Computational Propaganda, Part Two

After each new Trump travesty, my friends and family have taken to asking each other the same question: “Who the hell could still support this buffoon? How stupid would someone have to be to drink this particular Kool-aid?”

A recent study conducted by Oxford University apparently answers that (not-so-rhetorical) question.

Low-quality, extremist, sensationalist and conspiratorial news published in the US was overwhelmingly consumed and shared by rightwing social network users, according to a new study from the University of Oxford.

The study, from the university’s “computational propaganda project”, looked at the most significant sources of “junk news” shared in the three months leading up to Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address this January, and tried to find out who was sharing them and why.

“On Twitter, a network of Trump supporters consumes the largest volume of junk news, and junk news is the largest proportion of news links they share,” the researchers concluded. On Facebook, the skew was even greater. There, “extreme hard right pages – distinct from Republican pages – share more junk news than all the other audiences put together.”

The researchers monitored 13,500 politically-active US Twitter users, and a separate group of 48,000 public Facebook pages, and looked at the external websites that they were sharing.

The findings speak to the level of polarisation common across the US political divide. “The two main political parties, Democrats and Republicans, prefer different sources of political news, with limited overlap,” the researchers write.

The study did not find a high percentage of social media penetration by the Russians, but it did identify clear political preferences of those who consumed junk news.

But there was a clear skew in who shared links from the 91 sites the researchers had manually coded as “junk news” (based on breaching at least three of five quality standards including “professionalism”, “bias” and “credibility”). “The Trump Support group consumes the highest volume of junk news sources on Twitter, and spreads more junk news sources, than all the other groups put together. This pattern is repeated on Facebook, where the Hard Conservatives group consumed the highest proportion of junk news.”

There has always been a credulous segment of the American public; given our embarrassingly low levels of civic literacy, it shouldn’t surprise us that a percentage of voters unhappy with their position in the polity would “choose the news” that confirmed their biases. As a colleague of mine recently wrote (citations omitted),

The flourishing of scientific polling and the increased sophistication of social science research methods have provided scholars with an opportunity to put these concerns to the test, and the results have largely confirmed the worst fears of political philosophers. Foundational studies of voters and elections published in the mid-20th Century documented voters’ ignorance, wishful thinking, and reliance on simple cues like partisanship, and nearly 8 decades of subsequent research has largely confirmed those conclusions.The democratic polity is not now and has never been made up of highly knowledgeable, informed and engaged civic citizens.

And there are plenty of charlatans, would-be power-brokers and snake-oil salesmen ready to lead the willing down the garden path…..


  1. Ms. Green–
    I have only one way to sanity by voting straight Democrat.
    I can’t vote for any Republican, not even for a least threatening wannabe.
    I can’t stay home on Election Day.
    Do you see any other choice?
    The GOP, under the Narcissist-in-Chief, will mount a vicious campaign so my vote may be wasted but I have my soul to consider so, like Pete, I will vote STRAIGHT Democrat ticket. I’ll have a miniscule chance of making a difference. I must not waste the slight political power I have with one vote, but I MUST cast it, especially in Carmel and Hamilton County where it will make little or no difference except to me .
    I hope some good experienced public servants will mount the stumps.

  2. I’m a fairly new consumer of this column. Bravo, Sheila Kennedy!
    It is more important now than ever to support our print media (New York Times, Washington Post, etc.) by taking out subscriptions so that they will have the means to continue.
    If anyone can find an English version of a recent article in El Pais (Spain), it is powerful. Spanish title is “La prensa libre, frente a la posverdad” (The free press, in the face of post truth).
    Thank you, Sheila Kennedy.

  3. Advertisers keep supporting the broadcast outlets that spew this crap. I wish there was a way to influence them to STOP doing that. Fox – Rush etc etc. Big Corp Money keeps them on the air.

  4. If you have access to the identities of Russians bots and trolls, I’d love to know who they are. I have suspicions about several of the right-wing conspiracy sites I see and have often wondered if they’re Russian. Folks should know when they are being led or misled by Russians.

  5. To Connie,

    You’ve fallen for the baited trap. The WaPo and New York Times are the chosen media of our corporate state. They too are propaganda, just not “junk news” studied by Oxford.

