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Twitter announces global change to algorithm in effort to tackle harassment | Technology

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Twitter is announcing a global change to its ranking algorithm this week, its first step toward improving the “health” of online conversations since it launched a renewed effort to address rampant trolling, harassment and abuse in March.

“It’s shaping up to be one of the highest-impact things that we’ve done,” the chief executive, Jack Dorsey ,said of the update, which will change how tweets appear in search results or conversations. “The spirit of the thing is that we want to take the burden off the person receiving abuse or mob-like behavior.”

Social media platforms have long struggled to police acceptable content and behavior on their sites, but external pressure on the companies increased significantly following the revelation that a Russian influence operation used the platforms in coordinated campaigns around the 2016 US election.

Facebook and Google have largely responded by promising to hire thousands of moderators and improve their artificial intelligence tools to automate content removal. Twitter’s approach, which it outlined to reporters in a briefing on Monday, is distinct because it is content neutral and will not require more human moderators.

“A lot of our past action has been content based, and we are shifting more and more to conduct,” Dorsey said.

Del Harvey, Twitter’s vice-president of trust and safety, said that the new changes were based on research that found that most of the abuse reports on Twitter originate in search results or the conversations that take place in the responses to a single tweet. The company also found that less than 1% of Twitter accounts made up the majority of abuse reports and that many of the reported tweets did not actually violate the company’s rules, despite “detract[ing] from the overall experience” for most users.

The new system will use behavioral signals to assess whether a Twitter account is adding to – or detracting from – the tenor of conversations. For example, if an account tweets at multiple other users with the same message, and all of those accounts either block or mute the sender, Twitter will recognize that the account’s behavior is bothersome. But if an account tweets at multiple other accounts with the same message, and some of them reply or hit the “heart” button, Twitter will assess the interactions as welcome. Other signals will include whether an account has confirmed an email address or whether an account appears to be acting in a coordinated attack.

With these new signals, Harvey explained, “it didn’t matter what was said; it mattered how people reacted.”

The updated algorithm will result in certain tweets being pushed further down in a list of search results or replies, but will not delete them from the platform. Early experiments have resulted in a 4% decline in abuse reports from search and an 8% drop in abuse reports in conversations, said David Gasca, Twitter’s director of product management for health.

This is not the first time that Twitter has promised to crack down on abuse and trolling on its platform. In 2015, then CEO Dick Costolo acknowledged that the company “sucks at dealing with abuse and trolls”. But complaints have continued under Dorsey’s leadership, and in March, the company decided to seek outside help, issuing a request for proposals for academics and NGOs to help it come up with ways to measure and promote healthy conversations.

Dorsey and Harvey appeared optimistic that this new approach will have a significant impact on users’ experience.

“We are trying to strike a balance,” Harvey said. “What would Twitter be without controversy?”

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Twitter reports profit for second quarter in a row and adds 6m new users | Technology

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It’s taken 12 years, but Twitter is now a money-maker. The social media company reported its second profitable quarter on Wednesday, driven by a 10% rise in users and faster growth overseas.

Twitter has struggled since it went public in 2013 and user growth has slowed dramatically. But while its US base is still declining, the company now seems to have found a rich source of international growth.

In its first financial quarter, Twitter’s revenue rose 21% from a year earlier to $664.9m, comfortably ahead of analysts’ expectations, and posted a profit of $61m, compared with a loss of $61.6m in the same quarter last year.

Twitter’s daily active users (DAU) rose 10% year-over-year, while monthly user numbers rose 3% to 336m. The company added 5 million people outside the United States and a million inside its home market.

Twitter now has 69 million monthly users in the US, 1% lower than this time last year, and 267 million internationally.

Twitter struggled for years to make a profit and its internal problems led to an exodus of executives and layoffs. Co-founder Jack Dorsey rejoined the company as chief executive last May and the company set a goal of “driving towards” profitability.

Advertising revenue rose 21% to $575m over the quarter, with strong growth in Asia.

As with its peers, Twitter is facing a backlash over the misuse of its platform by parties spreading fake news and hate speech. Twitter said it expects to increase its headcount by 10-15% in 2018 as it seeks to tackle the issues.

Doresey said: “The first quarter was a strong start to the year. We grew our audience and engagement, marking another quarter of double digit year-over-year DAU growth, and continued our work to make it easier to follow topics, interests, and events on Twitter.”

