r/IAmA Scheduled AMA May 13 '21

I’m Gianluca Stringhini, cybercrime researcher, meme expert, and computer scientist. Ask me anything about disinformation, misinformation, fake news, and how it goes viral on social media. Academic

I'm Gianluca Stringhini, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Boston University and Junior Faculty Fellow at the Hariri Institute for Computing. I apply a data-driven approach to better understand malicious activity on the Internet and develop techniques to keep people safe online. I have published over 100 peer reviewed papers, and my work has been featured in publications including the Washington Post, the New York Times, and Wired.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, I have been tracking health misinformation and it’s spread on social media using data science as part of my Focused Research Program at the Hariri Institute. I also study the spread of conspiracy theories and memes on online social networks, raids organized by trolls against other Internet users, cyberbullying, and malware. I'm here to answer your questions about misinformation, how it spreads on social media, and how it can impact public health and health biases.

Ask me: - What is the difference between misinformation and disinformation? - How does misinformation/disinformation spread online? - Do some social media platforms have more misinformation than others? - What makes memes go viral? - How can we identify fake news online? - How can social media platforms prevent the spread of fake news? - How does online misinformation impact society? - How does online misinformation impact public health? - Can online misinformation translate into in-person interactions/threats? - What are the top online threats we need to know about? - Have you noticed any patterns/trends with cyberbullying? - Have you noticed any patterns/trends with cyber abuse? - On an individual level, how can we protect ourselves against malicious online activity? - On a national level, how can we protect ourselves against malicious online activity? - What are the top consequences of health-related misinformation? - How do fringe/conspiracy communities develop and grow online?

Proof: https://i.redd.it/77058msux7w61.jpg

Thank you everyone for writing in – it has been a great discussion! Unfortunately, I am not able to respond to every question, but I will plan to revisit the conversation later on! In the meantime, for more information about detecting and preventing misinformation, fake news campaigns, online threats and more, please follow me on Twitter at @gianluca_string.

46 Upvotes

u/CrassostreaVirginica Moderator May 13 '21

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3

u/alex2217 May 13 '21

Hey Gianluca, big fan of your work - it continues to inspire my PhD :)

This is a bit of a weird question, but what proportion of people on the most popular social media platforms (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram etc.) would you estimate/guess to be 'inauthentic' users (bots, paid state-backed actors, troll-farms etc.) in comparison to real users?

I ask specifically because while e.g. Twitter often adds a few thousand users to its Election Interference dataset, I will never stop thinking about the fact that Facebook Deleted 2.2 Billion fake accounts in Q1 of 2019 alone.

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u/gianluca_string Scheduled AMA May 13 '21

I wish I knew the answer to this question :)

We currently have an NSF project where we are trying to identify state-sponsored trolls on social networks by using machine learning. Our intuition is that the number of accounts that for example Twitter releases is a minority compared to all the troll accounts, but we don't have results yet.

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u/alex2217 May 13 '21

Fair.

I believe Facebook themselves put it at something like 5% as a guesstimate, but I don't really see how that's possible when they've deleted accounts amounting to almost half of their user population.

I'd be interested to see how successful an ML approach will be at sussing out systematic differences/similarities in inauthentic accounts though.

3

u/BLIND119 May 13 '21

why is there need for censorship if people should be able to search for information themselves and confirm them instead of blindly trusting the source? why is it only enforced during covid time?

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u/Czar_Castic May 13 '21

I would expect because there are times when it's more dangerous and a bigger threat to human life (as an answer to both those questions).

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u/dajoni12 May 13 '21

Are you Italian? Just curious because of your name. Great job. Ciao

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u/0xCuber 25d ago

Why do you look like as soyboy?

3

u/scotiancrusader May 13 '21

How can I prove who has been cyberstalking me when the police in my small town refuse to make it stop?

