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Editorial

Why are we so keen to trade our civil liberties for security?

Contact Tracing Apps Offer Hope of a Way Out
What type of concerns are cropping up? (Source: Bloomberg)
Lots of Questions; None of Them the Right One

Image for postThe normalisation of surveillance (Source: Lianhao Qu)

So, what has changed?
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The Camera Wall Art Exhibit in Toronto (Source: Bernard Hermant)
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Editorial

The Forsythia-Industrial Complex

In Steven Soderbergh’s newly rediscovered 2011 film Contagion, a hypothetical novel virus called MEV-1 causes a global pandemic, which has to be stopped by the film’s protagonists, epidemiologists working for the Centers for Disease Control.

While the film contains all sorts of exposition sequences that are legitimately educational about the nature and spread of airborne viruses, the real nugget of gold in the film is in its main subplot. Jude Law plays Alan Krumwiede, an Alex Jones-type conspiracy entrepreneur. He spends his days chasing down sensational stories and posting ranting videos on his website, “Truth Serum”.

Despite the contemporary irrelevance of the “blogosphere”, the Truth Serum subplot is as pertinent today as it was in 2011. In many ways, its implications are more frightening now than ever. In 2011, algorithm-driven social media sites did not have the same preponderance over the information environment that they enjoy today.

Studies indicate that media consumption patterns have changed rapidly over the last decade. While internet-based news consumption was wide-spread by 2011, there were two key differences with the information environment of today. Firstly, online news consumption skewed young. Today, American adults of all ages consume much if not most of their news online. Secondly, news items spread via a number of media, including email chains and blogs. The dynamics of email and blogs as media are fundamentally different from algorithm-driven platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Blog followings and email chains are linear — a person recommends a blog or forwards an email to certain people at their own discretion. Information from these media therefore spreads less virally than content on algorithmic sites. In fact, the entire concept of “virality” essentially cannot exist without the engagement-based recommendations and news feed algorithms behind our now-dominant social media machines.

In the second and third acts of the film (*spoilers*, sorry), Krumwiede begins pushing a homeopathic cure, Forsythia, on his website and eventually on TV. He posts a series of videos on Truth Serum in which he has apparently caught the MEV-1 virus, and nurses himself back to health by using the substance. His endorsement of the drug to his loyal followers causes desperate Americans to loot pharmacies in search of Forsythia. Krumwiede is eventually arrested, and after an antibodies test reveals he never actually had the virus, he is charged with fraud. By this time, he’s moved from Forsythia to anti-vaccination, claiming the CDC and WHO are “in bed” with big pharma, and that’s why they’re trying to vaccinate the entire population. He ends the film urging his millions of loyal online followers not to take the crucial MEV-1 vaccine being produced by American and French pharmaceutical companies.

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Forsythia today

While the Forsythia subplot serves as a slight diversion from our main protagonists’ investigations and research, it has turned out to be the part of the movie that holds up best in light of our current novel coronavirus pandemic. Of course, in its obvious resemblances to the hydroxycholorquine craze in the US and France. But more worryingly, it’s become obvious that our contemporary information environment is more vulnerable to the Krumwiedes of the world now than it would have been in 2011.

American author and critic Kurt Andersen’s 2017 book Fantasyland argues that the viral, platform-based contemporary Internet is the crucial focal point of our conspiracy-laden politics. Common criticisms of modern social and online media focus on its tendency to create self-reinforcing echo chambers where individuals are only exposed to information that bolsters their existing views. Andersen takes this idea further and turns it on its head, arguing that social media causes the cross-pollination of information silos that would otherwise have remained separate.

This phenomenon is evident in the fact that believing in one conspiracy theory exponentially increases the likelihood you’ll believe in others. In the days before mass access to the internet, an individual with an easily-debunked belief would have been relatively isolated, they can now connect with other like-minded individuals across the globe. Anti-vaxxers can virtually intermingle with chemtrails theorists, 9/11 truthers, and anti-semites. Without this cross-pollination, expansive crowd-sourced conspiracy narratives like Q-Anon would simply not be possible.

In Contagion’s 2011-based universe, Krumwiede is a lone crusader, harrasing reporters and officials, pushing his homeopathic scams, and broadcasting to millions from a webcam as a one-man information army. In 2020, there is a whole parallel information ecosystem across several internet platforms where conspiracy theorists, activists, influence bots, grifters, and extremists can exchange and reinforce each others’ beliefs. Today, Krumwiede would be one of thousands of viral content creators “flooding the zone” with conspiracies, untruths, partial truths, and unverified and misleading claims.

