro-Clinton circles. Like a virus, they essentially co-opted the opponent’s messaging and infiltrated her supporters.

Sick and disgusting.

Howard explained that the bots aggressively pushed the news of FBI Director James Comey looking into additional emails pertaining to Clinton’s investigation on the computer of her aide’s estranged husband, Anthony Weiner. 

Howard described a similar social-media campaign that took place in the leadup to Brexit, a referendum with which Trump tried to associate his surprise win.

Much of the conspiratorial thinking about Trump seemingly came from British ‘Remainers’, seeking revenge for Brexit.

IRA, the Troll Factory

(Novaya Gazeta, Sep 2013) Where Trolls Live and Who Feeds Them

This is the original article in a Russian opposition newspaper about IRA, the Saint Petersburg troll factory. According to it, the factory did both commercial and political “work” mostly for the internal Russian market.

… now they are engaged in increasing the popularity of certain posts. “Posts are different – social, business, political, and the like. We act on the principle of the Yandex Market,” he began. “Yandex Market is a huge online store that recommends where to buy. Under each product there are comments like ‘this is a great phone; this is a bad phone’. Alas, the realities of life are such that people do not always want to write the first comments. We need to increase the traffic. This can be done by robots, but robots do their work mechanically, and sometimes a system like Yandex would ban them. Therefore, it was decided to do that by humans.”

This article in Novaya Gazeta is referred to by the NYT and other publications, writing about IRA. It was called Internet Research then. 

OII Funding, 2016

At the time of the events (Nov-Dec 2016) OII’s funders included:

European Commission (EC)

Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)

UNESCO

Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO)

Ofcom

Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE)

Danish Council for Strategic Research (DSF)

Ford Foundation

McArthur Foundation

Rockefeller Foundation (not to be confused with Rockefeller Brothers Fund)

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Google

OII Funding, Later

OII funders in 2017-2019 (1, 2) include:

Foreign Governments & Supranational Authorities

European Commission

Council of Europe

UNESCO

Higher Education Funding Council for England

British Council

City of London

Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO)

Ofcom

Australian Research Council

FOI – Swedish Defense Research Agency

Danish Council for Strategic Research (DSF)

Big Tech

Facebook Inc

Google

Google Ireland Limited

Microsoft Research

Microsoft Corporation

Leftist Foundations

Ford Foundation

McArthur Foundation

Rockefeller Foundation (not to be confused with Rockefeller Brothers Fund)

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Remarks

Initially, Barack Obama did not believe allegations of Trump – Russia connection, although he did believe (incorrectly) that Russia engaged in cyber-attacks. From his joint press conference with Angela Merkel on November 17, 2016:

Russia is an important country.  It is a military superpower.  It has influence in the region and it has influence around the world.  And in order for us to solve many big problems around the world, it is in our interest to work with Russia and obtain their cooperation.  … I am encouraged by the President-elect’s insistence that NATO is a commitment that does not change.  And his full commitment to NATO as the foundation for our international security I think is very important.  … As I indicated, there has been very clear proof that they have engaged in cyberattacks.  This isn’t new.  It’s not unique to Russia.

I guess that forgeries and junk science, like the one from OII ComProp, allowed Brennan to persuade him to change his opinion. 

Today, OII ComProp is funded by Open Societies Foundation (Soros), Ford Foundation, Knight Foundation, but also by the National Science Foundation. It continues setting the agenda for social media, which is frequently responsive to its demands and recommendations.

From NewsBusters, February 2019:

A new study on “Junk News Consumption” was released on February 6 from the University of Oxford as part of the Computational Propaganda Research Project. In the list of sources targeted and researched as “junk news,” conservative sites such as Drudge Report, NewsBusters, CNSNews, MRCTV, Breitbart, the Daily Caller, Free Beacon, LifeNews, National Review, the Red State, and the Federalist were smeared as “unprofessional,” “counterfeit,” “biased,” and “emotionally driven.”

Yes, ComProp included the National Review among junk news – see the spreadsheet. Some other websites included in that category: judicialwatch.org, americanthinker.com, campusreform.org, centerforsecuritypolicy.org, frontpagemag.com, theconservativetreehouse.com.

In an interview with the Sacramento Bee, lead researcher Philip Howard [of OII ComProp] said that “a small chunk of the population isn’t able to talk politics or share ideas in a sensible way with the rest of the population.” He told Greg Gordon, “That’s a problem for democracy.”

From NewsBusters, April 2019:

The United States Senate Intelligence Committee relied on this project [OII ComProp] to aid it in the investigation of Russia’s disinformation campaign. The new commission hopes to “inform debate on how to protect against the harmful consequences of technological change.”  

Anchors to Subsections

ComProp “Research”

MSM & NGOs

IRA, the Troll Factory

OII Funding, 2016

OII Funding, Later

Foreign Governments & Supranational Authorities

Big Tech

Leftist Foundations

Remarks

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