May 16, 2022 - Podcast

Episode 268 — Twitter, and cyberattacks in academia

Elon Musk’s accepted bid to purchase Twitter has triggered a lot of debate about what it means for the future of the social media platform. IU professor Filippo Menczer, director of the Observatory on Social Media at IU, says while Musk has said he wants Twitter to be an arena for free speech, it’s unclear what that will mean. Musk’s calls for free speech focus on two allegations: that Twitter has a liberal political bias amounting to censorship of conservative opinions, and that there is excessive moderation on the platform. To test for political bias, Menczer and his colleagues deployed benign social bots on Twitter. Each started by following one news source, with some following a liberal source and others a conservative one. All bots were then left alone to drift in the information ecosystem for a few months. They could gain followers and acted according to an identical algorithmic behavior, which included following random accounts or tweeting meaningless content. The bots’ behavior was politically neutral, with no understanding of content seen or posted. Researchers tracked the bots to probe political biases emerging from how Twitter works or how users interact, and results indicated evidence of a conservative bias on Twitter, rather than a liberal one, Menczer says. Researchers from Twitter audited the effects of their ranking algorithm on political content, and their results aligned with Menczer’s, indicating that in six out of seven countries they studied, conservative politicians enjoy higher algorithmic amplification than liberal ones and that algorithmic amplification favors right-leaning news sources in the United States. Musk’s other allegation was that excessive moderation stifles free speech on Twitter. Menczer says several aspects of modern social media hinder the free marketplace of ideas, and social media users can be manipulated. Researchers have observed inauthentic accounts amplifying disinformation, influencing elections, committing financial fraud and more. Musk has tweeted that he wants to defeat spam bots and authenticate humans, but these are neither easy nor necessarily effective solutions, Menczer says. In recent years, Twitter has enacted policies and systems to moderate abuses by suspending accounts and networks displaying inauthentic coordinated behaviors. A weakening of these moderation policies may make abuse rampant again, Menczer says. Musk’s likely acquisition of Twitter raises concerns that the social media platform could decrease its content moderation, and research shows that stronger, not weaker, moderation of the information ecosystem is called for to combat harmful misinformation, Menczer says. Weaker moderation policies could actually hurt free speech, drowning out the voices of real users with malicious users who manipulate Twitter through inauthentic accounts, bots and echo chambers.

In other news, schools face many unique cyber challenges, yet often lack the resources to defend against them. This was the case with Lincoln College, a 157-year-old institution in Illinois that recently was forced to close forever due to a drop in enrollment during COVID-19 and a subsequent cyberattack from which it could not recover. The attack affected admissions and hindered access to all institutional data, leaving all systems required for recruitment, retention and fundraising efforts inoperable. The college paid the ransom – under $100,000 – to their Iranian hackers and got their data back, but it took months longer to fully restore their IT systems. By then, the damage was done. One option open to schools and universities without significant endowments is to pool their resources and partner with other entities, says cybersecurity expert Scott Shackelford, a professor in the IU Kelley School of Business. IU runs OmniSOC, a cyber response center, which pools resources from nearly a half dozen universities and monitors data and aggregates threat activity and intelligence across all member networks to identify threats faster, Shackelford says. Cyberattacks from wealthy, well-resourced and sometimes state-sponsored cyber threat actors are hard to beat back, and cooperation among groups of academic institutions may be the best available answer, he says.