Imagining better media bubbles

Could the Internet become a less toxic place? Maybe, but it’s a difficult problem. In a November 2019 interview with Vox, tech entrepreneur Anil Dash reminisces for “the Internet we lost” with the rise of the social media giants. He points out the weaknesses in “free speech” arguments made by Zuckerberg and other tech moguls, arguing that free discourse can exist without virality and engagement metrics. He says that a “trust network” model that looks more like the blogosphere of the 90s and 00s is perhaps more conducive to civil discourse than our platform-centric information environment today. Bloggers, like TV anchors or op-ed columnists, have to slowly gain the trust of their audience over time. Without virality’s constant interruptions, a stronger bond forms between content producer and content consumer, leaving less room for loud interlopers with wild claims to wedge their way into the discourse.

The issue with this concept is that, in a trust network model, aforementioned trusted information sources are difficult to dislodge once their network has been established. A new video “owning” the old champion relies on virality to dethrone the incumbent, and requires on a news feed or recommendations algorithm to find its way into the incumbent’s audience’s media diet. While the kind of decentralized trust network Dash and other ex-bloggers are nostalgic for would perhaps address the problems of influence bots, viral information blitzes, and other issues caused by engagement-based algorithmic media, it could also exacerbate the silo-ization of our information environment by entrenching a certain set of existing sources.

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Editorial

How Will the Coronavirus Impact Xi’s ‘Made in China 2025′ Plan?

‘Made in China 2025′

First things first, what is ‘Made in China 2025′? Introduced in 2015, the grand plan seeks to transform China’s manufacturing base from being a low-end manufacturer to becoming a high-end, high-tech producer. Among these are information technology, telecommunication (5G), advanced robotics, artificial intelligence, and new energy vehicles. Other sectors include aerospace engineering, emerging biomedicine, high-end rail infrastructure. Mirroring Germany’s Industry 4.0 development, these sectors are pivotal to the ‘4th industrial revolution’ which refers to the reconciliation of cloud computing, emerging technologies, big data into manufacturing supply chains.

Inspired by Germany’s industry “4.0″
Modernizing the manufacturing sector with “Made in China 2025”
How will China achieve its goals?

Beijing seeks to devote resources and intensifying centralized policy planning to coordinate across government, academia and private enterprises. The ambition is to tap into China’s growing middle-class consumer base who are demanding higher quality goods and services, as well as, the value-added global sourcing segment. The measures implemented including:

  • Foreign acquisitions and investments. Chinese companies, both state-owned and private have been encouraged to invest in foreign companies, notably semiconductor firms, to gain access to advanced technology. In 2016, the value of Chinese acquisitions in the United States alone amounted to over $45 billion.
  • Joint venture schemes. China’s strict commercial laws dictate that foreign companies wishing to do business or invest in China would need to enter into joint ventures with Chinese companies. There are both pros and cons associated with the scheme. Pros: foreign companies can invest in businesses that are otherwise restricted by the Party, and use the Chinese partner’s “guanxi” or connections and existing experiences in China. Cons: under these terms the foreign company is required to share sensitive intellectual property knowledge. For example, when China developed its high-speed rail network, it leveraged foreign concepts and designs, notably Japan’s Shinkansen.
  1. Cultivating state-owned and private companies. Despite the economic reforms by the Jiang administration during the 1990s which reduced the role of state firms in the economy, they still account for 1/3 of gross domestic product (GDP) and an estimated 2/3 of China’s outbound investment. Beijing has increased direct support for Chinese enterprises through state funding, low interest loans and tax breaks. The government has also championed home-grown companies by publishing a list of private companies which will help drive its 2025 goal, the list includes the likes of Huawei, ZTE, Alibaba, Tencent, DJI, Xiaomi and Baidu.
Economic activity slows but does not shutdown

Undoubtedly, China has been hit economically. Wuhan the epicentre of the outbreak is a key region for the country’s automotive industry and is an integral part of the Party’s vision for 2025. The Nikkei Asian Review reports that between January and March much of its industrial activity was halted. Despite, 2/3 of the country’s economy being forced to shut down in January, China’s strategic sectors were still operating. Xi’s grand dream has not been forgotten.