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u/gianluca_string Scheduled AMA May 13 '21

Unfortunately local law enforcement may not be familiar with the tools and techniques that can be used to stalk people online, and in general the anonymous nature of the Internet can make it hard for them to trace the perpetrator. Regardless, many countries and state have legislation against cyberstalking.

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u/scotiancrusader May 13 '21

Yes I sat at the police station with the guidebook for criminal prosecutors and the relevant parts highlighted. Got a confession from one of the family members involved. Police did nothing.

In theory, yes. Laws exist.

In order for laws to matter, the people in power gotta enforce them.

Thank you for responding. I look forward to soaking up every word you say. This is a topic I am infinitely interested in.

Edit: fidgety finger spelling

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u/RankedAmateur 28d ago

Just a know nothing about the topic observers perspective

Have you tried going up a step on the ladder? If the local police wont take the case, go to the state authorities or the FBI. If you care about the issue enough you shouldn't be content with a no.

But also, without knowing what happened, how severe or malicious it was, is it serious enough you want to see someone jailed over online harassment? Just seems a little extreme - I get wanting recourse but id think about just how long the sentence might be (years) for someone to spend as punishment for online trolling? Again no disrespect for all I know the perpetrator caused you extreme harm in which case sorry that happened and consider taking the above advice :-)

2

u/bboe May 13 '21

Hi Gianluca. Nice to see you here on Reddit.

What sort of negative attention have you gained from conducting this research? What advice would you share to others who want to get into similar research?

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u/gianluca_string Scheduled AMA May 13 '21

And good to see you :)

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u/gianluca_string Scheduled AMA May 13 '21

I have been trolled, photoshopped in all sorts of unsavory poses, received weird and threatening emails.

As researchers, protecting our privacy is hard, because our work is inherently in the open - we need name recognition to get jobs, be promoted etc.

I think that building a good support network and being able to find support in our institutions when needed is important. We recently wrote a paper with guidelines on how researcher can go about protecting themselves: https://arxiv.org/pdf/2104.11145.pdf

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u/Ambitious_Tooth_559 May 13 '21

How does online misinformation impact society?

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u/gianluca_string Scheduled AMA May 13 '21

The ease for information to be spread on social networks can aid the propagation of false narratives, and these can have serious effects on society. Think of the Stop the Steal campaigns and related events for example. At a higher level, the proliferation of mis- and disinformation contributes in a general distrust towards any online information, including accurate information, which can affect the trust that people have in traditional media and even political institutions.

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u/twisted041 May 13 '21

Any ideas on how to rebuild trust people may have lost? I know many organizations have looked into combatting mis-information online (I'm thinking the possible misinformation tags on social media). Do you think those are effective?

7

u/gianluca_string Scheduled AMA May 13 '21

This is a big problem. Disinformation often works because those narratives confirm some preconceptions and biases that people already have. There are many initiatives that aim to promote media literacy and encourage fact checking, but it is still not clear how much they help with people regaining trust in mainstream media. Social networks are trying a number of things, including warning signs or nudging people towards reading the article they are linking to before posting it. The effectiveness of these measures still has to be assessed.

1

u/twisted041 May 13 '21

How has your research helped shape local/national policies? Also, have you noticed any patterns/trends with cyber abuse outside of those connected to a politics?

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u/gianluca_string Scheduled AMA May 13 '21

The goal of our work is to shed light on how false information and online abuse occur online at a marco-level. In our research we highlighted that disinformation often generates and evolves in smaller polarized communities and then spreads on mainstream ones (like Twitter). This has helped policy makers better understand the landscape of conspiracy theories, disinformation, and online abuse. As examples, our data and results have been included in disinformation reports by the European Commission and in the record of the Second Impeachment Trial.

1

u/DCMcDonald May 13 '21

What is the difference between disinformation, misinformation, and fake news?

4

u/gianluca_string Scheduled AMA May 13 '21

Both dis- and mis- information denote false information that spreads online. While disinformation is spread with the deliberate intention of deceiving, misinformation is simply false information that people believe and re-share. For example, Russian troll accounts active during the 2016 US Presidential Election were spreading disinformation, while a concerned citizen posting misleading claims about the COVID vaccine would be spreading misinformation.

