Computational Propaganda

[Sorry to clutter your inboxes; I published this in error. Consider it an “extra.”]

I am now officially befuddled. Out of my depth. And very worried.

Politico has published the results of an investigation that the magazine conducted into the popularity (in social-media jargon, the “viral-ness”) of the hashtag “release the memo.” It found that the committee vote

marked the culmination of a targeted, 11-day information operation that was amplified by computational propaganda techniques and aimed to change both public perceptions and the behavior of American lawmakers….Computational propaganda—defined as “the use of information and communication technologies to manipulate perceptions, affect cognition, and influence behavior”—has been used, successfully, to manipulate the perceptions of the American public and the actions of elected officials.

I’ve been struggling just to understand what “bots” are. The New York Times recent lengthy look at these artificial “followers”–you can evidently buy followers to pump up your perceived popularity–helped to an extent, but left me thinking that these “fake” followers were mostly a form of dishonest puffery by celebrities and would-be celebrities.

Politico disabused me.

The publication’s analysis showed how the #releasethememo campaign had been fueled by  computational propaganda. As the introduction says, ” It is critical that we understand how this was done and what it means for the future of American democracy.”

I really encourage readers to click through and read the article in its entirety. If you are like me, the technical aspects require slow and careful reading. Here, however, are a few of the findings that particularly worry me–and should worry us all.

Whether it is Republican or Russian or “Macedonian teenagers”—it doesn’t really matter. It is computational propaganda—meaning artificially amplified and targeted for a specific purpose—and it dominated political discussions in the United States for days. The #releasethememo campaign came out of nowhere. Its movement from social media to fringe/far-right media to mainstream media so swift that both the speed and the story itself became impossible to ignore. The frenzy of activity spurred lawmakers and the White House to release the Nunes memo, which critics say is a purposeful misrepresentation of classified intelligence meant to discredit the Russia probe and protect the president.

And this, ultimately, is what everyone has been missing in the past 14 months about the use of social media to spread disinformation. Information and psychological operations being conducted on social media—often mischaracterized by the dismissive label “fake news”—are not just about information, but about changing behavior. And they can be surprisingly effective.

An original tweet from a right-wing conspiracy buff with few followers was amplified by an account named KARYN.

The KARYN account is an interesting example of how bots lay a groundwork of information architecture within social media. It was registered in 2012, tweeting only a handful of times between July 2012 and November 2013 (mostly against President Barack Obama and in favor of the GOP). Then the account goes dormant until June 2016—the period that was identified by former FBI Director James Comey as the beginning of the most intense phase of Russian operations to interfere in the U.S. elections. The frequency of tweets builds from a few a week to a few a day. By October 11, there are dozens of posts a day, including YouTube videos, tweets to political officials and influencers and media personalities, and lots of replies to posts by the Trump team and related journalists. The content is almost entirely political, occasionally mentioning Florida, another battleground state, and sometimes posting what appear to be personal photos (which, if checked, come from many different phones and sources and appear “borrowed”). In October 2016, KARYN is tweeting a lot about Muslims/radical Islam attacking democracy and America; how Bill Clinton had lots of affairs; alleged financial wrongdoing on Clinton’s part; and, of course, WikiLeaks.

There’s much more evidence that KARYN is a bot—a bot that follows a random Republican guy in Michigan with 70-some followers. Why?

It would be fair to say that if you were setting up accounts to track views representative of a Trump-supporter, @underthemoraine would be a pulse to keep a finger on—the virtual Michigan “man in the diner” or “taxi driver” that journalists are forever citing as proof of conversations with real, nonpolitical humans in swing states. KARYN follows hundreds of such accounts, plus conservative media, and a lot of other bots.

KARYN triggers other bots and political operatives, and they combine to create a “tweet storm” or viral message. Many of these accounts are “organizers and amplifiers”—accounts with “human conductors” that are partly automated and linked to networks that automatically amplify content.

The article is very long, and very detailed–and I hope many of you will read it in its entirety. For now, I will leave you with the concluding paragraphs:

So what are the lessons of #releasethememo? Regardless of how much of the campaign was American and how much was Russian, it’s clear there was a massive effort to game social media and put the Nunes memo squarely on the national agenda—and it worked to an astonishing degree. The bottom line is that the goals of the two overlapped, so the origin—human, machine or otherwise—doesn’t actually matter. What matters is that someone is trying to manipulate us, tech companies are proving hopelessly unable or unwilling to police the bad actors manipulating their platforms, and politicians are either clueless about what to do about computational propaganda or—in the case of #releasethememo—are using it to achieve their goals. Americans are on their own.