What are the geopolitical consequences?

Of greater concern is not the economic impact of the pandemic but rather China’s relationship with its western colleagues post-pandemic era which could positively and negatively impact ‘Made in China 2025’. This wholly depends on Beijing’s action. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) has already been strained during the Trade War between China and the US prior to the Coronavirus pandemic. With Trump’s remark of “man-made virus” and the deflection of the administration responsibilities by pointing the finger at China will further strain the two powers relationship. Between January-February 2020, Coronavirus dragged China’s FDI down further 8.6% totaling $19.2 billion according to China’s Ministry of Commerce. As aforementioned one of the key drivers to achieving the 2025 goal is encouraging foreign investments and establishing joint ventures. With global economic slowdown resulting from the pandemic this is downward trajectory of FDI in China is likely to continue.

Positives for China?

As the outbreak highlights China’s reliance on the foreign technology and global supply chains, “spur the government to further intensify its efforts to promote domestic innovation” and double down on its ‘Made in China 2025’ plan, says Eswar Prasad (China expert at Cornell University).

Conclusion

Externally, western democracies are likely to reassess its relationship and economic ties with China, foreign investments to China are likely to decrease as a result of western countries reassessment of its relationship with China and the dire global economic situation. Internally, Beijing will need to rely more than ever on its growing middle-class population to buy into the 2025 plan. Perhaps, countries will re-evaluate their supply chain and economic ties with China but ultimately as summarized by Willy Shih (Professor at Harvard Business School) “The World is dependent on China for manufacturing”. This goes beyond medical equipment, it is about textiles, furnitures, toys, electronics, accumulating to trillion dollars of import each year.

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Repost

Why We Cannot Trust Big Tech to be Apolitical

What Google’s whistleblowers and walk-outs have revealed about working in a politicised information duopoly. How we cannot expect neutrality even in tackling COVID-19.

7:30am in the lobby of an independent news agency, a man of scruffy bearing and sweaty palms keeps looking anxiously at his wristwatch. He wasn’t typically so prone to stress, but the last few weeks have given him good reason to look over his shoulder.

A few weeks ago, he was a nondescript employee in one of the world’s most prominent and influential tech organisations. He had begun to find himself bothered by a series of decisions and practices that sharply clashed with his moral compass. So he quietly collected evidence in preparation for his big day. When that day came however, he became a condemned man; condemned to forever roam under the all-pervasive threat of vengeance from the most powerful technology company in the world. He received an anonymous letter making demands and, demanding cease-and-desist action by a specific date. Then, the police showed up to his door on the specious grounds of concern about his “mental health”. Knowing his life may have been on the line, he created a kill-switch: “kill me and everything I have on you will be released to the public”.

Did you enjoy my screenplay for this summer’s next action-thriller hit? Well I have a confession to make; it’s based on a true story. This is actually the beginning of the tale of Zachary Vorhies — the latest in a long line of Google Whistleblowers.

If you want to skip to the conclusion and its link to COVID-19, please click here. If you want to hear the whole sorry saga then, please, read on.

Google as puppet-master?

For those of you well-acquainted with Big Tech’s ethical mishaps, you may have already heard of the Google Data Dump. It was, in short, a substantial leak of internal Google documents, policies and guidance designed to demonstrate Google’s willingness to deliberately shape the information landscape in favour for a certain conception of reality. Said conception of reality seems to exclude right-wing media outlets, and seeks to promote a socially-liberal agenda. As the old Stalinist adage goes: “It’s not the people who vote that count, but the people who count that vote” — put another way, it’s not the facts that matter so much as how you interpret and arrange those facts (and does Google ever interpret and arrange facts, with their 90% search engine market share!).However shocking the suggestions here may be, we need to read through the coverage of this data dump with a critical eye. As a journalist, whenever I approach such a leak, I like to go through the thought-process of the actors involved. Why did Zachary leak the documents? What drove the decision to leak those documents at a specific date? How did he hear about Project Veritas, why did he provide them with a scoop, and what does the recipient of such data gain?

The leaked documents were shared to Project Veritas, an independent whistleblowing outlet which pledges exuberantly on its front page to “Help Expose Corruption!”. Most of its brand content seems to derive from shocking whistleblower revelations that come with the site’s own flavour of sensationalist titling and conspiratorial imagery.

