DATA TIMELINE: MAY 2 – MAY 20, 2020
REPORT 3.0 PUBLISHED JUNE 10, 2020

BLACKBIRD.AI – INTELLIGENCE REPORT

INTRODUCTION

Blackbird.AI’s Intelligence Report responds to ongoing requests for insights into disinformation activity and threats around recent events across digital media. These insights are generated by Blackbird.AI’s AI-driven disinformation analysis platform. This analyzed 119,069,559 social media posts, between MAY 2 – MAY 20, 2020 with over 32,148,780 posts surfaced as manipulated with a Blackbird Manipulation Index (BBMI) of 27%.

Blackbird.AI’s Constellation Platform clusters and visualizes entities (e.g. hashtags, URLs, images) in 3-D space to illuminate underlying narratives within social media discourse. Constellation’s graphing capability visualizes narratives as nodes, forming coherent visual concepts. When combined with Blackbird’s proprietary machine learning algorithms, Constellation reveals the critical threats worthy of further investigation which aids analysts in discerning anomalous patterns and harmful influence campaigns rapidly and efficiently. In the visual shown above, the cluster in the upper-left represents a far-right conspiracy cluster (blue) on one side of the ecosystem and a “StayAtHome” group driving a counter-narrative on the other side(green)

In a time of widespread uncertainty, panic, economic pressures and geopolitical tensions, the value of information clarity and integrity has never been greater. 2020 has been a pressure cooker of consecutive changes with countries declaring state of emergencies and implementing sudden lockdown measures that have resulted in uncharted levels of isolation among the public.

These changes have forced global communities to adapt and deal with a newfound fear and paranoia against the virus, our governments and even our livelihoods. Overshadowed by the new reality of isolation we now pay more time and closer attention to the digital world than ever before for signs of hope or cause for concern.

In the current digital media landscape we are seeing a never ending sea of controversy, violence, often due to messaging that targets polarized communities and enables fear mongering with propaganda that will inevitably influence and inflame communities.

In Blackbird.AI’s COVID-19 Disinformation Report Volume 3.0, we highlight key narratives that pressured the ‘REOPEN movement” in the USA and outline the manner in which the state of information in the current COVID-19 era primed behaviors to create a frenzied public outcry to demand that businesses and society reopen with the pandemic still growing and against all medical and scientific reason. These narratives also directly connect to our upcoming Disinformation Intelligence Report analyzing ‘Racial Unrest & Riots’ following Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests over the death of George Floyd.

TOP LINE MANIPULATED NARRATIVES

Deep Dives

NARRATIVE 1 – REOPEN – SAVE THE EONOMY
BBMI: 44.73% (HIGH)

Summary:

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NARRATIVE 2 – MILITIAS & THE BOOGALOO’ MOVEMENT
BBMI: 58.04% (HIGH)

Summary:

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NARRATIVE 3 – GENERAL & MEDIAL CONSPIRACIES
BBMI: 49.48% (HIGH)

Summary:

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NEW: COHORT ANALYSIS

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COHORTS DESCRIPTION
Conspiracy Theorists Lorem ipsum, or lipsum as it is sometimes known, is dummy text used in laying out print, graphic or web designs.
Populists Lorem ipsum, or lipsum as it is sometimes known, is dummy text used in laying out print, graphic or web designs.
Anti-Vaxxers Lorem ipsum, or lipsum as it is sometimes known, is dummy text used in laying out print, graphic or web designs.
Fringe Trolls Lorem ipsum, or lipsum as it is sometimes known, is dummy text used in laying out print, graphic or web designs.
Alt-Right Lorem ipsum, or lipsum as it is sometimes known, is dummy text used in laying out print, graphic or web designs.
Left-Lean Lorem ipsum, or lipsum as it is sometimes known, is dummy text used in laying out print, graphic or web designs.
QAnon Lorem ipsum, or lipsum as it is sometimes known, is dummy text used in laying out print, graphic or web designs.
White Power Lorem ipsum, or lipsum as it is sometimes known, is dummy text used in laying out print, graphic or web designs.

We have quantified the total volume of manipulative tweets, which is a prototypical indicator of a disinformation campaign.