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Twitter handles are big business, even if the owner doesn’t want to sell | Technology

Twitter handles are big business, even if the owner doesn’t want to sell | Technology

Everything has a price, even the top Twitter handles, and if somebody does not want to sell then they may be forced to relinquish their account.

“We have a marketplace which allows the sale of Twitter handles,” says Philly, a subversive marketer who founded ForumKorner, an online gaming forum. “Unlike some websites, however, we do not allow the sales of stolen accounts that some people phish, or hack, to obtain before reselling them.”

It’s the same across the whole of social media. Last month a teenage boy was given a £5,000 cruise in exchange for his Snapchat username while accounts on Instagram are sold openly on online marketplaces.

Shady brokers stalk the web searching for the most potentially lucrative handles, convincing their owners to part with them before reselling at a significantly higher price.

“It’s funny some people don’t know the true value of a handle,” says another trader on condition of anonymity. “For example, I used to look for three-letter acronyms. The handle would generally go for around $30 but little do they know people look for specific @’s correlating with their business. I’ve flipped $20-$40 to $700 on multiple occasions.”

Elsewhere, people allege their accounts have been phished, and their handles stolen and sold, yet Twitter has apparently not implemented robust systems to prevent the practice.

“Twitter has yet to go after the hackers or phishers, let alone the legitimate account sellers, like myself,” says Philly. “Phishing an account is as easy as downloading an infected program, ticking a couple options and hitting run.”

“They used social engineering strategies with multiple other services and sites (like Amazon),” says Josh Bryant, a designer at a digital product firm, who documented how he almost lost his handle in a blog post.

“The why is just money. I own both @jb on Twitter and Instagram and there’s a huge economy for desirable usernames right now. If a hacker can get them, list and sell them before the site responds they stand to make a pretty healthy profit.”

‘Twitter sent me automated emails claiming I was impersonating Chase Bank, which I wasn’t, before they took the username from me,’ says Chase Giunta, a software developer who previously owned the handle @Chase. Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Another user claims their username was taken by Twitter itself. “A broker kept approaching me, and when I declined his final offer, a formal complaint was made to Twitter, by whom I don’t know, and the handle was handed over to JPMorgan,” says Chase Giunta, a software developer who previously owned the handle @Chase.

“I always assumed JP Morgan would want it since they’re the largest bank in the US, but I also assumed they, or maybe even Twitter, would contact me directly to set up some kind of exchange – not some shady broker.”

Twitter, however, does not permit the trading of usernames. It explicitly states: “Attempts to sell, buy, or solicit other forms of payment in exchange for usernames are also violations and may result in permanent account suspension.” This does not seem to have stopped them changing hands, though.

“After his last offer, I received action from Twitter,” says Giunta. “The steps they took to take my account down were incredibly unsettling. They sent me automated emails claiming I was impersonating Chase Bank, which I wasn’t, before they took the username from me.”

“Of course, in hindsight, I would’ve accepted his last $20,000 offer. But I thought I was doing the ‘right thing’ by turning it down at that time.”

This sentiment was echoed by Patrick de Laive, the founder of The Next Web, who was offered $20,000 for @patrick by an athlete.

Accounts may be permanently removed due to prolonged inactivity to prevent handle squatting. In the early days of the social media giant, this meant people could contact the administrator and request inactive handles.

A former Twitter employee told the Guardian how they could request unused usernames for themselves and family. Others have since demonstrated the relative ease in which enterprising people can secure their desired handle.

“I got my first name as my Twitter handle after a six-month campaign that included some light Internet stalking, badgering staff at Twitter, $250 and a visit to the patent office,” says Haje Jan, a director at Bold, a venture capitalist company, whose first name was taken by an inactive user.

“I registered a web domain for my first name to strengthen my case (in case the trademark people decided to look any deeper), then forked over my £170 to the Intellectual Property Office, registering Haje™ as a trademark.”

“Armed with the trademark I contacted Twitter’s support team and about a week later, I received an email saying that I could either create a new account or move the username to an existing account. Mission accomplished – and it turned out to be easier than I anticipated.”

It’s not just individuals who have bought up desirable usernames. The state of Israel bought the @israel handle for reported six-figure sum in 2010, while CNN employed the owner of @cnnbrk as a consultant in exchange for transferring them the account.

