Archives November 3, 2020

New Age communities are driving QAnon conspiracy theories in Brazil

These spiritual, pseudoscientific groups are domesticating QAnon narratives for non-American audiences.

QAnon emerged in the US, but its plasticity makes it easily adaptable in a Brazilian context. President Bolsonaro — a Trump-worshipping, coronavirus-skeptic — rode to power on the promise of ridding Brazil of corruption, leftism, and other evils, and whose legion of highly-connected supporters vehemently distrust traditional media.

It isn’t surprising that QAnon terms would eventually be slapped onto protest signs at a pro-Bolsonaro gathering in Copacabana beach. What is perhaps somewhat surprising is the name of one YouTube channel, written on one of the signs amid a list of must-follow QAnon YouTubers: “Ensinamentos da era de Aquário,” or “Teachings of the age of Aquarius” in Portuguese.

Although that name doesn’t immediately signal QAnon lore, this is one of the largest YouTube channels that openly supports QAnon in Brazil. Its owner, Luciano Cesa, has amassed a legion of 200,000 subscribers in less than two years, and his success signals a growing interest — especially among Brazilian New Age groups — in the movement’s beliefs.

These spiritual and pseudoscientific communities, which encompasses a range of practices such as shamanism, crystal healing, reiki, yoga, and numerology, are playing a prominent role in introducing and domesticating QAnon narratives to non-American audiences.

New Age communities have a few things in common with QAnon members, who often describe themselves as “researchers” open to new truths. QAnon conspiracies are often presented in incomplete tidbits — collections of loose terms and concepts which potential adherents are invited to explore on their own, and which they decontextualize and remix as they share their findings.

The idea of a secret government that rules everything from the shadows is also rife in New Age circles. “Those are communities that distrust institutions, such as conventional science and dogmatic religions,” Campanha says, “so, I can definitely see this culture easily transferring themselves to those conspiracy ideas, with politicians who portray themselves as “outsiders,” such as Trump and Bolsonaro, being seen as antagonists against this shadow government.”

New Age communities, international in scope, provide a safe avenue for QAnon theories to spread from the US and adapt to contexts such as Brazil, while tapping into an audience that may or may not be part of Bolsonaro’s main support base.

In fact, it is precisely communities who claim to be apolitical, such as New Agers, who are especially vulnerable to the influence of fascist movements.

On August 20, at a White House briefing, Donald Trump was asked directly about QAnon for the first time. “I don’t know much about them, except that they like me very much,” he said. When a reporter followed up with an explanation that the crux of the theory was that the US President was fighting a cabal elite of child abusers, he answered: “I don’t know about that, but is that supposed to be a bad thing?”

Trump’s clever reply — which simultaneously evaded the question while appearing to express support for the movement — highlighted the challenges that both reporters and society at large face when confronting conspiracy theorists.

New Survey Reveals Teens Get Their News from Social Media and YouTube

Celebrities, influencers, and personalities have as much influence as a source of current events as friends, family, and news organizations.

Teens today are not only getting the majority of their news online, but they are turning away from traditional media organizations to find out about current events on social media sites and YouTube, often from online influencers and celebrities, according to a new poll by Common Sense and SurveyMonkey.

The survey found that more than half of teens (54%) get news at least a few times a week from social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter and 50% get news from YouTube.

Teens’ news habits reflect the diversity of the modern media landscape. And, while most news organizations maintain accounts on social media and other platforms, they are competing for attention with corporate brands, celebrities, influencers, and personal connections. Of those teens who get their news from YouTube, for example, six in 10 say they are more likely to get it from celebrities, influencers, and personalities rather than from news organizations utilizing the platform.

What’s noteworthy is that, even with so many relying on alternative sources for the majority of their news, teens are more confident in the news they get directly from news organizations. Of teens who get news of current events from news organizations, 65% say it helps them better understand what is going on. In contrast, just 53% of teens who get news from social media say it helps them better understand what is going on, while 19 percent say it has made them more confused about current events.

Amid ongoing concerns about the impact of information disseminated through social media on elections, older teens’ news habits may have political implications. Of the teens age 16 and 17 who say they’ll be eligible to vote in the 2020 election, 85% are likely to cast a ballot, including 61% who say they’re “very likely.”

“These findings raise concerns about what kind of news the next generation is using to shape their decisions,” said James Steyer, CEO of Common Sense. “There are few standards for what constitutes news and how accurately it’s portrayed on the platforms teens use. With the 2020 election coming up, we need to make sure teens are getting their news from reliable sources, thinking critically, and making informed decisions.”

This latest survey is part of a Common Sense partnership with SurveyMonkey to examine media and technology trends affecting kids and their parents and to share actionable data and insights with families.