2

u/DCMcDonald May 13 '21

Thank you! This is so helpful!

1

u/EveningAccident8319 May 13 '21

How do you differentiate between valid conspiracies and fake news?

1

u/JoseThomas_303 May 13 '21
  • Do you think that the propagation of fake news and misinformation has had a detrimental impact in our response to the Covid-19 pandemic ? If so, how big ?
  • How do you think we could have stopped that, on an individual, community and national level ?

5

u/gianluca_string Scheduled AMA May 13 '21

Health-related false information can affect public health in multiple ways. First, false narratives about approved and safe cures might make people hesitant to seeking treatment. Second, campaigns that promote false cures can cause serious harms.

In the COVID case, we have seen multiple campaigns that harmed the overall response to the pandemic, for example anti-mask and anti-vaccination campaigns. When conflicting narratives about the effectiveness or safety of a health measure spread, this can affect how the public accept those measures.

2

u/JoseThomas_303 May 13 '21

Thanks for the reply !
As a follow up, would a suitable response be to strictly censor such movements and deny them their right to speech, as they are acting as a danger to the society. If not, what else can be response ?

3

u/gianluca_string Scheduled AMA May 13 '21

When online communities get deplatformed, they often create their own community and move to it. We studied this phenomenon, and found that communities that do migrate tend to shrink in size, but the users who do make the move become more active an toxic. This can have potential unexpected consequences, like users becoming radicalized and coming back (possibly with false accounts) to attack the communities that banned them.

Unfortunately, researchers have not yet identified a solution that works in all cases against toxic online communities.

1

u/dcs84332809 May 13 '21

You said you develop techniques to keep people safe online. Can you expand?

Also, has your data been used to control misinformation? If so, can you provide examples.

4

u/gianluca_string Scheduled AMA May 13 '21

Over my career I developed tools to protect users from a number of online threats, from spam, to malware, to online harassment. As an academic, my goal is to show the effectiveness of certain techniques, in the hope that they will be adopted by the industry to protect their users.

As of our disinformation work, our findings aim at raising awareness about disinformation strategies and cases. In my work I try to engage the public and raise awareness, and our results have been cited in policy documents both in Europe and in the US.

1

u/[deleted] May 13 '21

[deleted]

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u/gianluca_string Scheduled AMA May 13 '21

What are the best sites to find "real" news? Are there any other sources you recommend reading for cyber safety and fake news detection?

Fact checking sites are very helpful to get information about false news and why it is false. https://www.snopes.com/ is a good example.

1

u/inmeucu May 13 '21

Snipes also has some instances of misinformation, like when Bernie Sanders said about 500,000 bankruptcies are due to medical costs, something even the researchers supported Sanders on.

2

u/davoloid May 13 '21

Can't see it on Snopes, but here's an article about that particular claim.

https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-news/bernie-sanders-medical-bankruptcy-washington-post-fact-check-878120/

Snopes isn't always perfect but they cite their sources, and make it clear when a statement is in dispute, uncertain, or can't be determined. They've been my go-to place for helping dispel information for around 20 years. Used to be mostly glurdge, chain mail and urban legends.

0

u/inmeucu May 13 '21

Agreed. Don't throw out the baby with the bath water.

1

u/kg_from_ct May 13 '21

How can you best have a conversation with someone who consumes fake news and misinformation without question? Are there any ways to help expand their sources or guide them in understanding the information isn't credible?

5

u/gianluca_string Scheduled AMA May 13 '21

One of the main problems with dis- and misinformation is that it always validates the preconceptions that people have, and this is why many believe it without questioning. Pointing people to more resources, potentially debunking such information, or having an open discussion about it highlighting where and how that information might be wrong could help. It is often an uphill battle though.

0

u/ZenShineNine May 14 '21

I would suggest using Street Epistemology as a technique to communicate with people entrenched in their beliefs.