“Twitter has always been very clear that it’s against their terms and conditions to sell usernames but that hasn’t stopped people trying,” says Sue Llewellyn, who trains journalists to use social media. “They also frown upon people squatting on usernames – ie creating an account and not using it.”

“Frankly I think if a big name celebrity wanted a specific name that wasn’t being used then they could probably get it.”

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Twitter bans 270,000 accounts for ‘promoting terrorism’ | Technology

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Twitter removed more than 270,000 accounts around the world for promoting terrorism in the second half of 2017, according to the company’s latest transparency report.

The number of accounts permanently suspended for sharing what the firm called extremist content between July and December represents a drop for the second period in a row.

The social network puts this down to “years of hard work making our site an undesirable place for those seeking to promote terrorism”.

Nick Pickles, Twitter UK’s head of public policy, said: “The overwhelming majority of these accounts were detected by our own technology, with just 0.2% of the accounts we suspended in 2017 being flagged by the police.”

Almost 75% of accounts were suspended before they sent their first tweet, according to the report, and 93% were discovered by tools that Twitter engineers had built.

Twitter is understood to also use a combination of US and EU lists of terrorist organisations as well as research from academics and experts to identify terrorists on its network.

The number of reports of abusive behaviour submitted by government representatives also dropped amid a marked change in the type of abusive behaviour reported. Two-thirds of the 10,000 reports concerned violated rules over impersonation, with only 16% of the reports for harassment and 12% for hateful conduct. Harassment and hateful conduct each accounted for a third of reported accounts in the first half of 2017.

Only a quarter of reports of abusive behaviour submitted by government representatives were acted upon by Twitter, compared with 98% of reports relating to the “promotion of terrorism”.

Twitter’s biannual transparency report details requests from governments around the world, but not individual users from each country.

The UK government made 760 requests for information and five court orders across the period. The US made 1,761 requests for information, the most of any government, and Turkey made the most legal demands, with 466 court orders and 3,828 requests of a different legal nature.

Over the last six months the social network has removed the accounts of several high profile right-wing activists in the UK and US, including Britain First and Tommy Robinson in the UK. The move prompted accusations of censorship from the activists’ supporters.

Twitter does not comment on individual cases of suspended accounts but pointed towards its rules about online abuse and hate speech when asked about the suspension of Robinson’s account.

Pickles said Twitter, now working with other big technology companies in the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT) to “drive change across the web”, had permanently suspended more than 1.2m accounts for breaking rules about promoting terrorism since August 2015.

He said: “Since GIFCT was established last summer we’ve worked with more than 70 companies to help them tackle terrorist use of the internet, in addition to rolling out new technology and funding research. We’re encouraged by the positive results and will continue to look for new and innovative ways to expand our progress.”

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Scientists prove that truth is no match for fiction on Twitter | Technology

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“Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it,” wrote Jonathan Swift in 1710. Now a group of scientists say they have found evidence Swift was right – at least when it comes to Twitter.

In the paper, published in the journal Science, three MIT researchers describe an analysis of a vast amount of Twitter data: more than 125,000 stories, tweeted more than 4.5 million times in total, all categorised as being true or false by at least one of six independent fact-checking organisations.

The findings make for unhappy reading. “Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information,” they write, “and the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends or financial information.”

How much further? “Whereas the truth rarely diffused to more than 1,000 people, the top 1% of false-news cascades routinely diffused to between 1,000 and 100,000 people,” they write. In other words, true facts don’t get retweeted, while too-good-to-be-true claims are viral gold.

How much faster? “It took the truth about six times as long as falsehood to reach 1,500 people, and 20 times as long as falsehood to reach a cascade depth of 10” – meaning that it was retweeted 10 times sequentially (so, for example, B reads A’s feed and retweets a tweet, and C then reads B’s feed and retweets the same tweet, all the way to J).

The researchers speculate that falsehoods spread so fast because they fulfil our desire for novelty. True news, hamstrung by the requirement that it has to have actually happened, is generally much alike, but fake stories can surprise and entertain with no limit. The scientists posit that “when information is novel, it is not only surprising, but also more valuable, both from an information theoretic perspective [in that it provides the greatest aid to decision-making] and from a social perspective [in that it conveys social status on one who is ‘in the know’ or has access to unique ‘inside’ information].”