Manipulation leads to harmful content, defined as any content that can be used to drive harmful narratives

METHOD

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  • Suspicious patterns of propagation and sharing
  • Manipulated messaging around specific content including hashtags, URLs, and images
  • Specific users and communities that are engaged in manipulation
  • Evidence of falsification that was introduced via technical means
  • Traffic that is “inorganically” generated via bots or coordinated user campaigns

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Lorem ipsum, or lipsum as it is sometimes known, is dummy text used in laying out print, graphic or web designs.

BLACKBIRD MANIPULATION INDEX

The Blackbird Manipulation Index (BBMI) is a proprietary system designed to measure the degree to which the content of a tweet exhibits traits of being manipulated, or a user appears to be engaged in manipulation.

The assessment is based on features we use to score content which blends
together attributes extracted from the data such as toxicity of language,
communication patterns, post volumes and bot activity.

NARRATIVE 1: REOPEN - SAVE THE ECONOMY

CORE STATISTICS
Date Range: May 2nd - May 20th, 2020
Total Tweets Posts: 2,773,030
Languages: 57 - EN (73%), PT (20%), Others (7%)
Cross-Platform Reach: Viral
Cross-Platform Sentiment: Polarised
CRITICAL MANIPULATED ENTITES

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Lorem ipsum, or lipsum as it is sometimes known, is dummy text used in laying out print, graphic or web designs.

ABSTRACT

Blackbird’s system uncovered significant manipulative narratives aimed at the Democratic Party and its leadership. The goal of this campaign appeared to be the de-legitimization of Democratic politicians and party members, framing them as overblowing or otherwise overhyping the dangers of COVID-19.

The driving message: that the Democrats were overblowing the issue in order to hurt President Trump. The “Dem Panic” narrative and related spin offs also included the widespread mention of the “out of control” homeless population and high number of immigrants in Democraticdistricts. Many of these messages unwittingly found their way into what would traditionally be considered credible media stories.

While the weaponization of disinformation for political purposes has been fairly common for several years now, this campaign spreading during a health crisis could be particularly harmful to the public; it could potentially obfuscate the real dangers of the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, ignoring the recommendations that underpin the seriousness of COVID-19 can have significant detrimental impacts on communities across the country and the world.

An interesting component to this narrative is how intertwined online disinformation activity was with two particular events:

February 28 – President Trump’s Charleston, SC rally, during which he criticized the Democrats of politicizing the Coronavirus and characterizing his handling of the outbreak as “their new hoax” (referring to Democrats). The generic #coronavirus and other similar hashtags had been at the top of the list of most used hashtags throughout this national emergency, but following this statement other hashtags began to rise to the top, including: #hoax, #Democrats, #DemHoax, #FakeNews, #TrumpRallyCharleston and #MAGA.

March 9 – After the Italian government quarantined the entire country. In response to this, there was a significant spike in manipulated conversations in many of the same narratives that spiked following President Trump’s Charleston rally. It is likely this was a response to the uptick in posts expressing heightened concern about the virus and possible action needing to be taken within the United States. The increase in posts calling for immediate action regarding the virus was met with a paralleled increase in posts accusing Democrats of overhyping the issue for political reasons.

Coordination of low influence accounts with small audiences worked in concert to spread REOPEN themed messages.

EXAMPLES

  • @tcot (Traditional Catholic Twitter) and @QuanFinancier spreading REOPEN themed messages. (Fig 1.1)
  • Radio host Rick Dees – @rickdees YouTube Channel (Fig 1.2) contained short videos sloganeering plans to “Re-open” America, tied to manipulated hashtags ( #ReopeningPlan) as they began to trend, driving traffic back to his Youtube Channel (Fig 1.3).
  • QAnon account @Plmyers spreading similar reopening slogans, including #itstime, a declarative linguistic unit used across a variety of sites such as MRC, a Salem Media venture (Fig 1.4), casting a wide reach of influence

Fig 1.4 – MRC Article

Involved Entities: Salem Media Group, Media Research Centre, Heritage Foundation, Rick Dees
Hashtags: #itstime #ReopeningPlan #backtowork #getbacktowork #launchamerica #hotair #MarshaBlackburn, #SenBlackburn #smallbusinesses #itstime #TexasAG #defy #defies #factory #plant #states