    The NYT had the story about Harvey Weinstein a decade ago and chose not to run the story after Harvey and company visited the newspaper. The newspaper than looked at the amount of revenue spent by Weinstein’s companies and chose not to disclose. The #MeToo Movement was delayed a decade because profit comes first.

    And both papers misled the American people about Iraq and weapons of mass destruction. They whiffed badly. Supposedly both papers have lots of sources inside the government who leak information which provides content for these papers. But guess what?

    Sources who leak confidential and damaging info to the corporate-state are swiftly prosecuted as whistle-blowers in this country. The “leaks” are guided and intentional to dictate the narrative our corporate-state wants to share.

    They’re no different than the BBC or any other state-run media company. It’s a facade which gives the appearance of a free press holding the powerful accountable.

    Independent journalism uses Twitter and Facebook to share the truth about our corporate-state and all the “fake news” and “junk news” findings are allowing them to work with our corporate-state to censor these journalists. Google has been doing it for several years.

    In the 20’s and 30’s, these folks were called muckrakers. Muckrakers held the newspapers accountable for yellow journalism during the last Gilded Age – propaganda for the Robber Barons.

    Guess what happens when we don’t know our history? 😉

  6. OMG; my comments on “”Polluting the Judiciary” stated agreement to voting straight Democratic ticket in the November elections. I merely pointed out what they are fighting against, it is much more than the current Republican chaos and “deconstruction” of the government; it began with that Republican committee formed with one goal in mind, to stop President Obama from making progress and the reminder that it, to all intents and purposes, worked. Their actions weakened the Democratic party; in some cases (DWS and the DNC) caused infighting, further weakening the party while strengthening the Republicans…leading to the election of Donald Trump and seeking a way out of the current dilemma…by voting straight Democratic party.

    “There has always been a credulous segment of the American public; given our embarrassingly low levels of civic literacy, it shouldn’t surprise us that a percentage of voters unhappy with their position in the polity would “choose the news” that confirmed their biases. ”

    The best response to the above comments by Sheila can be found in a quote from Emile Zola; “Ah, what a cesspool of folly and foolishness, what preposterous fantasies, what corrupt police tactics, what inquisitorial, tyrannical practices! What petty whims of a few higher-ups trampling the nation under their boots, ramming down their throats the people’s cries for truth and justice, with the travesty of state security as a pretext.”

    Trump’s campaign promises (threats) to save this country by ridding it of all “others”; spoke to those whose beliefs are found in neo-Nazis, White Nationalists and blatantly KKK at their foundation and turned them loose on the country. As Sheila has so often reminded us; it is the lack of knowledge (education) regarding basic civics that maintains Trump’s strong support system. His administration has bastardized the 1st Amendment and supported the 2nd Amendment and all that comes out of the White House today is Propaganda spoken as truth and blindly accepted by those willing to accept the Bible as the source of all knowledge.

    Are we to believe Donald Trump and the Republicans or our lying eyes?

  7. We need to remember on this blog that WHY something is happening is always more critical than WHAT is happening. Not to do so minimizes, hockey great, Wayne Gretzky’s sage-like advice:

    “I skate to where the puck is gonna be not, not where it has been.”

  8. Look at what’s happened to Republicans since they discovered how much easier politics is when powered by propaganda compared to when they had to rely on free thinking constituents.

    Except power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

    Now that they are there, we must go elsewhere.

    All Ds, ‘18 and ‘20. Sort them afterwards.

  9. There is none so blind as he who will not see. If we were to make sure that everyone in the country were exposed to truth, those same people who support 45 would not believe any of it.

    The Dems aren’t so bright, but right now, they’re better than the alternative.

  10. I’ve noticed on my YouTube feed that portions of interviews with prominent figures are heavily edited and then titled, “Sarah Sanders puts smug MSNBC reporter in her place!” I had watched the press conference and saw no such thing. Yikes.

  11. So OK, people share “Junk News” there is nothing that can be done about that, short of somehow censoring these “Junk News” web sites. I believe most people would reject censorship.

