Thanks To Technology, Propaganda Is Now Exponential

Published in Online Spin, September 15th, 2017.

Remember when propaganda used to be straightforward?
It came in the form of leaflets, flyers, treatises. It was aired on state-run television and broadcast on state-run radio. In its more insidious form, it came via “independent media” -- without the audience being aware of how much that media may have been controlled by shadowy authority figures lurking in the background. At its worst, it was disseminated by covert agents infiltrating key opposition groups.

Those were the days.

Today, thanks to the disintermediation of the media, propaganda happens online, peer to peer, by armies of trolls and bots crafted ever more exactingly to resemble real humans.

Last week, Facebook announced it had uncovered around $100,000 worth of fake ad buys likely tied to Russia. According to Facebook’s Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos, the majority of the ads weren’t advocating for a particular candidate; “rather, the ads and accounts appeared to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum — touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights.”

The New Propaganda isn’t just limited to ads. Also last week, the New York Times reported on the “fake Americans Russia created to influence the election.”

The Times report describes the moment last year when, “Melvin Redick of Harrisburg, Pa., a friendly-looking American with a backward baseball cap and a young daughter, posted on Facebook a link to a brand-new website… ‘These guys show hidden truth about Hillary Clinton, George Soros and other leaders of the US,’ [Redick] wrote on June 8, 2016. ‘Visit #DCLeaks website. It’s really interesting!’”

“Redick” and hundreds of other fake accounts shared similar stories, fueling a divisive narrative that was already primed to take off in this already polarized environment.

(It’s worth noting that just because we’re reading about Russian bots and trolls in America it doesn’t mean there aren’t American bots and trolls in Russia — or anywhere else, for that matter. My point is not about one particular country influencing another; it’s about the changing nature of propaganda itself.)

Perhaps you’re thinking, “Who cares? I’m not friends with Redick on Facebook.” Maybe you’re not. But you’re friends with someone who’s friends with someone who could be friends with someone who is.

And Facebook being Facebook, it doesn’t much matter if the original poster is illegitimate. What matters is who shared the content with you. Once a post or a link or a headline makes it into the extraordinarily permeable Circle of Trust, it’s in.

But the New Propaganda doesn’t stop there, either. It’s not just about fake content being shared on Facebook. Tech oligarchs have gone well beyond being the medium and have fully become the message.

Earlier this month, a Guardian headline suggested that we should, “forget Wall Street” because “Silicon Valley is the new political power in Washington.” “Over the last 10 years,” said the reporters, “America’s five largest tech firms have flooded Washington with lobbying money to the point where they now outspend Wall Street two to one.”

What are they there for? To “protect their oligopolies. Their main areas of concern include the threat of looming action over anti-competitive practices, anything that might lead to higher taxation, net neutrality and privacy.”

Whether it’s information shared via social media platforms or policy influenced by the platforms themselves, the New Propaganda is driven by, facilitated by, and made possible by the New Media.

But it’s still propaganda. And the solution to propaganda remains the same. Question everything. Remain vigilant. Practice critical thinking.

Only you get to decide what you believe.

Kaila Colbin