“While it’s notable that teens rely heavily on platforms such as Facebook and YouTube to stay informed, their reliance on news from celebrities and influencers rather than journalists may have pernicious implications,” said Jon Cohen, chief research officer at SurveyMonkey. “It’s a bit of a paradox: Overwhelmingly teens say they are interested in keeping up with the news, but they’re not seeking out either traditional or new media to do so.”

Selected key findings

  1. A large majority of teens age 13 to 17 in the U.S. (78%) say it’s important to them to follow current events.
  2. Teens get their news more frequently from social media sites (e.g., Facebook and Twitter) or from YouTube than directly from news organizations. More than half of teens (54%) get news from social media, and 50% get news from YouTube at least a few times a week. Fewer than half, 41%, get news reported by news organizations in print or online at least a few times a week, and only 37% get news on TV at least a few times a week.
  3. YouTube recommendations drive news consumption. Among all teens who get their news from YouTube—regardless of how often—exactly half (50%) say they most often find news on YouTube because it was recommended by YouTube itself (i.e., as a “watch next” video or in the sidebar). Almost half as many (27%) say they follow or subscribe to a specific channel for news on YouTube, and fewer say they find their news on YouTube through search (10%) or because it was shared by someone they know in real life (7%).
  4. Sixty percent of teens who get news from YouTube say they are more likely to get it from celebrities, influencers, and personalities as compared to news organizations (39%). The difference is even more apparent among daily YouTube news consumers (71% vs. 28%).
  5. Nearly two in three teens (65%) who get news directly from news organizations say doing so has helped them better understand current events, compared with 59% of teens who get their news from YouTube (56%) and 53% who get their news from social media sites (53%). Nearly two in 10 teens (19%) say that getting news from social media has made them more confused about current events.
  6. Teens clearly prefer a visual medium for learning about the news. A majority (64%) say that “seeing pictures and video showing what happened” gives them the best understanding of major news events, while just 36% say they’d prefer to read or hear the facts about what happened.
  7. Politically, teens are more likely to be moderate and identify as Democrats, but they are open to ideas from sources whose opinions differ from their own. Just under half of teens (45%) say they get news from sources that have views different from their own once a week or more, and only 14% say they never get news from sources with different views. Slightly fewer (35%) say they discuss political issues with people who have different views once a week or more, and 19% say they never discuss politics with people who have opposing views.

The study comes on the heels of the release of Common Sense’s revamped Digital Citizenship Curriculum, which gives teachers lessons to help students develop skills to be critical consumers of news at a time when they are navigating a fast-changing digital terrain fraught with fake media, hate speech, cyberbullying, and constant digital distraction.

Methodology: This SurveyMonkey Audience survey was conducted June 14 to 25, 2019, among 1,005 teenagers age 13 to 17 in the United States. Respondents for these surveys were selected from more than 2 million people who take surveys on the SurveyMonkey platform each day. The modeled error estimate for the full sample is +/-4.0 percentage points. Data has been weighted for age and sex using the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey to reflect the demographic composition of people in the United States age 13 to 17. Find the full survey results and more information about Common Sense research here.

Google is Giving Data To Police Based on Search Keywords, Court Docs Show

There are few things as revealing as a person’s search history, and police typically need a warrant on a known suspect to demand that sensitive information. But a recently unsealed court document found that investigators can request such data in reverse order by asking Google to disclose everyone who searched a keyword rather than for information on a known suspect.

In August, police arrested Michael Williams, an associate of singer and accused sex offender R. Kelly, for allegedly setting fire to a witness’ car in Florida. Investigators linked Williams to the arson, as well as witness tampering, after sending a search warrant to Google that requested information on “users who had searched the address of the residence close in time to the arson.”

The July court filing was unsealed on Tuesday. Detroit News reporter Robert Snell tweeted about the filing after it was unsealed. Court documents showed that Google provided the IP addresses of people who searched for the arson victim’s address, which investigators tied to a phone number belonging to Williams. Police then used the phone number records to pinpoint the location of Williams’ device near the arson, according to court documents. The original warrant sent to Google is still sealed, but the report provides another example of a growing trend of data requests to the search engine giant in which investigators demand data on a large group of users rather than a specific request on a single suspect. “This ‘keyword warrant’ evades the Fourth Amendment checks on police surveillance,” said Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project. “When a court authorizes a data dump of every person who searched for a specific term or address, it’s likely unconstitutional.”