    As far as I am concerned, CNN, and MSNBC (MSDNC) are censoring news now. Just briefly stopping at either of these “News Networks” you will find some lead story about the Trumpet (Agent Orange) in one form or another, and it goes on all day – non stop.

    The biggest voting block in the USA is none of the above, i.e., the number of people who do not vote. The largest voting bloc in the 2016 election was eligible voters who chose not to vote. In contrast to the received wisdom in political consultant circles, choosing not to vote is a political act.

    The task for the Democratic Party is to find an issues based platform to run on. What does it mean to be a Democrat? If all it means is running against the Trumpet (Agent Orange) or Republicans in general – you will lose.

  12. “…ramming down their throats the people’s cries for truth and justice, with the travesty of state security as a pretext.” Whose cries for truth? The peoples’? It would be mildly off pure truth but far more accurate to say “three individuals” cries for truth. That for which the people cry is exactly what they are getting–lies, exaggerations and conspiracy theories…and reinforcement of the belief that it is okay, even cool, to be stupid.


    “How stupid would someone have to be to drink this particular Kool-aid?” Boy, would I love to read the answer to that question, but Sheila, I don’t see an attempt by the Oxford poll to answer that question. Unless I’m missing something, the pollsters told us nothing we did not already know. Just another voice crying “Ain’t it awful!”

  13. The nation’s top-ranked TV show is “The Big Bang Theory.” In that show is Sara Gilbert, who plays a physicist at Cal Tech named Leslie Winkle. Every show (practically), Leslie says “Dumb Ass” to whom appears to be Jim Parsons, who plays the part of Sheldon Cooper, another physicist at Cal Tech.

    Rumor has it that Leslie’s “Dumb Ass” is really a tribute to Fake President Donald Trump. It may not be true, but it sounds logical.

  14. “…ramming down their throats the people’s cries for truth and justice, with the travesty of state security as a pretext.” Whose cries for truth? The peoples’? It would be mildly off pure truth but far more accurate to say “three individuals” cries for truth.”

    Larry Kaiser; the vast majority of people on this blog follow Sheila daily voicing our “cries for truth and justice”, the organizations such as ACLU, SPLC, Planned Parenthood, Naral, Americans United, et al, and all those who are protesting and rallying …WE are all crying for truth and justice. Your count is what is off; your attention must be on the propaganda rather than hearing those of us who are calling it what it is, lies, and begging people to listen to the truth and to vote.

    Monotonous; I learned a truth after “sharing” junk mail and commenting that it IS junk mail, often including researched facts to rebut the lies and distortions. The problem is; only the junk mail was forwarded in most cases, appearing that I supported it because my comments were not included with the post. Censoring it is not the answer and I believe it is vital that we do see, hear and read the lies and propaganda the current administration is sending out. How else will we know what they are doing and saying and who and what we are fighting against? “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” is wise advice, especially at this time.

  15. Monotonous,

    “The task for the Democratic Party is to find an issues based platform to run on. What does it mean to be a Democrat? If all it means is running against the Trumpet (Agent Orange) or Republicans in general – you will lose.”

    Nothing surer on the face of the Earth.

  16. “And there are plenty of charlatans, would-be power-brokers and snake-oil salesmen ready to lead the willing down the garden path…..”

    Who writes junk news? Why do they do it? Are these the same people who maliciously attack peoples’ computers? Do they do it for their own amusement? Profit? What?

  17. “The WaPo and New York Times are the chosen media of our corporate state. They too are propaganda, just not “junk news” studied by Oxford.” Followed by paragraphs devoted to reminding us that “muckraker journalism” strove to reform mainline journalism…if we would only read some history.

    What history? The term muckraker referred to investigative journalists WITHIN mainline print news which reported about and exposed such issues as crime, fraud, waste, public health and safety, graft, illegal financial practices, none on this list of targets being mainline news organizations.

    Book authors soon learned that “spice” sold books, too, but they did not find that spice in mainline news.

    Helen Hunt Jackson’s “A Century of Dishonor, U.S. policy regarding Native Americans” was not a publication going after “The Salt Lake Telegram.