Despite recent focus on Twitter “bots”, automated accounts seemed to have little influence on the spread of false rumours. The researchers initially ran the analysis after removing all the bots they could find, but even when they added them back in, the overall conclusions remained the same. The only major change was that bots sped up the spread of all news, true and false: “This suggests that false news spreads farther, faster, deeper and more broadly than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it.

“This implies that misinformation containment policies should also emphasise behavioural interventions, like labelling and incentives to dissuade the spread of misinformation, rather than focusing exclusively on curtailing bots.”

Similarly, false news is not spread because of the prevalence of a few bad actors who deliberately set out to mislead. Instead, the distinction between the distribution speed of true and false rumours seems to be wholly down to the normal people in the middle of the chain: those who decide to hit retweet, or not, on any given tweet they may see.

Focusing just on reliable news organisations might help users avoid sharing fake rumours – if there were any agreement on which news organisations they were. Instead, the researchers report, “there is no correlation between the degree to which the American public finds a source ‘reliable’ and the fraction of its verified stories which are true” (as measured by Politifact). Fox News is trusted by more than three times as many Americans as Bloomberg, while all the major TV networks are trusted by more Americans, and rated as less reliable, than the Wall Street Journal and New York Times.

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Fake news sharing in US is a rightwing thing, says study | Technology

Fake news sharing in US is a rightwing thing, says study | Technology

University of Oxford project finds Trump supporters consume largest volume of ‘junk news’ on Facebook and Twitter

Trump supporters in 2016.
Photograph: Bill Wechter/AFP/Getty Images

Low-quality, extremist, sensationalist and conspiratorial news published in the US was overwhelmingly consumed and shared by rightwing social network users, according to a new study from the University of Oxford.

The study, from the university’s “computational propaganda project”, looked at the most significant sources of “junk news” shared in the three months leading up to Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address this January, and tried to find out who was sharing them and why.

“On Twitter, a network of Trump supporters consumes the largest volume of junk news, and junk news is the largest proportion of news links they share,” the researchers concluded. On Facebook, the skew was even greater. There, “extreme hard right pages – distinct from Republican pages – share more junk news than all the other audiences put together.”

The research involved monitoring a core group of around 13,500 politically-active US Twitter users, and a separate group of 48,000 public Facebook pages, to find the external websites that they were sharing.

Users who shared similar collections of links were grouped together depending on what they were discussing: on Twitter, some identified cohorts included “Conservative Media”, “Trump Supporters” (a distinct group from “Republican Party”) and “Resistance”; on Facebook, those audience groups included “Hard Conservative”, “Women’s Rights” and “Military/Guns”.

The findings speak to the level of polarisation common across the US political divide. “The two main political parties, Democrats and Republicans, prefer different sources of political news, with limited overlap,” the researchers write.

But there was a clear skew in who shared links from the 91 sites the researchers had manually coded as “junk news” (based on breaching at least three of five quality standards including “professionalism”, “bias” and “credibility”). “The Trump Support group consumes the highest volume of junk news sources on Twitter, and spreads more junk news sources, than all the other groups put together. This pattern is repeated on Facebook, where the Hard Conservatives group consumed the highest proportion of junk news.”

One thing the study did not find is evidence of substantial amounts of Russian news sources being shared. “The political conversations on social media exclude a Russian audience group,” the researchers concluded.

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YouTube reprimands Logan Paul, star vlogger, over Japan ‘suicide forest’ video | Technology

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YouTube is enacting a series of sanctions against Logan Paul, the popular vlogger who was forced to apologize after he uploaded a video on 31 December showing the body of an apparent suicide victim in Japan.

Paul’s personal channel, which boasts more than 15.6 million subscribers, will be removed from YouTube’s premium advertisement lineup, Google Preferred, a YouTube spokesperson confirmed. Google Preferred packages YouTube’s most popular channels for blue chip advertisers.

A Google spokesperson confirmed that Paul would still be eligible to earn money from his videos through YouTube’s general monetization program.

Though Paul is best known for his sophomoric vlogs, he has also been featured in scripted programming funded by YouTube and distributed on YouTubeRed, the company’s subscription service.