Many Amazon Returns Are Just Destroyed or Sent to Landfills

Experts say hundreds of thousands of returns don’t end up back on the e-commerce giant’s website for resale, as customers might think. Marketplace journalists posing as potential new clients went undercover for a tour at a Toronto e-waste recycling and product destruction facility with hidden cameras. During that meeting, a representative revealed they get “tons and tons of Amazon returns,” and that every week their facility breaks apart and shreds at least one tractor-trailer load of Amazon returns, sometimes even up to three to five truckloads…

To further investigate where all those online returns end up, Marketplace purchased a dozen products off Amazon’s website — a faux leather backpack, overalls, a printer, coffee maker, a small tent, children’s toys and a few other household items — and sent each back to Amazon just as they were received but with a GPS tracker hidden inside… Of the 12 items returned, it appears only four were resold by Amazon to new customers at the time this story was published. Months on from the investigation, some returns were still in Amazon warehouses or in transit, while a few travelled to some unexpected destinations, including a backpack that Amazon sent to landfill…

Marketplace asked Amazon what percentage of its returns are sent to landfill, recycling or for destruction. The company wouldn’t answer. A television investigation in France exposed that hundreds of thousands of products — both returns and overstock — are being thrown out by Amazon. As a result of public outcry, a new French anti-waste law passed earlier this year will force all retailers including e-giants like Amazon to recycle or donate all returned or unused merchandise. Shortly after the show aired in 2019, Amazon also introduced a new program in the U.S. and U.K. known as Fulfillment by Amazon Donations, which Amazon says will help sellers send returns directly to charities instead of disposing of them. No such program exists in Canada.

Why Teens Are Falling for TikTok Conspiracy Theories

TikTok–the platform skews young—reportedly one-third of its daily users in the US are 14 or younger—and celebrity gossip has long been the lingua franca of social media for people of all ages. Right-wing conspiracy groups like QAnon have been spreading made up stories about those in power on networks like Facebook for years. Now those ideas have jumped to TikTok where they’re being metabolized by much younger consumers. Those things all scan. What doesn’t, however, is why teens believe them.

The short answer? TikTok is full of crazy ideas—conspiracies are no different. They’ve been normalized by the platform where many young people spend most of their time. “Many of these conspiracy sites and stories are entertaining. They are social gathering spots. They are exciting,” says Nancy Rosenblum, Senator Joseph S. Clark Professor of Ethics in Politics and Government at Harvard University and co-author of A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy. “It’s small wonder that teenagers who ‘live on the screen’ would be drawn to the drama.”

Easy access to social media’s redistribution tools worsens this problem. With every like, share, send, and retweet, teenagers are popularizing this content worldwide. “On social media, repetition substitutes for validation,” says Russel Muirhead, a professor of democracy and politics at Dartmouth College and Rosenblum’s co-author. “Repetition is what breathes air into conspiracy theories, and social media is all about repetition. But repeating something that’s false does not make it more true! Teenagers are just as vulnerable to this as grown ups.”

This wouldn’t be such a problem if teenagers weren’t so attached to social media. So fond, in fact, that some 54 percent of teens get the bulk of their news from it. If this sounds concerning, that’s because it is. With teenagers relying on TikTok as their sole source of information, it makes sense for my generation to become absorbed in webs of falsities and to live as largely uninformed citizens.

Big Tech Continues Its Surge Ahead of the Rest of the Economy

While the rest of the U.S. economy languished earlier this year, the tech industry’s biggest companies seemed immune to the downturn, surging as the country worked, learned and shopped from home. From a report:

On Thursday, as the economy is showing signs of improvement, Amazon, Apple, Alphabet and Facebook reported profits that highlighted how a recovery may provide another catalyst to help them generate a level of wealth that hasn’t been seen in a single industry in generations. With an entrenched audience of users and the financial resources to press their leads in areas like cloud computing, e-commerce and digital advertising, the companies demonstrated again that economic malaise, upstart competitors and feisty antitrust regulators have had little impact on their bottom line. Combined, the four companies reported a quarterly net profit of $38 billion.

Amazon reported record sales, and an almost 200 percent rise in profits, as the pandemic accelerated the transition to online shopping. Despite a boycott of its advertising over the summer, Facebook had another blockbuster quarter. Alphabet’s record quarterly net profit was up 59 percent, as marketers plowed money into advertisements for Google search and YouTube. And Apple’s sales rose even though the pandemic forced it to push back the iPhone 12’s release to October, in the current quarter. On Tuesday, Microsoft, Amazon’s closest competitor in cloud computing, also reported its most profitable quarter, growing 30 percent from a year earlier. “The scene that’s playing out fundamentally is that these tech stalwarts are gaining more market share by the day,” said Dan Ives, managing director of equity research at Wedbush Securities. “It’s ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ for this group of tech companies and everyone else.”

Facebook Targeted In UK Legal Action Over Cambridge Analytica Scandal

Facebook is being sued for failing to protect users’ personal data in the Cambridge Analytica breach. The scandal involved harvested Facebook data of 87 million people being used for advertising during elections. Mass legal action is being launched against Facebook for misuse of information from almost one million users in England and Wales. Facebook said it has not received any documents regarding this claim. The group taking action — Facebook You Owe Us — follows a similar mass action law suit against Google. Google You Owe Us, led by former director Richard Lloyd, is also active for another alleged mass data breach. Both represented by law firm Millberg London, the Google case is being heard in the Supreme Court in April next year.

