Tweets on the Dark Side of the Web, a Report for the Political Propaganda in Greece via Twitter

ATHENS –  The Mediterranean Institute for Investigative Reporting (MIIR) may have been officially founded on January 2019, but its data-driven seedlings were planted earlier, in the form of twitter bots. Since December 2018, the MIIR team has been painstakingly working on tracking automated twitter accounts.

“Fake news, either blatant lies or falsified events, taken out of the context of their creation, just as propaganda itself, were not born in the 21st century, not even in the 20th century. And social media are not to be blamed for their existence. Long before the emergence of sensationalist tabloids, TV talk shows and fake news on social media, there was William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951): the first press tycoon, a manufacturer of news and terrorizing headlines, a champion of “real life” stories based on the holy trinity of sex, crime and scandals.

“The person behind “Citizen Kane” purportedly believed that “news is what somebody does not want you to print. All the rest is advertising”. Hearst’s wire to Frederic Remington, an artist sent by Hearst to Havana, who asked his employer to return from a quiet and boring Cuba, has become legendary: “Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war”. And the (Spanish-American) war was indeed furnished.

“Nor is the concept of propaganda a recent invention. Mass information and propaganda are historically determined social phenomena, intertwined with capitalism. Our talent in gossip is also not new, nor is it necessarily a bad thing. It is what makes us able to construct networks in societies too large to support personal relations among all their members; the “imaginary realities” that we form and accept, play a crucial role in the evolution of our societies.

“But the last 10-15 years have witnessed enormous changes: an ever-faster pace of news dissemination, a massive volume of digital information, a growing mistrust in traditional media, a worsening of journalists’ work conditions, a spectacular rise of information on the Internet. According to a scientific report by the Joint Research Center of the European Commission (April 2018), two out of three Internet users prefer to have access to news through platforms based on algorithms, such as search engines, news aggregators and especially social networks. Social networks enjoy a rapidly growing share in opinion making, especially in younger ages, in the economically active population and in urban centers.

“Political campaigning has long incorporated predominance in the digital sphere as a main strategy. The web offers political marketing a huge advantage: bigger and faster impact with smaller cost. In this sphere, automation without constant human presence succeeds in disseminating all kinds of messages by a relatively small number of individuals to a real mass audience with great speed. And there is no better strategy than to combine automated processes with accounts of actual persons that have already formed a large crowd of followers.

“How much of the Internet is fake?”, was the question asked by “New York Magazine” on December 26 2018, in reference to studies according to which less than 60% of the total web traffic is human.

“Are you certain that what you read every day on your social media pages is real? This question was the starting point for the MIIR team to attempt the first in-depth and data-based journalistic research about the fake and automated accounts on Twitter in Greece, the battlefield of an obscure war of political propaganda.

“Our months-long investigation describes the process of opinion-making on social media, with a focus on Twitter, through the construction of virtual digital networks that aim at propaganda on behalf of politicians and political parties, as well as at the promotion of commercial TV productions. Based on quantitative and qualitative data, we are unveiling the illegitimate ways in which Greek political parties, MPs, candidates and influencers, unknown and high-profile alike, rely on automated systems (Bots) in order to promote their positions, overwhelm their political adversaries and, first and foremost, influence those who set the political agenda.

“So, are you certain that what you read every day on the web is written by actual persons?”

Follow the link to read the full report of MIIR, a newly investigative team formed by SNF Columbia Journalism fellows:

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