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Scott Kull: The new Director of Athletics
Abigail Taylor, Contributing Writer • April 16, 2024

Disinformation in the Digital Space

On Feb. 21, Darren Linvill, co-director of media forensics at Clemson University, visited Wofford to educate students on disinformation. Linvill and his team at Clemson have been studying disinformation since 2017, allowing them enough time to develop tools to identify networks of coordinated accounts. 

Many right-leaning circles have been using Zelensky’s alleged frivolous spending on two yachts to defend no longer giving Western aid to Ukraine. A senator from Ohio was even on record talking about them, but this story had to come from somewhere and it came from Russia. 

I sat down with Linvill to learn how an idea could be planted in the heads of the American people when it was purely a Russian fabrication. The answer was a real right-leaning influencer named Lord Bebo, who posted a series of images and videos detailing a story of Olena Zelenska spending $1.1 million at Cartier in New York when visiting with her husband, President Zelensky, who was speaking at the UN. 

“Complete garbage story. None of that is true” said Linvill. “She definitely did not slip off to Cartier to spend $1.1 million. That is not a thing that happened.” 

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Lord Bebo got the story from a website called The Nation. The website sounds like the credible American news organization of the same name, but this specific The Nation is in Nigeria and does cover actual news, but mainly news on Nigeria.  

The Nation got its story from a YouTube video of a woman claiming to be an Intern at the Cartier in New York. The account had no other videos besides the one found by the nation.

“So we went looking at the woman and facial recognition technology is amazing now,” said Linvill, showing a picture of the same woman from the video. “Guess where she lives? Definitely not in the United States. Definitely not in New York. She definitely was not an intern at Cartier. She lives in Saint Petersburg, Russia.”

The question Linvill now looks at is how Lord Bebo heard about this story from a Nigerian website. They discovered a fake account named Woke Martin had spent a whole day sharing a link to this story with right-wing influencers. 

When following the link, people are taken to a website called DC Weekly, which appears as a legitimate news page. Linvill’s team found dozens of stories discussing Ukraine in a negative light, such as one about Zelensky owning two mega yachts. 

All of these stories started as a YouTube video, then appeared in West Africa and then appeared on DC Weekly. It wasn’t difficult for Linvill and his team to discover that the entirety of DC News was created using artificial intelligence.. 

“In a small percentage of (the articles), the AI is speaking to you, where it says, ‘Oh, hey, I’m an AI’” explained Linvill. “It only takes 1% of those to have some kind of error in them, and now I can tell you everything about the specific directions they gave the AI to build the website.”

“In right-leaning circles in the United States, that talking point became unquestioned reality,” said Linvill. “Nobody was talking about Zelensky’s yachts before this Russian story, and then tens of thousands of people are posting about Zelensky’s yachts.” 

This is just one example.

“A senator from Ohio actually is on a record in a podcast talking about ‘I’m not going to vote for more aid to Ukraine so that the Ukrainian government can buy more mega yachts’, that’s definitely in Russia’s best interest,” said Linvill. 

However, this rapid spread of disinformation does not have to continue. 

“I think some of the very tools that make it easier for bad actors to spread disinformation, like AI, can also be utilized to help combat disinformation,” said Linvill. 

Their team is using AI in the Clemson Media and Forensics Hub to identify coordination online. 

The long-standing effect of disinformation in society is a distrust of news everywhere. Linvill explained what this means for younger people, such as college students. 

“For a long time we thought we taught media literacy through a critical thinking lens. We taught students that you need to think critically and question everything,” Linvill said. “And then they did that and they didn’t trust anything like we taught you. Well done. But not trusting anything is a problem.”

He explains the most basic level of disinformation in the digital space helps fuel fraud and scams, but it also fuels the spread of false information about politics. The disinformation landscape is evolving very quickly, which can make it difficult for people to combat. 

One of the reasons it’s becoming increasingly difficult to combat is social media platforms pulling back staffing and resources they had in place to combat inauthenticity online. The solution is to spread knowledge, which is why he and his team created “Spot the Troll” four years ago. 

The website is designed to educate the public on how to spot trolls in the digital space.

“Clemson is a land grant institution with a public service mission. I and my colleagues at Clemson take that seriously. And I would want my work to be a public service” said Linvill. “That’s why I built the troll, to show people what I was seeing.”

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About the Contributor
Madison Bush
Madison Bush, Contributing Writer
Freshman from Fort Worth, TX
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