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Yochai Benkler

  • American-Made Disinformation Strains Social Media’s Safeguards

    October 9, 2020

    Facebook Inc.’s announcement Thursday that it had shut down a network of phony accounts attempting to influence the November elections reinforced fears that people are working to use social media to undermine U.S. democracy. But unlike 2016, when most attention focused on campaigns associated with the Russian government, this year’s wave of disinformation is coming largely from President Donald Trump and his American supporters, a growing body of research shows, raising new challenges for social media companies.  Facebook tied the campaign it exposed Thursday to Rally Forge, a U.S. marketing firm hired by Turning Point USA, a conservative youth organization that has already been linked to other attempts to manipulate online political debate, and an advocacy organization called the Inclusive Conservation Group. The social network removed 200 Facebook accounts, 55 pages, and 76 Instagram accounts. It also banned Rally Forge.  The fake accounts, created to look like real Facebook users, posted commentary parroting Trump administration talking points on the pages of news organizations...A study published last week by Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center showed how the president promoted disinformation largely by manipulating the mass media into repeating his claims. “There's no question that the leading force of this disinformation campaign has been President Trump himself,” said Yochai Benkler, the study’s main author, a stance that has been echoed by numerous other experts in the field. Benkler thinks the fixation on social media has overstated its relative importance compared to traditional news media in spreading disinformation. “We always focus on Twitter because that's the new shiny object in the media ecosystem, but when we actually looked at the last six months, Trump uses press briefings and news releases every bit as much as he uses Twitter,” he said.

  • Yochai Benkler on Mass-Media Disinformation Campaigns

    October 8, 2020

    On this episode of Lawfare's Arbiters of Truth series on disinformation, Evelyn Douek and Quinta Jurecic spoke with Yochai Benkler, a professor at Harvard Law School and co-director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. With only weeks until Election Day in the United States, there’s a lot of mis- and disinformation flying around on the subject of mail-in ballots. Discussions about addressing that disinformation often focus on platforms like Facebook or Twitter. But a new study by the Berkman Klein Center suggests that social media isn’t the most important part of mail-in ballot disinformation campaigns—rather, traditional mass media like news outlets and cable news are the main vector by which the Republican Party and the president have spread these ideas. So what’s the research behind this counterintuitive finding? And what are the implications for how we think about disinformation and the media ecosystem?

  • Want to fight online voting misinformation? A new study makes a case for targeting Trump tweets

    October 7, 2020

    As the 2020 presidential election approaches, social networks have promised to minimize false rumors about voter fraud or “rigged” mail-in ballots, a mostly imaginary threat that discourages voting and casts doubt on the democratic process. But new research has suggested that these rumors aren’t born in the dark corners of Facebook or Twitter — and that fighting them effectively might involve going after one of social media’s most powerful users. Last week, Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center put forward an illuminating analysis of voting misinformation. A working paper posits that social media isn’t driving most disinformation around mail-in voting. Instead, Twitter and Facebook amplify content from “political and media elites.” That includes traditional news outlets, particularly wire services like the Associated Press, but also Trump’s tweets — which the paper cites as a key disinformation source. The center published the methodology and explanation on its site, and co-author Yochai Benkler also wrote a clear, more succinct breakdown of it at Columbia Journalism Review. The authors measured the volume of tweets, Facebook posts, and “open web” stories mentioning mail-in voting or absentee ballots alongside terms like fraud and election rigging. Then, they looked at the top-performing posts and their sources. The authors overwhelmingly found that spikes in social media activity echoed politicians or news outlets discussing voter fraud. Some spikes involved actual (rare) cases of suspected or attempted fraud. But “the most common by far,” Benkler writes, “was a statement Donald Trump made in one of his three main channels: Twitter, press briefings, and television interviews.”