On the site, Zachary’s story plays comfortably into Project Veritas’ audience-expectations. The audience in question is ambiguous and unknown to the writer, and the reflections made are largely based on the platform’s content-reel. The implications are first allowed to fester, and then spread as part of a bigger conspiracy of liberal Google executives forcing coders to prevent the spread of right-wing populism (as encapsulated by Donald Trump). The data dump itself isn’t intrinsically shocking as much as it is when used to support a particular vision of reality. I discussed this topic with several Google insiders working at the company’s Colorado and Ireland offices. They tell me that most of the information in the data dump is easily accessible and circulated frequently amongst Google employees. They tell me that, while it is frowned-upon to discuss such matters openly, the data dump only began having significant traction whence it landed on the doorsteps of Project Veritas, who knew how to use the data to reinforce a fiery conspiratory narrative.

Google as game designer?

Google’s convenient counter-narrative to these revelations runs along the lines that it’s all because, as Genmai says, “Google got screwed over in 2016”. It is clear that, during the 2016 presidential race, a series of right-wing media outlets managed to navigate through the ludicrously arcane Google and Facebook traffic algorithm, and successfully gamed it to the point at which both publishers had to change the rules of their game. There is a strong sense of enmity at Google about how a handful of Albanian or Macedonian fake news artists managed to “out-hack” Google. Designers at heart, Googlers are uncomfortable with the idea that certain content pieces are able to “outperform” (without directly benefitting Google/Facebook financially). Indeed, the only content that is meant to over-perform is paid/sponsored content.

What these whistleblower scandals and recent walk-outs have proven is that we cannot see Big Tech as monolithic, as a set of corporations acting solely to further the interest of shareholders or of ad revenues. Google is a group of individuals, made up of a plethora of political ideologies and socio-ethnic representations. It is a company full of engineers and designers who are aware of their impact on politics and society through their quasi-duopoly on the information space. With this awareness is a confidence and agency inherited from the “Googler” mindset; a perpetual journey to solve problems, even when alone against all odds. Add these ingredients together and what you have is an unstable cocktail of ideas that sometimes leads to breakthrough innovation, sometimes to conflicts over how best to wield technology to change the world (for the better).

Google as a microcosm of society

Perhaps the tech commentariat should have seen it all coming. Big Tech has accumulated a staggering amount of political power, through information-market dominance and financial success. Cries to regulate Big Tech “monopolies” have reached fever pitch. In the meantime, governments the world-over have urged Big Tech to build solutions to deal with some of the societal and political ramifications of their tools.

Who builds these solutions? Googlers do. The very same Googlers endowed with ideological responsibility, voicing their political and social views so that they may have a say in the way society is ultimately run.

So the more interesting question(s) lies a level below the accusations of the Whistleblowers or of the walkouts:

  • Can we trust people to build/design apolitical/non-ideological tools?
  • Should we, as subjective and emotive people, be always neutral/objective?
  • When did we choose to become subjective, when we become actors in the socio-political world, what accountability and responsibilities come with this decision?

The charge for Big Tech is two-fold, therefore:

  1. We cannot trust Google to be apolitical or non-ideological. Despite claims to impartiality, there is little evidence suggesting a system in place to restrict partiality and individual agency from the tools designed. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be the desire to remain impartial, as demonstrated by the contents of the data dumps and history of industrial actions (walkouts and whistleblowers).
  2. We cannot know Google’s editorial line. We all know that MSNBC leans to the Left. We all know Fox News tends to the Right. Publishers on paper, radio, television and magazine have all remained informative and respected news-outlets, while also recognising their own biases. This is called adopting an editorial line. Masquerading behind their label as a “technology company”, Google and other Big Tech have all relinquished their responsibility to identify inherent bias and to communicate this bias (or take deliberate steps to repeal bias) to its readers/users.

Our next piece on the topic will look at how useful the comparison between editorial lines and product design-bias at Google and other Big Tech companies can be.

Feel free to read through the detailed insights of Wonk Bridge’s read through Project Veritas data leak below. A bientôt!

