Reading Metadata to Combat Disinformation and Fake News Campaigns

Sandlin, Anu  |  Jan 22, 2019

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fake news
artificial intelligence
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If you’ve ever reacted to a Facebook post, retweeted on Twitter, or commented on an Instagram story, then you’ve not only successfully used and engaged with these communication infrastructures, but you’ve also created your own digital trace of “metadata,” which Texas School of Information Assistant Professor Amelia Acker defines as “an index of human behavior.” 

Our activity on social platforms –such as favorites, likes, retweets, comments, and reactions are used mostly to advertise to us, but there is a dark side where manipulators, bots, and people in the business of disinformation and misinformation try to “appear human to the algorithms that police social networks,” says Acker, who is also a Research Affiliate at Data & Society Research Institute’s Media Manipulation Initiative

Acker dubs the manipulation of this information “data craft –a collection of practices that create, rely on, or even play with the proliferation of data on social media by engaging with new computational and algorithmic mechanisms of organization and classification.” 

In summer 2018, New Knowledge, a local data science firm in Austin, Texas, published findings about Russian-connected Twitter bots and fake Facebook accounts which were used to manipulate public discourse during the 2016 U.S. election. “Some of these hoaxes and fakes are rather crafty in their ability to circumvent the boundaries of platforms and their terms of service agreements” notes Acker. From election tampering to shifting political discourse around social debates like immigration reform and racial politics, Acker explains that the presence of false activity data has had a number of unpredictable consequences for social media users and society. 

Data craft is becoming more harmful because “more than half of Americans get their news primarily from social media,” says Acker. And this problem isn’t going away anytime soon. In fact, it’s about to get a lot worse as “bots are starting to mimic our social media activity to look more human” and ‘sockpuppets’ are becoming “more and more sophisticated to where they can now craft data to look like real user engagement with conversation online,” explains Acker.

By identifying and understanding disinformation tactics as data craftwork, information researchers can read social media metadata just as closely as algorithms do, and possibly with more precision than the platforms’ moderation tools.

With those in the business of data craft becoming smarter and craftier at faking what looks like authentic behavior on social media, what does this mean for us? Put simply, it will become more difficult for us to discern ‘real’ users and authentic account activities from fake, spammy, and malicious manipulations,” said Acker in a recent Data & Society report.

But there is a sense of hope, which according to Acker, lies in the metadata itself. “Metadata features such as account name, account image, number of likes, tags, and date of post can provide activity frequency signals that serve as clues for suspicious activity.” “Reading metadata surrounding sockpuppet accounts will often reveal intentions, slippages, and noise –which can further reveal automated manipulation,” claims Acker.  

“By identifying and understanding disinformation tactics as data craftwork, information researchers can read social media metadata just as closely as algorithms do, and possibly with more precision than the platforms’ moderation tools,” says Acker.Closely examining metadata such as the rapidity of account activity, follower/audience counts, post timestamps, media content, user bios, and location data, has led to thousands of fake accounts being detected by social media researchers and tech journalists. 

So while we may not be able to beat bots and manipulators at their data craft game, the future is hopeful when it comes to detecting and identifying disinformation. Understanding data craft and how it can manifest in the world of social media and metadata is the first step. The second is reading metadata that has been gamed, exploited, or changed. This, according to Acker, promises a new method for tracing the spread of misinformation and disinformation campaigns on social media platforms. It will also improve data literacy among citizens by providing a method to judge whether messages are authentic or deceptive.

Acker plans to use the case studies of “reading metadata” in her INF384M Theories and Applications of Metadata course in spring 2019 at the Texas iSchool. She hopes that her research will help educators, journalists, policy makers, technologists, and early-career professionals like students understand how bad actors can manipulate metadata to create disinformation campaigns. “The acquisition of this information and understanding is empowering and gives us an advantage in terms of deciphering which information is real and which is fake or manipulated.”

For additional tips on reading metadata, see Dr. Amelia Acker’s latest Data & Society report: The Manipulation of Social Media Metadata.

School debuts Info Portal student blog

Ferguson, John  |  Sep 15, 2016

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Info Portal
Info Portal
Samuel Burns
Student News

Students at the School of Information have created a blog and discussion forum called Info Portal to share their thoughts and experiences on campus life, career advice and other topics.

Found at, the blog offers students’ perspectives on subjects that range from summer internship suggestions to book reviews, personal essays and information research. According to Senior IT Manager Samuel Burns, Info Portal will also help centralize access to information about student groups and activities while promoting student-derived narratives about the iSchool and the field of information.

“Info Portal is a project by and for students that is intended to highlight their interests and activities as a means to inspire one another and inform prospective students—as well as other engaged parties—about all the great things that happen here,” he said.

Keisha Brown, an iSchool IT student technician, developed Info Portal over the summer. Brown said one of the project’s goals is to connect iSchool students across diverse interests and academic specializations.

“The information field is vast, and there are a lot of career paths that students can follow,” she said. “Sometimes it's easy to get caught in a bubble where you see the same people in classes and at events because of a mutual career interest. It was important for me to structure Info Portal in a way that students of all professional interests would feel welcome.”

To foster involvement with her fellow students, Brown said she is also collaborating with leaders from iSchool student groups to post recaps of programs, events and volunteer activities.

“I love hearing stories about what my peers are doing because I learn about new applications of my MSIS degree that perhaps I had not considered before,” Brown said. “Plus, there’s always more events than I can attend, so it's nice to read a student's reflection on what they learned and found valuable at a program or event.”

Brown's iSchool education helped her create a better website through the use of metadata to improve user access to information, as well as best practices for navigation, SEO and social sharing, she added.

Tanya Clement Awarded A Second NEH Grant

Feb 03, 2014

Faculty News
Tanya Clement
Awards & Recognition
Digital Humanities

Even digitized, unprocessed sound collections, which hold important cultural artifacts such as poetry readings, story telling, speeches, oral histories, and other performances of the spoken word remain largely inaccessible.

In order to increase access to recordings of significance to the humanities, Tanya Clement at the University of Texas School of Information in collaboration with David Tcheng and Loretta Auvil at the Illinois Informatics Institute at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign have received $250,000 of funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities for the HiPSTAS Research and Development with Repositories (HRDR) project. Support for the HRDR project will further the work of HiPSTAS, which is currently being funded by an NEH Institute for Advanced Topics in the Digital Humanities grant to develop and evaluate a computational system for librarians and archivists for discovering and cataloging sound collections.

The HRDR project will include three primary products:

  1. a release of ARLO (Automated Recognition with Layered Optimization) that leverages machine learning and visualizations to augment the creation of descriptive metadata for use with a variety of repositories (such as a MySQL database, Fedora, or CONTENTdm);
  2. a Drupal ARLO module for Mukurtu, an open source content management system, specifically designed for use by indigenous communities worldwide;
  3. a white paper that details best practices for automatically generating descriptive metadata for spoken word digital audio collections in the humanities.


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