Larry, a 71-year-old retired insurance broker and Donald Trump fan from Alabama, was unlikely to run into liberal Emma, a 25-year-old graphic designer from New York City, on social media — even if they were both real.
Each is a figment of BBC reporter Marianna Spring’s imagination. She created five fake Americans and opened social media accounts for them, part of an effort to illustrate how misinformation spreads on sites like Facebook, Twitter and TikTok despite efforts to stop it, and how it affects American politics.
It has also left Spring and the BBC vulnerable to accusations that the project is ethically suspect for using false information to expose false information.
“We do it with very good intentions because it’s important to understand what’s going on,” Spring said. In a world of disinformation, “the United States is the most important battleground,” she said.
This spring’s reporting has appeared on the BBC’s newscasts and website, as well as the weekly ‘Americast’ podcast, the British take on news from the US. She started the project in August with the midterm election campaign in mind but hopes to keep it going until 2024.
Spring worked with the Pew Research Center in the US to create five archetypes. In addition to the very conservative Larry and very liberal Emma, there is Britney, a more populist conservative from Texas; Gabriela, a largely apolitical independent from Miami; and Michael, a black teacher from Milwaukee who is a moderate Democrat.
Using computer-generated images, she created accounts on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok. Accounts are passive, meaning her “people” don’t have friends or make public comments.
Spring, which uses five different phones branded with each name, tends to flesh out its “personalities.” For example, Emma is a lesbian who follows LGBTQ groups, is an atheist, takes an active interest in women’s issues and abortion rights, supports the legalization of marijuana, and follows The New York Times and NPR.
These “moves” are essentially bait to see how the social media companies’ algorithms stack up and what material is sent their way.
Through her following and likes, Britney was exposed as anti-vax and critical of big business, so she’s been sent down several rabbit holes, Spring said. The account has received material, some with violent rhetoric, from groups falsely claiming that Donald Trump won the 2020 election. She has also been invited to join people who claim that the Mar-a-Lago raid was “proof” that Trump won and that the state was out to get him, and groups supporting conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
Despite efforts by social media companies to combat misinformation, Spring said there is still a significant amount that gets through, mostly from a far-right perspective.
Gabriela, the non-aligned Latina mother who has mostly expressed interest in music, fashion and how to save money when shopping, does not follow political groups. But Republican material is much more likely to appear in her feed.
“The best thing you can do is understand how this works,” Spring said. “It makes us more aware of how we’re being targeted.”
Most major social media companies ban impersonator accounts. Violators can be fired for creating them, although many circumvent the rules.
Journalists have used several methods to investigate how the tech giants work. For a story last year, the Wall Street Journal created more than 100 automated accounts to see how TikTok steered users in different directions. The nonprofit newsroom Markup created a panel of 1,200 people who agreed to have their browsers studied for details about how Facebook and YouTube worked.
“My job is to investigate misinformation and I create fake accounts,” Spring said. “The irony is not lost on me.”
She’s obviously creative, said Aly Colon, a professor of journalism ethics at Washington & Lee University. But what Spring called irony bothers him and other experts who believe there are superior ways to report on this issue.
“By creating these false identities, she’s violating what I think is a pretty clear ethical standard in journalism,” said Bob Steele, a retired ethics expert for the Poynter Institute. “We should not pretend to be anyone but ourselves, with very few exceptions.”
Spring said she believes the level of public interest in how these social media companies operate outweighs the scams.
The BBC experiment may be valuable, but shows only part of how algorithms work, a mystery that largely eludes people outside the tech companies, said Samuel Woolley, director of the propaganda research lab at the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas.
Algorithms also take cues from comments people make on social media or in their interactions with friends – both things the BBC’s fake Americans don’t, he said.
“It’s like a journalist’s version of a field experiment,” Woolley said. “It runs an experiment on a system but it’s quite limited in its rigor.”
From Spring’s perspective, if you want to see how an influence operation works, “you have to be on the front lines.”
Since launching the five accounts, Spring said she logs in every few days to update each one and see what they’re being fed.
“I try to make it as realistic as possible,” she said. “I have these five personalities that I have to live in at any given time.”
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