And, yes, that also reinforces the narrative the Russians have been pushing since 2015: You’re on your own; be angry, and burn things down. Would that a leader would step into this breech, and challenge the advancing victory of the bots and the cynical people behind them.


  1. 1984,word speak, If you reguarly read journalism,you,may be somewhat use to the norm as far as known,trusted,facts made to find. I never faced,or tweet. seems theres a new game,misused,and a hack for your information,if just a text,send your cell number,etc. the electronic frontier foundation,made quite a revelation decades ago, along these line. looking at stories of kids convincing others,to,,,, anyway,the game can and is,used for games. i ignore this social flap,perfer some intelligent conversation,as this open fourm. respected,between the public here. We have a long time knowlege of thus issue,propaganda,goebles. now trumps crew,in the white house,with a republican effort to distort plain,in sight,lies,deciet,and the treasonous effort to reduce our goverment,to become a wall street empire. they have done well,and were still sitting at home talking about it in face and twitter…. something is wrong,eh?

  2. Prior to its publication; I kept wondering, if it is of such great importance why is the GOP just now authoring and wanting to publish this information? The Trump/Russia investigation and that Christopher Steele 30 page Trump/Russia dossier are both old news. I also kept wondering how and why Nunes and his staff was involved in the situation when he had been recused from anything Russian relating to Trump many months ago (but maintained his position as co-chair of the House Intelligence Committee) after ignoring the House Intelligence Committee, meeting personally with Trump then holding that impromptu news conference with no actual news to report? Of course; understanding anything about this current administration’s goings-on and Trump trying to gag all forms of media; we are left at the end of each day with questions, wondering what can possibly be next…and gagging on what we have learned during the day.

    It is “news reporting” such as this which makes me almost miss Kellyann Conway and Sean Spicer and their problematic newsworthiness…should those who pushed to “release the memo” have been hiding in the bushes to do so? Are we supposed to take issues such as this seriously?

  3. Scary. Really scary. I’m guessing only the most tech-savvy people can understand how this is being accomplished. I hope and pray some of them can find ways to stop it.

  4. The first step we can take is to stop clicking on stories that seem a little off. Social media will take your like and spread it among your friends. From there, it spreads to their friends and their friends’ friends. I now only click on cat memes and other comical or funny stories. Just don’t buy what they’re selling and encourage everyone you know to do the same.

  5. What corporate-owned media outlet today (85% owned by 5 companies) isn’t propaganda?

    Independent journalists rely on social media to hold the government accountable and also hold the corrupt private sector accountable.

    Noam Chomsky presented five filters used to make sure the same corporate Oligarchy isn’t held accountable. Many of our whistleblowers use social media to tell their stories about our corrupt government because they aren’t allowed on corporate owned media.

    Mass social uprisings are coordinated on social media because your local news channel isn’t going to help organize the people.

    BOTS are a distraction as the corporate media is used to cover up the real agenda – censorship. We are at the end stages of capitalism where Fascism with authoritarianism creeps in to hold together the fraudulent corporate state we have in place while the people want socialism and fight oppression.

    Will the revolution be televised?

    Of course, it won’t.

    In the 40’s, Einstein said the checks and balances on power were gone. Chomsky says the same thing today but wrote the Propaganda Media Model in 1988.

    The whole #RussiaGate is smoke cover for our government censoring out those sources from both the right and left which is driving populism. It’s easy to debunk much of strange conspiracy theories coming from the right, but what about the truth seekers on the left?

    The folks who’ve rigged the game in their favor are using whatever methods they can to control the people and they hate being held accountable.

    Again, why do you think we have world’s largest surveillance state and have militarized our police forces?

    Davos talked about the threats to the Elite…some want to make positive changes while others want to exert more control over their people. Guess which category the US falls into?

  6. Speaking of Chomsky,he believes the RussiaGate saga is just a distraction from the realities going on. I agree. Since the Democrats have solely focused their attention on Trump and Russia it lets them off the hook for doing anything worthwhile beyond lip service for the ills of the country.

  7. When the GOP is ejected starting this year and replaced with responsible government, one of the highest priorities must be resetting the calendars in DC to 2018. That’s at least a start to restoring governmental adaptation to where the world is going rather than where it’s been.

    Trump wants to prepare the country for armed invasion of foreign armies by building up our military and start with emulating China’s brilliant strategy beginning in 771 bce of building a great wall.

    Right, Donald. Brilliant.

    Meanwhile Russian strings are moving his limbs and mouth through his addiction to Twitter, an obsolete teenage service for measuring and managing popularity.

    What’s scarier are the number of Americans also responding to virtual puppeteers.

    How many of us are still capable of critical thinking?

    We’ll find out this year.

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