  • How Not to Cover Voter Fraud Disinformation

    October 7, 2020

    An article by Yochai BenklerNo group of people has a more important role to play in shaping how Americans think about mail-in voter fraud than editors and journalists who write for local and regional newspapers, local television news, the broadcast networks, and for those who produce the syndicated news these outlets use. My team and I at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society came to this remarkable conclusion in a report about the months-long disinformation campaign that Donald Trump and the Republican Party mounted to sow doubt about mail-in voting. We analyzed tens of thousands of online stories and Facebook posts, and millions of tweets, using network analysis, text analysis, and qualitative research. Contrary to widespread concern with Russia or Facebook as vectors of election disinformation, our findings told a different story. All peaks in attention and coverage of mail-in voter fraud were triggered by statements or actions of political elites, particularly Donald Trump through three channels: his Twitter account, press briefings, and television interviews on Fox. Trump was, in turn, reinforced by his staff, the RNC, and other Republican leaders. Social media played a secondary role, recirculating stories published by major media outlets about the actions or statements of the political actors pushing the false narrative. President Trump perfected the art of harnessing mass media to disseminate and reinforce his disinformation campaign.

  • Trump doesn’t need Russian trolls to spread disinformation. The mainstream media does it for him.

    October 7, 2020

    Voting fraud, according to study after study, is rare. Mail-in ballots are, with a few exceptions, a safe way to vote. But millions of Americans have come to believe something radically different: They think the Nov. 3 election could very well end up being stolen. That the outcome — especially if it relies on counting the votes that come in later than in a normal election year — might well be illegitimate. Where would they get such an idea? Conventional wisdom might say it comes from false stories and memes spread on social media, originating from foreign troublemakers trying to influence the election results...Not so, says a major new study: It’s the American mainstream press that’s doing most of the dirty work. Eager to look neutral — and worried about being accused of lefty partisanship — mainstream news organizations across the political spectrum have bent over backward to aid and abet Trump’s disinformation campaign about voting by mail by blasting his false claims out in headlines, tweets and news alerts, according to the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University... “If Biden wins clearly by mail-in voting and not in-person voting, you may well have tens of millions of people persuaded that the election was stolen,” Yochai Benkler, the center’s co-director and a Harvard Law School professor, told me. And their outrage could translate into violence. The disinformation campaign “is transmitted primarily through mass media, including outlets on the center-left and in the mainstream,” Benkler said. In particular, it may be those outlets that try hardest to seem unbiased that are doing a lot of the heavy lifting, he said — in part because of their broad reach and their influence on less-partisan voters.

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    Tracing the disinformation campaign on mail-in voter fraud

    October 2, 2020

    A new report from Harvard Law School Professor Yochai Benkler ’94 and a team of researchers from the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society shows that the mail-in voting fraud disinformation campaign—intentionally spreading false information in order to deceive—is largely led by political elites and the mass media.

  • TV Ratings for Biden and Trump Signal an Increasingly Polarized Nation

    August 31, 2020

    Americans who watched the political conventions on television opted for news networks with partisan fan bases to a degree unseen in recent years, another sign of an increasingly divided electorate as the nation hurtles toward the November election...Television viewers’ turn to perceived safe spaces raises questions about the ability of political conventions — which reached a broader TV audience in the pre-internet era — to persuade undecided voters. And it underscores fears about a polarized information environment where Americans can receive little exposure to political ideas that run counter to their own...On MSNBC, three Trump critics — Rachel Maddow, Joy Reid and Nicolle Wallace — lambasted the president’s address and interrupted the convention for several fact-checking segments. The channel’s ratings for the Republican convention were among its lowest prime-time weeks of the year. For the Democratic convention, the picture was sharply reversed. MSNBC clocked its highest-rated prime-time week in the network’s 24-year history, with a 10 p.m. average of 5.7 million viewers. Fox News’s viewership fell far below its usual prime-time average. “What we saw in the last presidential election was that Clinton supporters distributed their attention much more evenly among a broader range of outlets, and Trump supporters concentrated much more heavily on Fox News,” said Yochai Benkler, a co-director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. “The fact you have such a high proportion of viewers of the Democratic convention on MSNBC does suggest, to some extent, a gravitation on the Democratic side toward a more partisan, viewpoint-reinforcing network,” Mr. Benkler said.

