Larry, a 71-year-old retired insurance broker and Donald Trump fan from Alabama, probably wouldn’t meet liberal Emma, a 25-year-old graphic designer from New York, on social media — even if they were both real.
Each is a figment of the imagination of BBC journalist Marianna Spring. She created five fake Americans and set up social media accounts for them, as part of an attempt to illustrate how misinformation spreads on sites like Facebook, Twitter and TikTok despite efforts to stop it, and how it affects American politics.
It also leaves Spring and the BBC vulnerable to accusations that the project is ethically suspect of using false information to uncover false information.
“We do this with very good intentions because it’s important to understand what’s going on,” Spring said. In the world of disinformation, “the United States is the main battleground,” she said.
Spring’s reporting has appeared on the BBC’s news bulletins and website, as well as the weekly “Americast” podcast, Britain’s vision of US news. She started the project in August with the midterm election campaign in mind, but hopes to continue it until 2024.
Spring worked with the Pew Research Center in the United States to create five archetypes. Besides the very conservative Larry and the very liberal Emma, there is Britney, a more populist conservative from Texas; Gabriela, a largely apolitical independent from Miami; and Michael, a black teacher from Milwaukee who is a moderate Democrat.
With computer-generated photos, she created accounts on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok. The accounts are passive, meaning its “people” have no friends and don’t make public comments.
Spring, which uses five different phones labeled with each name, takes care of the accounts to fill in their “personalities”. For example, 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 come into play and what material is sent to them.
Through what she’s followed and loved, Britney has proven herself to be anti-vax and critical of big business, so she’s been sent down several rabbit holes, Spring said. The account has received material, some with violent rhetoric, from groups falsely claiming that Donald Trump has won the 2020 election. She has also been asked to join people who claim that the Mar-a-Lago raid was “proof” that Trump won and the state wanted to catch him, and groups that support conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
Despite efforts by social media companies to tackle misinformation, Spring said there’s still a lot to come through, mostly from a far-right perspective.
Gabriela, the non-aligned Latina mother who is primarily interested in music, fashion and how to save money shopping, doesn’t follow political groups. But Republican-aligned material is much more likely to appear in his feed.
“The best thing you can do is figure out how it works,” Spring said. “It makes us more aware of how we are being targeted.”
Most major social media companies ban impersonator accounts. Violators can be expelled for creating them, although many escape the rules.
Journalists have used several approaches to probe the workings of the tech giants. For a story last year, the Wall Street Journal created more than 100 automated accounts to see how TikTok steered users in different directions. Non-profit newsroom The Markup set up a panel of 1,200 people who agreed to have their web browsers investigated for details on how Facebook and YouTube work.
“My job is to investigate misinformation and I create fake accounts,” Spring said. “The irony is not lost on me.”
She’s obviously creative, said Aly Colon, professor of journalism ethics at Washington & Lee University. But what Spring called ironic bothers him and other experts who think there are honest ways to report on this issue.
“By creating these false identities, she violates what I consider to be a fairly clear ethical standard in journalism,” said Bob Steele, a retired Poynter Institute ethics expert. “We shouldn’t pretend we’re anyone other than ourselves, with very rare exceptions.”
Spring said she believes the level of public interest in the operation of these social media companies outweighs the deception involved.
The BBC experiment may be valuable, but only shows part of how algorithms work, a mystery that largely eludes people outside tech companies, said Samuel Woolley, director of the Propaganda Research Lab at the Center for Media Engagement from the University of Texas.
The algorithms also take inspiration from comments people make on social media or in their interactions with friends – two things the BBC’s Fake Americans don’t do, he said.
“It’s like a reporter’s version of a field experience,” Woolley said. “It runs an experiment on a system but its rigor is quite limited.”
From Spring’s perspective, if you want to see how an influence operation works, “you have to be on the front line.”
Since launching the five accounts, Spring said she’s been logging in every few days to update each one and see what they’re getting.
“I try to make it as realistic as possible,” she said. “I have these five personalities that I have to inhabit at all times.”