1

u/LadyPiaget May 13 '21

How can social media platforms prevent the spread of fake news?

2

u/gianluca_string Scheduled AMA May 13 '21

The jury is still out on what is an effective strategy against mis- and disinformation. Major social networks have rolled out warnings for false claims that are particularly popular - for example Twitter displays a warning when a tweet contains the "5g" and "Covid" keywords. Another aspect that has been blamed of facilitating exposure to false information are recommendation algorithms, which may recommend more and more extreme content to users. This is an area where online services could intervene, making sure that false and misleading content gets demoted by the recommendation algorithm.

1

u/commscholar-2012 May 13 '21

Hi Gianluca. Big fan of your work. What types of disinformation efforts should we be expecting as we approach the 2022 midterm elections in the US?

2

u/gianluca_string Scheduled AMA May 13 '21

Based on what we observed in the 2016, 2018, and 2020 US elections I think that big disinformation efforts follow two directions. The first one is polarizing issues, where disinformation actors take both sides of the debate in an attempt to further polarize the discussion (we've seen this happening with BLM for example). The second one is spreading conspiracy theories. Qanon has become very popular in 2020, but we've seen accounts that Twitter later identified as controlled by Russia spreading proto-qanon content back in 2017. I think that there's a serious risk that disinformation actors plant the seed for new conspiracy theories in online communities that are particularly likely to take the bait, and then let the conspiracy evolve and run wild.

1

u/[deleted] May 13 '21

[deleted]

3

u/gianluca_string Scheduled AMA May 13 '21

As you say, researchers should debrief participants after the study when deception is involved. I think that this is a good requirement overall, but as you mention this might not work when participants are actually bad actors. When these bad actors are anonymous it might not even be possible to debrief them. In this case I think that the ethics protocol should make an utilitarian argument, thinking whether the benefit to society that the research could provide outweighs the potential risks.
When I was working at University College London we ran a study where we wanted to investigate what criminals would do after they'd break into Google accounts. We infected our own virtual machines with information stealing malware and logged into our own instrumented Gmail accounts, letting the malware steal the account credentials. We then monitored what bad actors would do after logging into the accounts. We worked closely with Google to ensure that harm to their systems and their users was minimized, but we could not debrief the criminals because we did not know who they were. This was considered acceptable by our IRB and the study was approved.

1

u/NeedsABiggerRobot May 13 '21

What are the major factors that contribute to someone believing information?

3

u/gianluca_string Scheduled AMA May 13 '21

When coming to disinformation, research shows that people tend to believe what validates their previous thoughts on a topic.

1

u/Understandacles May 13 '21

How does online misinformation impact public health?

5

u/gianluca_string Scheduled AMA May 13 '21

Health-related false information can affect public health in multiple ways. First, false narratives about approved and safe cures might make people hesitant to seeking treatment. Second, campaigns that promote false cures can cause serious harms.

1

u/Ok_Razzmatazz_2232 May 13 '21

Have you looked into how the Colonial Pipeline attack happened?

3

u/gianluca_string Scheduled AMA May 13 '21

Unfortunately details about the attacks are not public yet, but it's concerning to see how much damage cyber attacks can cause to our day to day lives.

1

u/standeviant May 13 '21

Do you see misinformation like the Trump Administration incorrectly attributing the SolarWinds hack to China as undermining the ability to effectively combat these threats?

3

u/gianluca_string Scheduled AMA May 13 '21

Incorrect attribution is a problem, especially when done at the highest political level, because it impairs the ability to go after the actual perpetrators.

1

u/4reignThoughts May 13 '21

Is possible to have a large following on social media (i.e TikTok, Twitter, IG) and not be a victim of social engineering ?
If so, what would you recommend to protect yourself?

3

u/gianluca_string Scheduled AMA May 13 '21

There is an inherent tension between being somewhat public figures and maintaining privacy. In general being mindful of what one posts online (for example avoiding posting pictures that might give away when you live) is helpful.

