She's Studying US Via Five Bogus Accounts on Social Media

BBC reporter launches controversial experiment
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Nov 6, 2022 9:45 AM CST
She's Studying US Via Five Bogus Accounts on Social Media
This image released by the BBC shows London-based reporter Marianna Spring.   (Robert Timothy/BBC via AP)

Larry, a 71-year-old retired insurance broker and Donald Trump fan from Alabama, wouldn't be likely to run into the 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 attempt to illustrate how disinformation spreads on sites like Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok despite efforts to stop it, and how that impacts American politics, per the AP. That's also left Spring and the BBC vulnerable to charges that the project is ethically suspect in using false information to uncover false information.

“We're doing it with very good intentions because it's important to understand what is going on,” says Spring. In the world of disinformation, “the US is the key battleground." Spring worked with the Pew Research Center in the US to set up five archetypes, although the center was not involved in how to use them. Besides the very conservative Larry and very liberal Emma, there's Britney, a more populist conservative from Texas; Gabriela, a largely apolitical independent from Miami; and Michael, a Black teacher from Milwaukee who's a moderate Democrat. With computer-generated photos, she set up accounts on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok. The accounts are passive, meaning her “people” don't have friends or make public comments.

Spring, who uses five different phones labeled with each name, tends to the accounts to fill out their “personalities.” For instance, 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 “traits” are the bait, essentially, to see how the social media companies' algorithms kick in and what material is sent their way. Through what she followed and liked, Britney was revealed as anti-vax and critical of big business, so she has been sent into several rabbit holes, Spring said.

The account has received material, some with violent rhetoric, from groups falsely claiming Donald Trump won the 2020 election. She's also been invited to join in with people who claim the Mar-a-Lago raid was “proof” Trump won and the state was out to get him, and groups that support conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. Despite efforts by social media companies to combat disinformation, Spring said there's still a considerable amount getting through, mostly from a far-right perspective. The knock against the experiment: “By creating these false identities, she violates what I believe is a fairly clear ethical standard in journalism,” said Bob Steele, retired ethics expert for the Poynter Institute. “We should not pretend that we are someone other than ourselves, with very few exceptions.” Read the full story.

(Read more misinformation stories.)

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