The Facebook case will argue that by taking data without consent, the firm failed to meet their legal obligations under the Data Protection Act 1998. Representative claimant in the case Alvin Carpio said: “When we use Facebook, we expect that our personal data is being used responsibly, transparently, and legally. By failing to protect our personal information from abuse, we believe that Facebook broke the law. Paying less than 0.01% of your annual revenue in fines — pocket change to Facebook — is clearly a punishment that does not fit the crime. Apologizing for breaking the law is simply not enough. Facebook, you owe us honesty, responsibility and redress. We will fight to hold Facebook to account.”

Don’t Even Try Paying With Cash in China

“It’s hard for those of us who live outside of China to grasp how paying for everything has gone digital in the country,” writes the New York Times, introducing a Q&A with technology reporter Ray Zhong (who used to live in Beijing):

Most businesses there, from the fanciest hotels to roadside fruit stands, display a QR code — a type of bar code — that people scan with a smartphone camera to pay with China’s dominant digital payment apps, Alipay and WeChat. Paying by app is so much the norm that taxi drivers might curse at you for handing them cash…

Ray: Credit cards were never prevalent in China. The country skipped over a generation of finance and went straight to smartphone-based digital payments.

And the apps are simple for businesses. If a business can get a printout of a QR code, it can get paid by app. They don’t need special machines like businesses do to accept credit cards or many mobile payments like Apple Pay, which are essentially digital wallets of bank cards, while Alipay and WeChat are more pure digital payments… China has a stodgy, state-dominated banking system. These apps have allowed small businesses to connect to modern financial infrastructure easily.

I know paying with a credit card isn’t tremendously difficult, but making it a fraction easier to buy stuff has enabled different kinds of commerce. You probably wouldn’t buy something on Instagram for 50 cents with your credit card, but people in China buy digital books one chapter at a time.

What are the downsides?

Ray: Imagine if powerful tech companies like Google knew everything you’ve purchased in your entire life. That’s one. There are also concerns that Alipay and WeChat are so dominant that no one can compete with them.

Yet towards the end of the interview, the reporter concedes that Alipay and WeChat were “developed for China’s specific needs. I’m not convinced similar QR-code-based digital payment systems will catch on elsewhere. Maybe in India.”

What It’s Like To Get Locked Out of Google Indefinitely

When he received the notification from Google he couldn’t quite believe it. Cleroth, a game developer who asked not to use his real name, woke up to see a message that all his Google accounts were disabled due to “serious violation of Google policies.” His first reaction was that something must have malfunctioned on his phone. Then he went to his computer and opened up Chrome, Google’s internet browser. He was signed out. He tried to access Gmail, his main email account, which was also locked. “Everything was disconnected,” he told Business Insider. Cleroth had some options he could pursue: One was the option to try and recover his Google data â” which gave him hope. But he didn’t go too far into the process because there was also an option to appeal the ban. He sent in an appeal.

He received a response the next day: Google had determined he had broken their terms of service, though they didn’t explain exactly what had happened, and his account wouldn’t be reinstated. (Google has been approached for comment on this story.) Cleroth is one of a number of people who have seen their accounts suspended in the last few days and weeks. In response to a tweet explaining his fear at being locked out of his Google account after 15 years of use, others have posted about the impact of being barred from the company that runs most of the services we use in our day-to-day lives. “I’ve been using a Google account for personal and work purposes for years now. It had loads of various types of data in there,” said Stephen Roughley, a software developer from Birkenhead, UK. “One day when I went to use it I found I couldn’t log in.” Roughley checked his backup email account and found a message there informing him his main account had been terminated for violating the terms of service. “It suggested that I had been given a warning and I searched and searched but couldn’t find anything,” added Roughley. “I then followed the link to recover my account but was given a message stating that my account was irrecoverable.” Roughley lost data including emails, photos, documents and diagrams that he had developed for his work. “My account and all its data is gone,” he said.

Zuckerberg Acknowledges ‘Risk of Civil Unrest’ After US Elections, Promises Newsfeed Updates, too little too late

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg told analysts on a conference call Thursday evening that the company plans to post notices at the top of users’ news feeds on November 3rd discrediting any claims by either candidate in the U.S. presidential election that they have won the election if the site deems the claim premature… The move, said Zuckerberg, is being made because “There is a risk of civil unrest across the country, and given this, companies like ours need to go well beyond what we’ve done before.”

The conference call with analysts followed a third-quarter earnings report Thursday afternoon in which Facebook’s results topped expectations, helped by gains in active users that also were higher than Wall Street expected.

Zuckerberg said Facebook “helped 4.4 million people register [to vote] exceeding the goal that we set for ourselves this summer.”