SPOTLIGHT 2

RE-OPEN AGITATORS AMPLIFICATION

Widely shared stories of Americans suffering from business shutdowns included memes and hashtags that further fueled the intense drive to REOPEN. These stories, while initially organic and of public interest were co-opted and spread by influencers and manipulation campaigns focused personas including “A Dallas Salon owner”, “a Michigan barber,” and “a New York tailor” which presented as faux-viral stories pushed and instantiated in a manner that drove several authentic communities to become synthetically galvanized under the slogan “Reopen America!”. Examples include a UK far-right commentator @LATiffani1 amplifying Shelley Luther. We also obeserved #Blexit associated bot-like behaviour (Fig 1.5) when #Blexit personality @JLPtalk deemed Shelley Luther a “modern day Rosa Parks” (Fig 1.6 Tweet) and The Geller Report’s article (Fig 1.7) going against ‘Democrat authoritarians’.

Fig 1.7 – Geller Report Article

Involved Entities: Shelley Luther, Dallas salon, PJ Media, Michigan barber, NYC tailor, Michigan government “Militia”
Hashtags: #ShelleyLuther, #ShelleyLuther, #salon, #shelleyluther, #barber, #hairdressers, #barbershop, #Blexit, #Demexit, #michigan, #whitmer, #business, #restarts

USER COHORT ANALYSIS - HIGH VOLUME AMPLIFICATION ACCOUNTS

USER NAME
@yojudenz
@LotusOak2
@MILTONESPINOZAF
@AmericaDuped
COHORT
Populist
Anti-Vaxxers
QAnon
Conspiracy Theorist
#TWEETS
883,600
79,600
862,700
475,500
BEHAVIOR
Bot-like Account pushing NRA, MAGA, LiberateGenFlynn and anti-Democratic party content. Similar numbers of following/followers, over 880k tweets and mostly retweets.
Content pushing antivax and conspiracy content - Almost 80k tweets, very close number of following/followers.
Bot-like account pushing Qanon related conspiracy content. Similar number of following/followers. Mostly retweets.
Bot-like account pushing MAGA themed content, including "leftist" crimes. Similar following/follower numbers and mostly retweets.

SAMPLE CONTENT: FOLLOWING
FEBRUARY 28 CHARLESTON RALLY

NARRATIVE 2: MEDIA DELEGITIMIZATION

OUR STATISTICS
Total Tweets: 309,571
Total Inorganic Tweets: 130,107
Total Users: 193,341
Total Languages: 42
Avg Tweets Per User: 1.60 times

ABSTRACT

Blackbird’s system uncovered manipulation campaigns designed to delegitimize the media, suggesting all of the mainstream media was “fake news” and that journalists were actively trying to create panic among the masses by sensationalizing the dangers posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

These manipulation campaigns included widespread accusations that the Democratic Party controlled the media, and was leveraging it to criticize the government response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Out of all of the manipulation campaigns highlighted in this report, the attempts at media delegitimization are likely the most dangerous to public health. Casting doubt on the media can potentially lead to disbelief in what is being reported, often including warnings and directions from government officials, public health agencies, and experts in the field. This could lead to certain pockets of the population not listening to these requests and endangering themselves and their communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

VISUALIZATION

Critical Manipulated Entities

Manipulated Hashtags

  • #CNN – 1,342 posts – 60.18% BBMI
  • #MSM – 5,367 posts – 47.97% BBMI
  • #Hoax – 1,692 posts – 47.38% BBMI
  • #FakeNews – 18,197 posts – 46.72% BBMI
  • #fakenews – 3,310 posts – 44.55% BBMI

Users of Interest

  • @BRNordgren – 94.0 BBMI
  • @ChristinePolon1 – 75.3 BBMI
  • @LivePDDave1 – 71.2 BBMI
  • @Jali_Cat – 54.27 BBMI

There is understandably some overlap in the activity between the “Dem Panic” and “Media Delegitimization” narratives, and for that reason a similar pattern emerges. There is a smaller spike this time following President Trump’s Charleston rally referencing “their new hoax”, and the familiar explosion (both organic and manipulated) after Italy announces their nationwide lockdown caused by piggybacking on generic Coronavirus-related hashtags.