  • Alarm, Denial, Blame: The Pro-Trump Media’s Coronavirus Distortion

    April 2, 2020

    On Feb. 27, two days after the first reported case of the coronavirus spreading inside a community in the United States, Candace Owens was underwhelmed. “Now we’re all going to die from Coronavirus,” she wrote sarcastically to her two million Twitter followers, blaming a “doomsday cult” of liberal paranoia for the growing anxiety over the outbreak. One month later, on the day the United States reached the grim milestone of having more documented coronavirus cases than anywhere in the world, Ms. Owens — a conservative commentator whom President Trump has called “a real star” — was back at it, offering what she said was “a little perspective” on the 1,000 American deaths so far...Yochai Benkler, a professor at Harvard Law School and co-author of a book on political manipulation called “Network Propaganda,” said that as the magnitude of the virus’s effects grew and the coverage on the right shifted, Mr. Trump’s loyalists benefited from having told people not to believe what they were hearing. “The same media that’s been producing this intentional ignorance is saying what they’ve always been saying: ‘We’re right. They’re wrong,’” he said. “But it also permits them to turn on a dime.” “We can look at that and get whiplashed,” he added. “But from the inside it doesn’t look like whiplash.”

  • Marvin Ammori presenting

    A Legal Warrior in the Field of Technology

    January 7, 2020

    Marvin Ammori ’03, a net neutrality advocate, explores the power of the decentralized web

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    Heard on Campus

    January 7, 2020

    From a U.S. Supreme Court justice to the president of Germany to a senator from Utah to a Hiroshima survivor: “I speak because I feel it is my responsibility.”

  • Real news: Hardly anybody shares fake news

    November 25, 2019

    Some people are fuming at Facebook for allowing unfiltered political ads, while others are fuming at Twitter for banning them. There’s lots of confusion and speculation, but what we know is that these social media companies have fundamentally changed how people exchange information. What we need to figure out is whether they also change how people spread disinformation — and if so, how to fix it. It’s a question researchers are actively investigating. After “fake news” became the catchphrase of the 2016 election, experts in psychology, political science, computer science and networks stepped up research on disinformation, learning in more detail how it travels through social media and why some things stick in people’s heads...There’s little evidence that targeted ads have the power to change minds or votes, says Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler, co-author of the book “Network Propaganda.” Belief in targeted ads in general is more faith-based than evidence-based, he says. Advertisers assume the targeting causes people to buy things — though this is far from proven.

  • Real News: Hardly Anybody Shares Fake News

    November 18, 2019

    Some people are fuming at Facebook for allowing unfiltered political ads, while others are fuming at Twitter for banning them. There’s lots of confusion and speculation, but what we know is that these social media companies have fundamentally changed how people exchange information. What we need to figure out is whether they also change how people spread disinformation — and if so, how to fix it. It's a question researchers are actively investigating. ... There is still hope for democracy, however. There’s little evidence that targeted ads have the power to to change minds or votes, says Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler, co-author of the book “Network Propaganda.” Belief in targeted ads in general is more faith-based than evidence-based, he says. Advertisers assume the targeting causes people to buy things — though this is far from proven.

  • Justice Hanan Melcer of Israel's Supreme Court.

    Israeli Supreme Court Justice on combatting propaganda in elections

    October 29, 2019

    Deputy Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Israel Hanan Melcer, who chaired Israel's Central Elections Committee, shared his experience protecting Israel's elections from online manipulation and cyber threats.

  • Innovation, Justice, and Globalization–A Celebration of J.H. Reichman

    Innovation, Justice and Globalization

    October 17, 2019

    The “Innovation, Justice and Globalization” conference, hosted by HLS professor and leading intellectual property scholar Ruth Okediji, brought international academics and policymakers to campus to discuss intellectual property issues.

  • Fox News has no comment on its venomous rhetoric

    August 13, 2019

    In his 2,300-word manifesto, the gunman who killed 22 people in El Paso earlier this month laid out his views on many topics including the environment, corporations, economics, automation and, most forcefully, the “invaders” who arrive in the United States from other countries. Speaking of Democrats, he wrote, “They intend to use open borders, free healthcare for illegals, citizenship and more to enact a political coup by importing and then legalizing millions of new voters. Compare those thoughts to what Fox News host Tucker Carlson said on air on May 17. In a standard anti-immigration riff, Carlson laid out what he saw as the partisan dimensions of the topic ...[I]t’s hard to avoid Fox News’s influence on immigration or any other contemporary controversy, especially for those inclined to seek out conservative news on the Internet. The influence is malign, too. Yochai Benkler, a scholar affiliated with Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center, has studied the network’s ability to seed its ideas across the web. He told The Post last year: "Our data repeatedly show Fox as the transmission vector of widespread conspiracy theories. The original Seth Rich conspiracy did not take off when initially propagated in July 2016 by fringe and pro-Russia sites, but only a year later, as Fox News revived it when James Comey was fired. The Clinton pedophilia libel that resulted in Pizzagate was started by a Fox online report, repeated across the Fox TV schedule, and provided the prime source of validation across the right-wing media ecosystem.