1

u/4reignThoughts May 13 '21

Speaking of memes , I actually would like to know what makes memes go viral ? Or what factors play a role in making things go viral?

3

u/gianluca_string Scheduled AMA May 13 '21

Memes are a new form of expression which is more succinct than text and is able to instantly deliver complex messages. In our research we investigated what visual elements of a meme make if go viral, by applying ideas from the theory of arts to them. We found that memes that present a closeup of a character showing a strong (positive or negative) emotion or a special gesture are more likely to go viral. Think about Manning Face or Roll Safe. We also found that the amount of text negatively impairs virality. In other words, memes with too much text lose their immediacy and are less likely to be re-shared by people.

1

u/zgodt May 13 '21

If you were teaching a university course about fake news, where would you start and what readings would you recommend?

3

u/gianluca_string Scheduled AMA May 13 '21

There is a lot of great work out there. On the computer science side I think of the work of Emilio Ferrara, Fil Menczer, and Kate Stabird. In addition to our work of course :)

1

u/KRUNKWIZARD May 13 '21

What's your opinion on Howard Stern?

1

u/Fivesense May 13 '21

The spread of misinformation is generally defended by those who spread it (in the US) as constitutionality protected "free speech". However, there are some forms of speech that are not protected when it presents a "clear and present danger" (shouting "fire" in a crowded theater where there is no fire).

How can your work be used to help shape policy in a way that spreading misinformation around something like COVID-19, which presents a clear and present danger to the world, is considered a violation of free speech?

2

u/gianluca_string Scheduled AMA May 13 '21

This is an extremely nuanced question, and I'm not really qualified to discuss the nuances. I think that free speech is an important and integral part of modern society, but, I'm a computer scientist, not a constitutional scholar.

1

u/ZurrgabDaVinci758 May 13 '21

How much of the falsehoods spread online are a result of deliberate lying and manipulation, vs stuff that arises organically from people who sincerely believe it?

3

u/gianluca_string Scheduled AMA May 13 '21

Hard to say, because the distinction is often not clearcut. For example, we might have state sponsored troll accounts deliberately pushing a false narrative, which then gets re-shared and amplified by unwitting users who honestly believe it. If detecting false information is a very difficult problem, detecting *why* that information is shared might be even more difficult.

1

u/SeaweedAggressive622 May 13 '21

How do social media platforms identify COVID-19 misinformation online?

2

u/gianluca_string Scheduled AMA May 13 '21

We do not exactly know what happens under the hood, but I believe that they apply machine learning to identify messages that are likely misinformation (for example because they contain certain keywords, COVID-19 + 5G to make a simple example). They also factor in feedback from users, where people can flag posts containing false information.

1

u/vinicius_sass May 13 '21

Do we already have good automated fact-checking systems?

1

u/ahadafc May 13 '21

How does social media algorithm works which makes memes go viral ?

1

u/ahadafc May 13 '21

is there a way to tackle racism on social media ?

1

u/CurdPigeon May 13 '21

What makes a meme good, and what are some of your favorite memes? Are there any memes that are inherently dank?

1

u/cpu_triple_fault May 13 '21

How do you define what qualifies as misinformation? Is there an industry standard for that, or is it on a person to person basis?

-1

u/Over_Shock_2610 May 13 '21

What is your opinion on the Human Rights Watch report showing that Palestinians tortured hundreds of journalists for reporting on their war crimes including kidnapping a female journalist out of a hospital when she had a seizure and torturing her?

Also, what is your opinion on the fact that most news stories about the conflict routinely use the PA authority as a source, despite it being majority controlled by Hamas, a known terrorist organization funded primarily by Iran?

0

u/inmeucu May 13 '21

Why haven’t tech giants come up with a system to classify information? For example, talking heads on political talk shows would be the furthest away from a real fact, while perceiving an event is as real as it gets, with audio and video recordings coming in as the closest we can get to relaying a fact without distorting it beyond the medium of capture.