Project Veritas Case Study

Core claims:

  • Senior executives made claims that they wanted to “Scope the information landscape” to redefine what was “objectively true” ahead of the elections
  • Google found out what he did and sent him an unsolicited letter making a threat and several demands including a “request” to cease & desist, comply by a certain date, and scrape the data (but by then Vorhies already sent the data to a legal entity)
  • “Dead Man’s Switch” launched in case “I was killed”, which would release all the documents. The next day, the Police were called on grounds of “mental health” (something Google does apparently frequently with its whistleblowers)

From the data dump, an oft-cited passage:

“If a representation is factually accurate, can it still be algorithmic unfairness?”. This screenshot from a “Humane tech” (a Google initiative) document was used by Vorhies to say facts were being twisted to manipulate reality into “promoting the far-left wing’s social justice agenda”.

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From the Data dump

Whether or not it does so deliberately, the leaked blacklists point to a preference for slamming the ban-hammer on right-wing conservative or populist content, if our scope is limited to US content.

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Screenshot but you can find the rest of the leaked list here

As a publisher, there is no clear reason why it should be objective here, just like how MSNBC and Fox News are pretty clear in their ideological stances too. The issue is that Google presents itself as a neutral tool.

What is the solution to an overly ideological publishing monopoly? Generally, this translated to the creation of competitors, which has not occurred. Perhaps it’s early days, but there are enough Conservative coders and programmers out there and enough right-wing capital in circulation to create a rival to Google. Just speculation here.

https://spectator.org/what-should-conservatives-do-about-google/

Google’s response to the Project Veritas leak is much more damning, however. The case here being that Freedom of Speech and social activism should be permitted in both cases (Google’s and Project Veritas’). a) The removal of the video from YouTube b) threatening of the whistleblower… Does it qualify as abuse of power?

The crackdown on whistleblowers (evidence: organisers of the Google Walkout), organisers of industrial action in the Google Walkout decried similar discrimination in reverse to that of the right-wing conservative Googlers. ““I identify as a LatinX female and I experienced blatant racist and sexist things from my coworker. I reported it up to where my manager knew, my director knew, the coworker’s manager knew and our HR representative knew. Nothing happened. I was warned that things will get very serious if continued,” one Googler wrote. “I definitely felt the theme of ‘protect the man’ as we so often hear about. No one protected me, the victim. I thought Google was different.”” The claim there was that Google wasn’t doing enough to protect social justice at work (and also in the products they make). The claim here being that Google doesn’t respond convincingly to these allegations.

In a message posted to many internal Google mailing lists Monday, Meredith Whittaker, who leads Google’s Open Research, said that after the company disbanded its external AI ethics council on April 4, she was told that her role would be “changed dramatically.” Whittaker said she was told that, in order to stay at the company, she would have to “abandon” her work on AI ethics and her role at AI Now Institute, a research center she cofounded at New York University.

Now, it is easy to fit these events into a broader narrative of the whistleblower crackdown, but it is clear that perspective plays a huge role in how you view these events. The disbanding of the External AI Ethics Council (which Wonk Bridge has discussed in a previous podcast) was also largely influenced by the Council’s misalignment with the values of a majority of Googlers. Meredith Whittaker may have tried to be balanced in her running of the Council, but that didn’t sit too well with the rest of the company body.

Claire Stapleton, another walkout organizer and a 12-year veteran of the company, said in the email that two months after the protest she was told she would be demoted from her role as marketing manager at YouTube and lose half her reports. After escalating the issue to human resources, she said she faced further retaliation. “My manager started ignoring me, my work was given to other people, and I was told to go on medical leave, even though I’m not sick,” Stapleton wrote. After she hired a lawyer, the company conducted an investigation and seemed to reverse her demotion. “While my work has been restored, the environment remains hostile and I consider quitting nearly every day,” she wrote.

Google as a Public Service Provider

The fates of Claire Stapleton, Meredith Whittaker and Zachary Vorhies all demonstrate a common moral dilemma posed by large and influential corporations; the balance between the corporate interest, the sum-total interest of employees, and of the “public interest”. These interests are often in conflict with each other, as is the case around the question of: “How should we manage access to controversial and/or potentially fake content”.

The reason why corporations like Google are not well-placed to answer such questions, is because they are unable to align their interests with the public interest in any accountable way. Well-functioning democracies are better placed to provide answers as their interests align directly to the public interest (in theory). Elected officials are mandated by “the People” to represent “the People” and fulfil the “Public Interest” in a representative capacity. As long as trust in elected officials and their capacity to fulfil the public interest is strong, the social contract continues to align the institutional and public interest.