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    Are Americans Getting Enough Fiber?

    July 23, 2019

    The U.S. is falling behind in fiber optic technology, but cities and localities are leading the way.

  • Americans think fake news is big problem, blame politicians

    June 11, 2019

    Half of U.S. adults consider fake news a major problem, and they mostly blame politicians and activists for it, according to a new survey. A majority also believe journalists have the responsibility for fixing it. Differences in political affiliation are a major factor in how people think about fake news, as Republicans are more likely than Democrats to also blame journalists for the problem...Republicans take the idea of made-up news to “mean news that is critical of Trump,” rather than nonsense stories, said Yochai Benkler, a Harvard Law School professor who wrote a book on disinformation and right-wing media.

  • How tech companies are shaping the rules governing AI

    May 16, 2019

    In early April, the European Commission published guidelines intended to keep any artificial intelligence technology used on the EU’s 500 million citizens trustworthy. The bloc’s commissioner for digital economy and society, Bulgaria’s Mariya Gabriel, called them “a solid foundation based on EU values.” ...Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler warned in the journalNature this month that “industry has mobilized to shape the science, morality and laws of artificial intelligence.” Benkler cited Metzinger’s experience in that op-ed. He also joined other academics in criticizing a National Science Foundation program for research into “Fairness in Artificial Intelligence” that is co-funded by Amazon. The company will not participate in the peer review process that allocates the grants. But NSF documents say it can ask recipients to share updates on their work, and will retain a right to royalty-free license to any intellectual property developed.

  • Don’t let industry write the rules for AI

    May 2, 2019

    An op-ed by Yochai BenklerIndustry has mobilized to shape the science, morality and laws of artificial intelligence. On 10 May, letters of intent are due to the US National Science Foundation (NSF) for a new funding programme for projects on Fairness in Artificial Intelligence, in collaboration with Amazon. In April, after the European Commission released the Ethics Guidelines for Trustworthy AI, an academic member of the expert group that produced them described their creation as industry-dominated “ethics washing”. In March, Google formed an AI ethics board, which was dissolved a week later amid controversy. In January, Facebook invested US$7.5 million in a centre on ethics and AI at the Technical University of Munich, Germany. Companies’ input in shaping the future of AI is essential, but they cannot retain the power they have gained to frame research on how their systems impact society or on how we evaluate the effect morally. Governments and publicly accountable entities must support independent research, and insist that industry shares enough data for it to be kept accountable.

  • Is America’s media divide destroying democracy?

    April 16, 2019

    Sometimes it seems as if the deepest divide in American politics is not so much between Republicans and Democrats as between voters who watch Fox News, and those who don’t.  ...What do the courses run by these stories say about the structure of American media today? What they illustrate is that there is not one media ecosystem, but two separate spheres that respond to different incentives and operate in very different manners, says Yochai Benkler, a professor at Harvard Law School and co-author of “Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization of American Politics.” One of these spheres is comprised of right-leaning media, from Fox News to Breitbart and talk radio hosts such as Mr. Limbaugh. The other is a center-left composite of everything else, from the legacy newscasts of the old broadcast networks to most daily newspapers and new liberal internet sites. To find out how news moves through these spheres, Professor Benkler and his co-authors used data analysis tools to study hyperlink connections, Facebook shares, and other marking aspects of some 4 million stories from the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the first year of the Trump presidency. Their study showed that right-leaning audiences concentrated to a large extent on right-leaning outlets insulated from the rest of the media. Center and left-leaning audiences spread their attention more broadly and focused in particular on what is often labeled the MSM.

  • Case Against Julian Assange Raises Press Freedom Questions

    April 15, 2019

    When U.S. prosecutors unsealed a March 2018 indictment accusing Julian Assange of conspiring to illegally access a Department of Defense computer system, they sparked more than just an examination of the case and the accused. ...Harvard Law Professor Yochai Benkler has written about the legal implications of prosecuting WikiLeaks. He told The Guardian he believes the indictment contained “dangerous elements that pose a significant risk to national security reporting. Sections of the indictment are vastly overbroad and could have a significant chilling effect.”