    Henry Demarest Lloyd’s “Wealth Against Commonwealth”, exposed corruption within the Standard Oil Company, not withing the New York Times.

    Ida B. Wells’ series of articles went after Jim Crow laws and the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad in 1884, but did not go after the Washington Post. Her newspaper “The Free Speech” in Memphis focused on an anti-lynching campaign, not an anti-Boston Globe campaign.

    Ambrose Bierce authored a long-running series of articles in “The Wasp and the San Francisco Examiner” attacking the Big Four and the Central Pacific Railroad for political corruption, not attacking “The Wasp” or the “Examiner”.

    B. O. Flower authored articles in “The Arena” advocating prison reform and prohibition of alcohol, but not advocating reform on mainline news.

    Mainline news, however, did take a cue from muckraker success–“spice” sells, even if you have to rely on exaggeration and lies to properly season a news story. So, instead of muckrakers reforming mainline news, they actually corrupted it, taught mainline publishers the value of lies and the extent to which publishers could get away with lies.

    The most scrupulous publishers, coached by their lawyers, learned that the safest legal way to spice their stories was to put the spice and the lies in headlines but keep the body of an article as straight and well-supported as possible. That strategy served them well through the rest of the 20th century, even after television became print news’s most formidable competitor.

  18. I really want to believe we are better off, but then I have two sons who are post grad educated one an engineer in electonics and the other a post-doctoral level plant biologist, whose Mother was a multi-math multi-lingual, then there is my wife – an ABD in Anthro from Columbia and former Senior Programmer Analyst with CAP Gemini America… – and then there is me… the lowly LPN… education is something I have sought out. I detest ignorance – especially in my self! learning has to be something people want to do, it comes from exposure to things not common in your every day – for me it was paleontology and archeology early on, now I devote my days to study of ancient Hebrew texts concerning the Torah,.. Can you imagine ??? OMG! We are surrounded by a sea of Philistines!!! literally!

  19. What we are witnessing isn’t exclusive to the wingnuts,it’s also within the McResistance,it’s called cultural hegemony.

    Antonio Francesco Gramsci wrote about it decades ago. Plus,he was imprisoned by the fascist Mussolini. So,he knew a thing or two about genuine fascism.

    [From Wiki]

    Gramsci is best known for his theory of cultural hegemony, which describes how the state and ruling capitalist class – the bourgeoisie – use cultural institutions to maintain power in capitalist societies. The bourgeoisie in Gramsci’s view develops a hegemonic culture using ideology rather than violence, economic force, or coercion. Hegemonic culture propagates its own values and norms so that they become the “common sense” values of all and thus maintain the status quo. Hegemonic power is therefore used to maintain consent to the capitalist order, rather than coercive power using force to maintain order. This cultural hegemony is produced and reproduced by the dominant class through the institutions that form the superstructure.

    Trump is a symptom,unfortunately,there’s no real opposition to why we have Trump coming from the ineffective other side of the aisle. I believe that lack of opposition is not a bug but a feature.

    From today’s post:”The study did not find a high percentage of social media penetration by the Russians.”

    Already,a response from a reader goes on about “Russians”.

    Moreover,as far as the New York Times,how can they be defended as real news when we now know the truth about Judith Miller’s articles about Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction?

    According to the “colleague”,ignorance and bias isn’t new wrt the American voter and/or polity,it’s been confirmed after nearly 8 decades of research-and that research was after the preceding study which made the same conclusion in the mid 20th century. If that is the case,why do we respond to such bias today with an ineffectual “clutching of pearls” approach? Could it be the response is simply a “symbolic” gesture made to continue the status quo? We do live in a world where consent is manufactured.

    What’s next? More nonsense about Russians? A real platform? I’ll bet just more resistance from a genuine attempt for change by establishment Democrats;More cultural hegemony.

  20. Wait a minute,isn’t the WAPO owned by Bezos? The very same Bezos that is holding a group of cities hostage in order for those cities/towns to give his company Amazon Dot Com billions in subsidies in order to be the home of Amazon’s headquarters?