YouTube also said Wednesday that Paul would not be featured in the fourth season of the YouTubeRed show, Foursome, and that his other YouTubeRed projects had been placed “on hold”.

Paul did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The 22-year-old has not posted any new videos since 2 January, when he uploaded an apology. On 3 January, he tweeted that he was “taking time to reflect”.

The controversy over Paul’s video, in which he and a group friends visit Japan’s Aokigahara forest, a well-known suicide spot, and happen upon a dead body, came amid increased pressure on YouTube to more effectively police its site. In recent months, the company has faced criticism over inappropriate content on its children’s app, as well as its promotion of false conspiracy theory videos.

In an “open letter” posted on Twitter on Tuesday, the company apologized for its failure to respond to the controversy earlier, writing: “It’s taken us a long time to respond, but we’ve been listening to everything you’ve been saying. We know that the actions of one creator can affect the entire community, so we’ll have more to share soon on steps we’re taking to ensure a video like this is never circulated again.”

  • In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found

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Disruption games: why are libertarians lining up with autocrats to undermine democracy? | Technology

Disruption games: why are libertarians lining up with autocrats to undermine democracy? | Technology

At a time when strange alliances are disrupting previously stable democracies, the Catalan independence referendum was a perfect reflection of a weird age. Along with the flag-waving and calls for ‘freedom’ from Madrid, the furore that followed the vote unleashed some of the darker elements that have haunted recent turbulent episodes in Europe and America: fake news, Russian mischief and, marching oddly in step, libertarian activism.

From his residence of more than five years inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Assange tweeted 80 times in support of Catalan secession, and his views were amplified by the state-run Russian news agency, Sputnik, making him the most quoted English-language voice on Twitter, according to independent research and the Sydney Morning Herald.

In second place was Edward Snowden, another champion of transparency, who like Assange had little by way of a track record on Spanish politics. Together, Snowden and Assange accounted for a third of all Twitter traffic under the #Catalonia hashtag.

At the same time, a European Union’s counter-propaganda unit detected an upsurge in pro-Kremlin fake news on the political crisis, playing up the tensions.

“World powers prepare for war in Europe,” one Russian politics site declared in its headline.

The same patterns were apparent in the Brexit vote, Donald Trump’s shock victory, the surge of the Front National in France and the dramatic ascent of Five Star Movement in Italy, from the pet project of a comedian, Beppe Grillo, to the second most powerful force in Italy.

In all cases, libertarians viscerally opposed to centralised power made common cause with a brutally autocratic state apparatus in Moscow, an American plutocrat with a deeply murky financial record, and the instinctively authoritarian far right. All in the name of disruption of government and liberal norms in western democracies.

So why are the pioneering crusaders of total transparency and freedom of information lining up alongside the most powerful exponents of disinformation and disruption?

This has not just been a marriage of convenience. There are elements of ideological bonding too. In Twitter direct messages during the last throes of the US election campaign, released over the past week, WikiLeaks, which US intelligence has deemed a tool of Russian intelligence, attempted to woo Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr, with offers of secret collusion.

The furore that followed the Catalan vote unleashed fake news, Russian mischief and, oddly, libertarian activism. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

The messages from the official WikiLeaks account, first published in the Atlantic, ask for a leak of the future president’s tax return to soften the blow of its eventual publication, and to give WikiLeaks the appearance of impartiality given it had already released a trove of documents hacked from the Democratic party (by Russia, according to US intelligence).

Donald Jr only replied occasionally to the WikiLeaks emails, but appears in some case to have acted on them, notifying colleagues. In one instance, his father tweeted a reference to WikiLeaks 15 minutes after the group had been in touch.

WikiLeaks grew steadily bolder in its proposals, urging the Trump campaign not to concede on election night if he lost but to challenge the result as rigged. And in mid-December, when Trump was president-elect, it suggested Trump should push for Assange to be made Australian ambassador to Washington.

Assange also gave his backing to the Brexit vote in the June UK, an intervention which again does not appear to be merely incidental. It earned him an unannounced visit in March from Nigel Farage, the Brexit leader and Trump’s closest British ally. When doorstopped on his way out of the Ecuadorian embassy, Farage claimed he could not remember why he had gone there.

