I read in Gizmodo how an incendiary hashtag directed against Daniel Andrews, the State Premier of Victoria in Australia, was pushed around the Twittersphere and am raising this as an article. It is part of keeping HomeNetworking01.info readers aware about disinformation tactics as we increasingly rely on the Social Web for our news.
What is a hashtag
A hashtag is a single keyword preceded by a hash ( # ) symbol that is used to identify posts within the Social Web that feature a concept. It was initially introduced in Twitter as a way of indexing posts created on that platform and make them easy to search by concept. But an increasing number of other social-Web platforms have enabled the use of hashtags for the same purpose. They are typically used to embody a slogan or idea in an easy-to-remember way across the social Web.
Most social-media platforms turn these hashtags in to a hyperlink that shows a filtered view of all posts featuring that hashtag. They even use statistical calculations to identify the most popular hashtags on that platform or the ones whose visibility is increasing and present this in meaningful ways like ranked lists or keyword clouds.
How this came about
Earlier on in the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, an earlier hashtag called #ChinaLiedPeopleDied was working the Social Web. This was underscoring a concept with a very little modicum of truth that the Chinese government didn’t come clear about the genesis of the COVID-19 plague with its worldwide death toll and their role in informing the world about it.
That hashtag was used to fuel Sinophobia hatred against the Chinese community and was one of the first symptoms of questionable information floating around the Social Web regarding COVID-19 issues.
Australia passed through the early months of the COVID-19 plague and one of their border-control measures for this disease was to have incoming travellers required to stay in particular hotels for a fortnight before they can roam around Australia as a quarantine measure. The Australian federal government put this program in the hands of the state governments but offered resources like the use of the military to these governments as part of its implementation.
The second wave of the COVID-19 virus was happening within Victoria and a significant number of the cases was to do with some of the hotels associated with the hotel quarantine program. This caused a very significant death toll and had the state government run it to a raft of very stringent lockdown measures.
A new hashtag called #DanLiedPeopleDied came about because it was deemed that the Premier, Daniel Andrews, as the head of the state’s executive government wasn’t perceived to have come clear about any and all bungles associated with its management of the hotel quarantine program.
On 14 July 2020, this hashtag first appeared in a Twitter account that initially touched on Egyptian politics and delivered its posts in the Arabic language. But it suddenly switched countries, languages and political topics, which is one of the symptoms of a Social Web account existing just to peddle disinformation and propaganda.
The hashtag had laid low until 12 August when a run of Twitter posts featuring it were delivered by hyper-partisan Twitter accounts. This effort, also underscored by newly-created or suspicious accounts that existed to bolster the messaging, was to make it register on Twitter’s systems as a “trending” hashtag.
Subsequently a far-right social-media influencer with a following of 116,000 Twitter accounts ran a post to keep the hashtag going. There was a lot of very low-quality traffic featuring that hashtag or its messaging. It also included a lot of low-effort memes being published to drive the hashtag.
The above-mentioned Gizmodo article has graphs to show how the hashtag appeared over time which is worth having a look at.
What were the main drivers
But a lot of the traffic highlighted in the article was driven by the use of new or inauthentic accounts which aren’t necessarily “bots” – machine operated accounts that provide programmatic responses or posts. Rather this is the handiwork of trolls or sockpuppets (multiple online personas that are perceived to be different but say the same thing).
As well, there was a significant amount of “gaming the algorithm” activity going on in order to raise the profile of that hashtag. This is due to most social-media services implementing algorithms to expose trending activity and populate the user’s main view.
Why this is happening
Like with other fake-news, disinformation and propaganda campaigns, the #DanLiedPeopleDied hashtag is an effort to sow seeds of fear, uncertainty and doubt while bringing about discord with information that has very little in the way of truth. As well the main goal is to cause a popular distrust in leadership figures and entities as well as their advice and efforts.
In this case, the campaign was targeted at us Victorians who were facing social and economic instability associated with the recent stay-at-home orders thanks to COVID-19’s intense reappearance, in order to have us distrust Premier Dan Andrews and the State Government even more. As such, it is an effort to run these kind of campaigns to people who are in a state of vulnerability, when they are less likely to use defences like critical thought to protect themselves against questionable information.
As I know, Australia is rated as one of the most sustainable countries in the world by the Fragile States Index, in the same league as the Nordic countries, Switzerland, Canada and New Zealand. It means that the country is known to be socially, politically and economically stable. But we can find that a targeted information-weaponisation campaign can be used to destabilise a country even further and we need to be sensitive to such tactics.
One of the key factors behind the problem of information weaponisation is the weakening of traditional media’s role in the dissemination of hard news. This includes younger people preferring to go to online resources, especially the Social Web, portals or news aggregator Websites for their daily news intake. It also includes many established newsrooms receiving reduced funding thanks to reduced advertising, subscription or government income, reducing their ability to pay staff to turn out good-quality news.
When we make use of social media, we need to develop a healthy suspicion regarding what is appearing. Beware of accounts that suddenly appear or develop chameleon behaviours especially when key political events occur around the world. Also be careful about accounts that “spam” their output with a controversial hashtag or adopt a “stuck record” mentality over a topic.
Any time where a jurisdiction is in a state of turmoil is where the Web, especially the Social Web, can be a tool of information warfare. When you use it, you need to be on your guard about what you share or which posts you interact with.
Here, do research on hashtags that are suddenly trending around a social-media platform and play on your emotions and be especially careful of new or inauthentic accounts that run these hashtags.