  21. What stands out here is that in order to support Trump, you have to read ‘junk news.’ Not especially surprising, but it points out that the ideal direction of action is reversed: rather than reading something, formulating an opinion, and acting accordingly, Trump supporters first decide to support Trump, and THEN intentionally engage in confirmation bias.

    Those with college degrees apparently weren’t taught how to write a paper properly. A well-written paper airs objections to the central thesis in order to address them honestly & refute them with evidence. College graduates who support Trump were probably people who only cited information in support of their conclusion, and had a professor lazy enough not to call them on it.

  22. There is much academic noise in Sheila’s blog today, but I think the most telling feature of all is Sheila’s lament of our civic ignorance. Propaganda and spin do not sell to those who are trained to critically think, so Facebook, Fox and Rush will not fare well with their drivel if their audience is possessed of civic intelligence. When their Nielsens evaporate, so do they. Unfortunately, teaching critical thinking takes time and we have an election coming up just months from now but we must do all we can to put a crimp in the Orange Fascist’s plan to deconstruct our government and end our democracy, or what is left of it. An aside to Marv > Gretzky when asked how he scored so many goals replied that you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. The lesson in that response is that we must risk failure in order to achieve success. It worked for Gretzky, and Lincoln (who lost far more elections than he won), but won the big tamale.

  23. I learn an idea or a fact of value everyday. Thanks to William I learned about Antonio Francesco Gramsci.

    The word hegemonic touched a part in memory bank. A book I read, The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire by Edward Luttwak, covers the Late Roman Republic and includes up to the Third Century AD.

    Luttwak mentions one system in the Late Republic and Early Empire was hegemonic in nature. That is around the core of the Empire were client states. The client states are expected to insure stability, beyond the Empire’s boundaries. The client states were kept in obedience by their perceptions of Roman Power.

    The institutions we have reflect the hegemonic control by the 1%. Certainly our McMega-Media never allows a serious critique of our Steroid Capitalist System and it’s brothers in arms, Crony Capitalism and Corporate Welfare.

    Economic theory tells us about three systems, Monopoly, Oligopoly, and Free Competition. Lets focus on the first two. In an oligopoly, there are only a few firms that make up an industry. This select group of firms has control over the price and, like a monopoly, an oligopoly has high barriers to entry to keep out potential competitors.

    A monopoly is a market structure in which there is only one producer and seller for a product. In other words, the single business is the entire producer in the industry.

    Essentially here in the USA we have a political oligopoly at best (you have only two viable choices Republican or Democrat). The entry barrier to competition is high. This why Bernie Sanders chose the Democratic Party as a vehicle vs a Third Party.

    We also have here in the USA a monopoly structure in politics, that is only one party maybe on the ballot for given elected office.

    It is evident the plutocracy via campaign contributions control both of our political parties. The Corporate Democratic Party is given some leeway on social issues, but any mention of the failure of the Steroid Capitalist System is off limits.

  24. Can the Democratic Party’s Left Flank Win in 2018? This Illinois Primary Could Be a Bellwether
    Progressive challenger Marie Newman is hoping to shock the political establishment by unseating House Rep. Dan Lipinski, a conservative Democrat and longtime incumbent.

    Lipinski (remember he is a Democrat) is a staunch opponent of abortion rights who refuses to back a $15 minimum wage and has voted against LGBT rights, the DREAM Act and Obamacare.

    Marie Newman is running as a progressive alternative. A supporter of Medicare for All and the Fight for 15, she’s racked up a string of endorsements from left-leaning organizations including NARAL Pro-Choice America, Democracy for America, and Our Revolution, an official organizational offshoot of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.

    It seems in Indiana we cannot find anyone like Marie Newman to run for office.

  25. Dear OMG—I’m with you in Hamilton County. Maybe there are more of us than you think. I hope so.

  26. Monotonous Languor, will the DNC support Marie Newman or Lipinski ? That will determine the DNC’s true nature/intent and if they’re worth supporting any longer. I’m going to bet they will support/back Lipinski.

    As far as hoping the folks within Hamilton County will vote against Republicans—not going to happen. The impetus for the growth of the county has been White-flight. Hamilton County is the bastion of White-Suburban-Republicans.

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