In recent weeks, it has become increasingly clear that Brexit was another arena in which Assange and Moscow were in step. Over the past week, researchers at the University of Edinburgh identified over 400 fake Twitter accounts apparently run from St Petersburg, which published Brexit-related posts in the run up to the UK referendum, some of them aimed at stirring anti-Islamic sentiment.

“The radical libertarians and the autocrats are allied by virtue of sharing an enemy which is the mainstream, soft, establishment, liberal politics,” said Jamie Bartlett, the director of the centre for the analysis of social media at the Demos thinktank.

“Most early, hardline cryptographers who were part of this movement in the 1990s considered that democracy and liberty were not really compatible. Like most radical libertarians – as Assange was – the principal enemy was the soft democrats who were imposing the will of the majority on the minority and who didn’t really believe in genuine, absolute freedom.”

That meant some odd bedfellows could become useful allies. “They have been able to forge a very convenient marriage with other enemies of liberal democracy,” said Bartlett, “who are in every other sense imaginable are completely at odds with each other, but they do they share that common hatred of establishment, western, soft, democratic politics as they see it.”

Edward Snowden’s worldview also had libertarian roots. He was a supporter of the rightwing maverick US presidential candidate, Ron Paul, and vigorously opposed the Obama administration’s endorsement of gun control and affirmative action.

He turned against his employers in the US security apparatus, and stole their secrets in the name of transparency and the citizen’s right to privacy, but his defection has left him in exile in Moscow, at the mercy of a government that hardly even pretends to observe such western niceties.

However, Snowden has never professed any great enthusiasm for Russian governance, and most of the available evidence suggests he did not end up in Russia by design, but because of a failed scheme, hatched by WikiLeaks to fly him from Hong Kong to Latin America. Unlike Assange, he has been increasingly critical of the Kremlin.

But there are plenty of other examples of the mutual embrace between Moscow and western libertarianism. In particular, the libertarians share with Moscow a profound distaste for the European Union, which they see as a continent-wide epitome of centralisation, and of liberal social norms.

“This libertarian hatred of political correctness, that everyone has to follow this social democratic view on gender, welfare, progressive politics and immigration, and libertarians can’t stand that, as degrading the idea of individual liberty,” Bartlett said. “So I think you’ll find quite a lot of people on the libertarian right who think that Russia has become that only really counterbalance to that philosophy.”

The meeting of minds is embodied in the man long seen as Trump’s chief ideologue, Steve Bannon. Bannon is another western libertarian for whom the contradiction between opposing restrictions on individual liberties at home and backing Russian authoritarianism is subsumed beneath an admiration for Putin’s muscular nationalism.

Trump and Hillary Clinton at the debate in St Louis in October last year.

Trump and Hillary Clinton at the debate in St Louis in October last year. Photograph: Rick Wilking/Reuters

In the summer of 2014, Bannon explained the attraction of the Russian leader for “traditionalists”, to a meeting of conservative Catholics through a Skype link to the Vatican.

“One of the reasons is that they believe that at least Putin is standing up for traditional institutions, and he’s trying to do it in a form of nationalism — and I think that people, particularly in certain countries, want to see sovereignty for their country, they want to see nationalism for their country,” Bannon said, according to a transcript of the discussion published by BuzzFeed.

“They don’t believe in this kind of pan-European Union or they don’t believe in the centralized government in the United States. They’d rather see more of a states-based entity that the founders originally set up where freedoms were controlled at the local level.”

For Farage too, reverence for Putin’s boldness on the world stage has outweighed doubts about his repressive rule. Asked in a 2014 GQ magazine interview, which world leader he most admired, he said: “As an operator, but not as a human being, I would say Putin.

“The way he played the whole Syria thing. Brilliant. Not that I approve of him politically. How many journalists in jail now?”

The investigation into the Russian involvement in the Brexit vote is only now getting started. Russian journalist Alexey Kovalev argues Moscow’s influence has been overstated and misunderstood.

Pointing to the minimal audience for the Russian English-language TV channel, Kovalev wrote: “Russian trolling operations seem less like pouring gasoline on fire and more like pouring a bucket of water into the ocean.”

Kadri Liik, an expert on Russian-European relations, said: “Some fake news probably may have influenced the Brexit vote, but these fake news were manufactured by the British tabloids and the leave campaign. Any amplification provided by Russia’s agents was negligible compared to the energy that was invested locally.”

