DataDownload: Disinformation-as-a-Service — a new breed of manipulative PR firms

DataDownload: Disinformation-as-a-Service — a new breed of manipulative PR firms A weekly summary of all things Media, Data, Emerging Tech View this email in your browser

Well, it’s been quite a week. The NYC Media Lab launched its fifth year of the COMBINE. It’s a fantastic group of passionate, smart, driven startups. So excited to share their stories with you in the weeks ahead.

Meanwhile — disinformation for hire is a thing. Facebook took a stab at Deepfakes. And Quibi launched its “quick bites” service at CES with some fanfare and some cynicism. And media execs have woken up to the fact that the future will be very different than the world they live in today.

And in the midst of it all, 5G is making big waves, and we were able to share five fantastic Verizon 5G Retail prototypes with the folks in town for the big NRF Show (National Retail Federation). Bravo to the NYC Media Lab team for doing BOTH the COMBINE cohort kick-off and the 5G Verizon two-day event in the same week. How? Because they’re awesome.

So read on — and as always send me tips, links, ideas, and when appropriate rotten fruit.

Have an idea how we can help you in 2020? Reach out —, happy to chat.


Steven Rosenbaum
Managing Director
The NYC Media Lab Must-Read Disinformation for Hire: How a New Breed of PR Firms Is Selling Lies Online

“They’re purchasing an end-to-end online manipulation system, which can influence people on a massive scale — resulting in votes cast, products sold, and perceptions changed.”

Last October we featured a ZDNet piece covering the growing amount of DaaS (Disinformation-as-a-Service) firms on the darkweb. BuzzFeed and The Reporter investigative journalists recently got a chance to chat with a DaaS provider: 32-year-old Peng Kuan Chin, who started his blackhat marketing journey at 14 sending spam emails… and was recruited to assist Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak in his 2018 reelection campaign.

Peng is part of a global DaaS industry — what Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy Nathaniel Gleicher calls “the professionalization of deception.” Individuals like Peng follow a playbook etched by nations like Russia and Iran, who have been weaponizing social content for years. The investigative piece is a sober dive into the mind of a DaaS whiz kid, and the relentless, clever tactics used by firms around the world to manipulate minds for brands, politicians, and entire nations.

15 min read

Read More Facebook Takes a Step Forward on Deepfakes — And Stumbles On Tuesday, Facebook announced a policy banning deepfakes from the platform. The company defined such content as being “edited or synthesized- beyond adjustments for clarity or quality — in ways that aren’t apparent to an average person and would likely mislead someone into thinking that a subject of the video said words that they did not actually say.”

The announcement received sharp criticism, with politicians like Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi insisting that this wasn’t enough. What went wrong? Lawfare notes that the policy does not “cover digital manipulations or fabrications showing people doing things they never did.” That can include someone stealing something, breaking something, or making an offensive gesture.

11 min read Read More For the Media Hollywood Bets on a Future of Quick Clips and Tiny Screens

Quibi wants to bite-size Hollywood, or as Wired puts it, “TV, but on phones! You know — for kids?” It has the people… looking at their Team page you’ll see former HP CEO Meg Whitman, mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg, and former Viacom president Doug Herzog. It has the talent — Steven Spielberg, Chrissy Teigen, Sam Raimi. And it has $1B in backing.

Quibi will be serving 10-minute “quick bites” to mobile audiences — acts or chapters like Sam Raimi’s 50 States of Fright. John Rogers (Jackie Chan Adventures), said it’s worth thinking about Quibi the way we think about Darpa: the company experiments with “new stuff that might not work, but if it works it’ll be very important.”

20 min read

Read More Change or Die: 50% of Media and Entertainment Execs Say They Can’t Rely on Old Biz Models, Survey Finds If the call of Quibi wasn’t enough of an example (Hollywood folks are already joking that you’re not Hollywood people if you’re not involved with the startup), EY’s new survey introduces some frank figures from 350 global M&E execs.

Here are some highlights: 34% of those surveyed say their company won’t exist in five years unless they transform their business; 62% agreed that more data is an opportunity for transformation; and 56% of execs have prioritized creating first-party data.

3 min read Read More We’re Fighting Fake News AI Bots by Using More AI. That’s a Mistake.

After extensive research into bot-disseminated propaganda, The Reality Game author Samuel Woolley found that our notion of sophisticated AI trolls isn’t exactly correct; in fact, most disinformation campaigns to date have been very “dumb” and “wielded quite bluntly.”

But there are signals that AI-backed propaganda is beginning to surface. Can we fight fire with fire? Woolley’s meticulous argument demonstrates that AI alone isn’t the solution — nor is the leveraging of small human-run vetting nonprofits by tech giants that simply want to “clean house.”

12 min read

Read More What We’re Watching Using A.I. to Build a Better Human

YouTube original series “The Age of AI” is a well-produced look (Robert Downey Jr. hosts the entire season) at how AI is transforming industries. This episode Mr. Downey talks us through advanced bionics that help an amputee get back to rock climbing, how a NASCAR team uses Rho AI to help decide when to perform a pit stop, and a CV-powered helmet that helps firefighters see through smoke.

44 min watch Watch Now Events & Announcements Event: Creatives for the Count!
Date: January 22, 12PM-4PM @ NYC Media Lab
We’re calling all content creators to join forces with Partnership for America’s Children and the Census Open Innovation Labs for the nation’s first-ever creative workshop to develop the content needed to reach families with kids under five leading up to the 2020 Census. Register Here.

Event: Links & Lattes — Designing GIFS for Brand Content w/ The Idea Girl
Date: January 15, 6PM-8PM
Brittany Wilson is the Founder and Creative Director of The Idea Girl, a multidisciplinary creative agency for women in business. Attendees will learn how to curate their own GIFs for social media and branded content. Register Here.

Event: Esports — Welcome to the Big Leagues
Date: January 16, 6:30PM-8:30PM
Competitive video game leagues had humble beginnings: They were founded by fans & run by fans. Now, the publishers are getting involved, which represents a sea change in the industry. Join UJA to hear about the burgeoning world of professional esports, from licensing to revenue to media opportunities. Register Here. A Deeper Look Ten Things Technology Platforms Can Do to Safeguard the 2020 U.S. Election.

“Collectively, we represent a Facebook co-founder, former Facebook, Google and Twitter employees, early Facebook and Twitter investors, academics, non-profit leaders, national security and public policy professionals.” — John Borthwick, Betaworks CEO

Betaworks CEO John Borthwick and a number of others have drafted an urgent living document suggesting immediate steps social networks can take to mitigate iniquitous use of their platforms during the upcoming election. Here are the first three:

  • “Remove and archive fraudulent and automated accounts.”
  • “Clearly identify paid political posts — even when they’re shared”
  • “Use consistent definitions of an ad or paid post.”

8 min read

Read More Airbnb’s Software Patent Rates Your Psychopathy Based on Your Social Media Activity The Evening Standard reported some disturbing news of an Airbnb patent last week that assigns users a “trustworthiness score.” The system extracts social media data and legal records to analyze for “‘negative personality or behavior traits’ such as narcissism and psychopathy…. for example, the software considers a porn star to be just as undesirable as a member of a hate group.”

While some instances of vetting have proven successful, and Airbnb told Gizmodo that “the company does not use the methods listed in the patent ‘as suggested’ in the Evening Standard article,” the process can easily spiral out of hand.

3 min read Read More Transactions & Announcements Launches Comma Two, a $999 Kit That Imbues Cars With Assisted Driving Features

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NYC Media Lab connects university researchers and NYC’s media tech companies to create a new community of digital media & tech innovators in New York City.