SAMPLE CONTENT

NARRATIVE 3: BIO-WEAPONS

OUR STATISTICS
Total Tweets: 1,299,488
Total Inorganic Tweets: 553,437
Total Users: 770,720
Total Languages: 60
Avg Tweets Per User: 1.69 times

ABSTRACT

Blackbird’s system uncovered broad manipulation campaigns suggesting the COVID-19 pandemic was intentionally created by the “global elite”. Themes revolved around “population control”, profit from “the cure”, state actors creating the virus as a biological weapon. While these narratives differed slightly with some saying the virus was released accidentally while others suggested it was done intentionally, they all revolve around the current pandemic being the handiwork of a group or organization.

Several manipulation campaigns suggest that, in their attempt to develop a biological weapon and expand biological warfare capabilities, China, the United States, or Iran was responsible for the creation and release of the virus. These claims were often accompanied by fabricated scientific documentation presented as evidence to support the accusation. The idea that there will be intentional depopulation and societal collapse as a result of these conspiracies were pervasive within these campaigns as well.

This campaign and its associated narratives mirrored one of the main themes outlined in this report -that disinformation was initially created synthetically and amplified (often by bots) before being both consumed and amplified more organically by individuals in a decentralized way. It is likely that those responsible for the synthetic creation of this campaign understood society’s collective fascination with conspiracy theories and more importantly, understood that a large number of social media users would believe these stories and amplify them.

VISUALIZATION

Critical Manipulated Entities

Manipulated Hashtags

  • #WuhanVirus – 24,350 posts – 50.56% BBMI
  • #BillGates – 4,475 posts – 50.30% BBMI
  • #AyatollahsSpreadCOVID19 – 2,954 – 74.93% BBMI
  • #wuhanvirus – 1,932 posts – 98.55% BBMI
  • #bioweapon – 4,170 posts – 70.72% BBMI
  • #ChinaCoronaVirus – 1,477 posts – 59.87% BBMI
  • #BioWeapon – 1,517 posts – 57.98% BBMI
  • #WuhanPneumonia – 1,230 posts – 56.44% BBMI
  • #WuhanCoronavirus – 3,365 posts – 56.02% BBMI

Users of Interest

  • @MaggiePeggy123 – 96.8 BBMI
  • @ZyroFoxtrot – 87.8 BBMI
  • @tooranomaki6910 (again) – 99.7 BBMI
  • @Miladsaboori3 (Iran) – 96.1 BBMI
  • @Free_HK_Uighurs (Suspended) – 90.8 BBMI
  • @BlancheBullshit – 98.3 BBMI
  • @DIXIEDOODLE (Suspended) – 93.19 BBMI
  • @halimahbdavid (Suspended) – 100 BBMI
  • @RedState – 86.4 BBMI

In this graph again the same spike occurs around March 9th, driven by the full-country lockdown in Italy and users piggybacking on common hashtags to spread high volumes of both organic and manipulated content. An interesting additional insight is that the toxic hashtag #AyatollahSpreadsCOVID19 spiked on March 7th, creating another mini-spike starting on that day.

SAMPLE CONTENT

NARRATIVE 4: IMMIGRATION XENOPHOBIA IN EUROPE

OUR STATISTICS
Total Tweets: 29,731
Total Inorganic Tweets: 16,250
Total Users: 22,638
Total Languages: 31
Avg Tweets Per User: 1.3 times

ABSTRACT

Blackbird’s system identified disinformation campaigns portraying immigrants crossing into Europe as likely carriers of COVID-19. As part of their campaign and associated narratives, European white nationalists labelled migrants crossing into Southern Europe from Turkey as “a plague”. Beyond geopolitical tensions involving COVID-19, European ethno-nationalist movements utilized the confusion over the facts surrounding the virus and its spread and fear of the unknown.

VISUALIZATION

Critical Manipulated Entities

Manipulated Hashtags

  • #IStandWithGreece – 7,774 posts – 49.55 BBMI
  • #GreeceUnderAttack – 7,517 posts – 47.26BBMI
  • #Turks – 2,795 posts – 43.05 BBMI
  • #Erdogan – 2,687 posts – 44.71 BBMI
  • #GreeceDefendsEurope – 1,067 posts – 46.89 BBMI

Users of Interest

  • @BasedPoland – 90.0 BBMI

This graph shows a spike in manipulated content around March 7th, following the lockdown in Northern Italy.

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