As we look to our most influential actors (governments, large corporations, influential people) to show us the way through the COVID-19 crisis, the Public’s reaction will largely depend on the key question of whether they see their interests as aligned with the institutions in question. When Google and like corporations involve themselves in seemingly gratuitous philanthropy, they should not be surprised by negative push-back. It is an objectively good thing for Google to use its vast wealth of data to help curb the growth of Coronavirus. But the Public will still doubt whether it is a good thing for Google to actually do this.

 

Useful sources
Google Document (Data) Dumphttps://citizentruth.org/google-whistleblower-reveals-database-of-censored-blacklisted-websites/https://www.realclearpolitics.com/2019/06/25/google_whistleblower_reveals_plot_for_us_elections_478526.htmlVorhies Whistleblower story

https://www.projectveritas.com/news/google-machine-learning-fairness-whistleblower-goes-public-says-burden-lifted-off-of-my-soul/

Project Maven

https://venturebeat.com/2019/04/24/how-google-treats-meredith-whittaker-is-important-to-potential-ai-whistleblowers/

Retaliation against employees who whistleblow

https://www.vice.com/en/article/vb53wy/45-google-employees-explain-how-they-were-retaliated-against-for-reporting-abuse

An academic paper explaining the impact of search-engine manipulation on election outcomes.

https://www.pnas.org/content/112/33/E4512

 

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Editorial

Turf Wars: The Birth of the COVID-19 Protests

Over the weekends of the 17th and 24th of April, thousands of Americans showed up at intersections and state houses across the country to protest against social distancing rules, the closure of businesses, and other measures taken by mayors and governors to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. Depending on the location, protestors ranged from the pedestrian to the extreme and bizarre. Some groups were calm, carrying signs calling on governors to reopen businesses. Other groups were toting semi-automatic rifles, combat gear, and QAnon paraphernalia.

Users on reddit, in particular /u/Dr_Midnight, noticed a strange pattern in certain sites purporting to support the anti-quarantine protests. Dozens of sites with the URL format reopen[state code/name].com had all been registered on 17 April within minutes of each other, many from a single round of GoDaddy domain purchases from the same IP address in Florida. The original Reddit posts were removed by moderators because they revealed private information about the individual who had registered the reopen.com domains. Here are screenshots without sensitive information, as examples:

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The Pennsylvania and Minnesota sites are on the same server, registered from the same IP address

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Date and time for domain purchases // creds to Krebs On Security

Sites urging civil unrest in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio, Minnesota, and Iowa all had the same “contact your legislator” widget installed, and these and other states’ websites “blog” sections cross linked to each other.

Many of the reopen.com sites purchased on 17 April are dormant and have no content at the time of publication. However several of these domains forward users to a string of state gun rights advocacy websites, all named [state]gunrights.org. The Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Michigan and other “gun rights” sites and associated Facebook groups belong to the Dorr brothers, gun rights extremists and conservative advocates who Republican lawmakers in the Midwest have repeated labeled as “grifters”. Multiple reopen.com sites have “shop” sections selling the Dorrs’ anti-quarantine and pro-gun rights merchandise.

Several reopen.com URLs lead to Facebook groups calling themselves “Operation Gridlock [city name]”. Here are the identical descriptions for the LA and Tennessee Gridlock Facebook groups:

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Security researcher Brian Krebs also identified reopen.com domains, including reopenmississippi.com, that had eventually been sold on to In Pursuit Of LLC, a for-profit political communications agency reported to belong to the conservative billionaire industrialist Charles Koch. Non-profit journalistic site ProPublica has identified several former In Pursuit Of employees who are now on the Trump White House communications staff. It is unclear who registered reopenmississippi.com and other sites purchased by for-profit political consultancies, as many were not purchased during the 17 April’s afternoon buying spree in Florida.

A further twist in the story came on 23 April, when a man named Michael Murphy, whose IP address was identified in /u/Dr_Midnight’s original removed reddit investigation, was interviewed by reporter Brianna Sacks. It turns out that Murphy, a struggling day trader from Sebastian, Florida, spent $4,000 on dozens of reopen.com domains in the hopes of selling them on to liberal activists looking to prevent conservatives from organizing protests. An attempt to out-grift the grifters.