In Catalonia too, Russian bots and their fake news output were pushing on a door that was already swinging open because of other circumstances. The Catalan leaders, unlike those in the US, France, and the UK have shown little interest so far in reciprocating Moscow’s embrace.

However, the long-term corrosive effect of Russia’s use of disinformation to break down trust in western institutions is hard to measure and may be unmeasurable. What is clear is that it is continuing with the active assistance of political movements who trade in disillusion and resentment, and who have found a natural home on the internet.

In Italy, the Five Star Movement (M5S), combines its anti-establishment stance at home with close alignment to Moscow’s line in foreign policy. Its web guru, Gianroberto Casaleggio, who claims that M5S is pioneering “a new, direct democracy that will see the elimination of all barriers between the citizen and the state”, has established news sites that circulate conspiracy theories, many of them crossposted from Russian outlets. One such story suggested the US was covertly funding the flow of immigrants from Africa. It linked back to a story on Sputnik Italia.

As with Assange, Casaleggio’s distaste for the overbearing state does not apply to Moscow. The common fight against US, Nato and the rest of the western world’s liberal order is what has taken primacy.

“I think they’re more anarchic in their belief that the state will wither away and power wil be redistributed in some fundamentally democratic revolution that they thought would be embedded within the internet,” said Franklin Foer, a US journalist and the author of World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech. “It’s fairly naive, because power always reasserts itself.”

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Hillwalkers fall foul of Twitter crackdown | Brief letters | Technology

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Twitter ruthlessly rooted out the duplicate accounts of a friend who was using one for himself and one for the hillwalking group whose Facebook page he moderates, and has banned him from returning. So I don’t see why the Russians can get away with destabilising the entire western world (Russia backed Brexit in fake Twitter posts, 15 November). Our group only wanted Twitter for last-minute meet-ups and weather-related cancellations – we had no intention of recruiting the hillwalking community for nefarious purposes, even if that were possible.
Margaret Squires
St Andrews, Fife

Twitter posts from Russia to influence public opinion sounds very much like Radio Free Europe and CIA-funded magazines in Europe during the cold war. Only the media has changed. Russia is only doing what we taught it.
Joseph Hanlon

I realised after reading Wednesday’s letters page that, apart from a timely letter from the Forsdick grandchildren, all had been written by men. Come along, now, you can do better than this!
Ruth Baden
Seer Green, Buckinghamshire

“Swaths of the UK were blasted by icy temperatures” (Cold snap gives Britain its first taste of winter, 14 November)? Cold enough to freeze the Es out of swathes?
Tim Davies
Batheaston, Somerset

By complaining about new ways of using “fulsome” and “fortuitous”, Maslanka and Sally Burch (Letters, 14 November) infer that semantic change should be halted and the meaning of words should not evolve over time. I think they have seriously underestimated the enormity of the challenge. I am literally bored to death of this debate.
Paul Sutcliffe

What do you get if you “topple” Robert Mugabe? Ebagum Trebor!
Yours pseudo-palindromically
Michael Crapper
Whitchurch, Hampshire

Join the debate – email [email protected]

Read more Guardian letters – click here to visit

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Twitter says its system is ‘broken’ after far-right organiser wins blue tick | Technology

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Jack Dorsey, the chief executive of Twitter, has said its “blue tick” verification process is “broken” after it verified the organiser of a far-right rally.

The social media company was criticised after Jason Kessler, who organised the Unite the Right rally which sparked violence in the US town of Charlottesville in August, tweeted on Wednesday to confirm he had been verified by the platform.

Twitter’s official support account confirmed that its verification system had been “paused” following the backlash.

“Verification was meant to authenticate identity and voice but it is interpreted as an endorsement or an indicator of importance,” the company tweeted.

“We recognise that we have created this confusion and need to resolve it. We have paused all general verifications while we work and will report back soon.”

Dorsey added: “We should’ve communicated faster on this: our agents have been following our verification policy correctly, but we realised some time ago the system is broken and needs to be reconsidered. And we failed by not doing anything about it. Working now to fix faster.”

Account holders seeking a blue tick to authenticate their account and indicate it is in the public interest had to submit an online form that included an email address, phone number and website link and a biography that specified “an area of expertise and/or a company mission”.

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