It is unclear whether Murphy’s intentions were political, financial, or both. He describes his politics as “generally liberal”, however his business has been suffering in recent years — he even tried to reorient to selling N-95 mask cleaning solution when the coronavirus outbreak worsened in March, but was unsuccessful. Murphy even claims to have attempted to contact late night TV host John Oliver, hoping the comedian would pay him for domains to use in one of his show’s signature trolling stunts. Murphy came forward to reporters after anti-right-wing reddit users began doxxing him, revealing his name, address, and businesses. Any reopen.com sites not registered to Murphy’s Florida IP address were likely bought by the Dorrs brothers or Koch-backed organizations before Murphy could snatch them up.

What do we make of all this?

Relatively unsophisticated technical actors have shown themselves capable of mobilizing large numbers of citizens into the streets. A few well-named URLs and a decent Facebook following are all it takes for a series of protests to be organized across the country with little notice. Protesting citizens are entirely unaware that any central coordination of their activities exists beyond their local social media groups. However these groups were not genuine expressions of opinion by concerned private citizens. Most were created concurrently by individuals or organizations with the explicit intent of political or financial gain through advocating activities that contradict public health rules and guidelines in a time of national crisis.

It’s important to note at this point these protests represent the views of a very small minority of voters, regardless of party. A poll conducted by the Democracy Fund and UCLA in late March and again in early April shows broad approval of, and compliance with, local and state social distancing guidelines and business closures. Around 87% of respondents approved of varying measures imposed by mayors and governors, and 81% said they hadn’t left their homes over the last two weeks except for buying necessities, up from 72% in late March. Majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents all believed quarantine measures to be necessary. Despite this general consensus in support of emergency measures, astroturfing operations were able to mobilize a diverse set of online activists, spectators, social media buffs, conspiracy theorists, and guns rights absolutists, even reaching all the way to disgruntled mainstream conservatives and their families.

The Internet and social media catalyze kinetic action

Centrally coordinated puppeteering of otherwise spontaneous demonstrations is not new. What is novel is the ability to do so at a national scale with almost no investment of resources of any kind — financial or otherwise. All it took was an internet connection, a few web domains, and a cursory knowledge of the online right wing universe. Once the spaces for action were created, and the right actors assembled, the demonstrations themselves were almost an inevitability. With enough prodding from conservative media and political figures, right up to the top of the movement, people took to the streets.

Twitter, and to a lesser extent Facebook, have actively shied away from preventing this method of organizing on their platforms. Despite both companies ostensibly having changed terms-of-use enforcement to take down content encouraging violating state quarantine orders, Facebook has not taken down Freedom Fund or Conservative Coalition groups or individual posts, and Twitter has officially decided that the President’s “LIBERATE” tweets do not violate their rules against inciting violence. On 22 April, Facebook did take down events pages for anti-quarantine protests in California, Nebraska, and New Jersey, but only after these states’ governors explicitly ordered the company to do so. Events pages in other states, most notably Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, remained active over the weekend of 24 April. Several groups of protesters in Lansing, Michigan entered the State Capitol Building carrying semi-automatic rifles and wearing kevlar vests and other combat gear. Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, has been a target of particularly vitriolic rhetoric from protestors over the state’s emergency orders — some of the most stringent in the country — enacted after a major outbreak in the Detroit area in late March.

Inauthentic action catalyzed by social media is legitimized by traditional media

Traditional media, most notably TV, are often playing catch-up with more savvy information actors online. An Insider Exclusive special oPoln coronavirus on 29 April — broadcast in primetime on multiple US cable networks — contained a segment on the protests. It first showed “hundreds” of people continuing to protest in front of various state houses, and immediately contrasted these images with footage of long lines at food banks in Houston, Texas. The narration insinuates that the “exasperation” felt by the protestors somehow derives from an inability to find basic necessities. This insinuation, however, is false. Footage of the protests has revealed the discontents to be predominantly white and older, while those requiring assistance from food banks in major cities are often younger, economically-precarious people of color, a demographic notably absent from images of anti-stay-at-home protesters.

The astroturfing operation has therefore worked its way through an entire information cycle. Political donor money is used to fund fringe actors’ online efforts, purchasing websites and organizing on social media. These sites are used to generate kinetic action in the form of protests. These protests are then covered by the traditional media, broadcasting and legitimizing the initial message of the organizers, inserting their narrative into the mainstream.