Tag Archives: propaganda

Will Propaganda Win?

Did Betty White die because she got a Covid vaccine booster?

Evidently, that’s one of the messages being circulated by the (very busy) purveyors of what we politely call “misinformation” and what is more accurately labeled propaganda. 

According to the News Literacy Project,

 Propagators of anti-vaccine disinformation previously have seized on celebrity deaths — including baseball great Hank Aaron; boxer Marvin Hagler; Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh; and rapper DMX — to falsely impugn the safety of COVID-19 vaccines. Remember: Vaccinated people also die of other causes and a significant portion of the population, including celebrities, are vaccinated. Posts that falsely connect high-profile deaths to vaccines are often attempting to exploit the public’s emotions to generate fear and distrust.

With respect to a phony Betty White quote used in that particular effort, the Project noted

This particular rumor has another red flag: The fake quote has been added to a screenshot of a social media preview for an actual article in which the quote never appeared. This lends the fabricated quote an air of authenticity without providing a clickable link, making it less likely that people will check the alleged source to confirm that the quote is authentic.

I subscribe to a couple of newsletters devoted to news literacy. There are some valiant efforts “out there” to combat the “choose your own reality” media environment we currently inhabit–efforts to provide people with mechanisms for evaluating the credibility of social media posts.

In addition to debunking the suggestion that 99-year-old Betty White died from a vaccine booster, the most recent newsletter from the News Literacy Project highlighted the continued, determined campaign to peddle the “Big Lie.” 

A year after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, the role of misinformation in fueling the historic attack continues to come into clearer focus, as does the extent to which falsehoods still shape Americans’ divided views of the deadly riot. Misinformation swept across podcasts, Facebook — as documented in this new investigation by ProPublica and The Washington Post — and other social media platforms ahead of the attack, allowing false narratives to take root and spread. Some news organizations recently published fact-checking roundups that debunk persistent falsehoods and underscore the ongoing threat misinformation poses to democracy.

The problem, of course, is that the folks most susceptible to these falsehoods, and most likely to disseminate them further, don’t read or trust outlets like ProPublica and The Washington Post. Instead, they look for more ideologically compatible sources when they engage in what we used to call “cherry picking”–what psychologists call “confirmation bias”–in their search for information.

No matter how off-the-wall any particular belief might be, there’s a website out there confirming it. (As I used to tell my Media and Public Policy students, if you really believe that aliens once landed in Roswell, New Mexico, I can find you several websites with pictures of the aliens…)

Right now, credible media outlets are focused on very real threats to American democratic institutions. And although it is absolutely true that the country has previously faced and overcome significant challenges to our unity and constitutional system, I can’t help thinking about what is different this time. I think about  that quote attributed to Mark Twain to the effect that “that history doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes.”

What is different about the stanza of that rhyme that we currently occupy is an unprecedented media environment–the extent of disinformation and propaganda, the ease of accessing false “evidence” proving that this or that conspiracy theory is correct, and the consequential, damaging absence of a widely shared reality.

It has never been easier to believe nonsense. It has never been easier to attribute the inevitable disappointments in life to nefarious (albeit non-existent) machinations of “others”– those people who look, think or pray differently.   

Political scientists and (some) politicians have long emphasized the critical importance of a free press to a free society. That’s why the First Amendment prohibited government suppression–i.e.,censorship. But censorship–like so much else–has evolved. Thanks to new communication technologies, contemporary autocrats have discovered that controlling the flow of information no longer requires suppression: censorship can be achieved simply by sowing confusion and/or drowning out disfavored news.

We are about to see what happens when credible journalism is buried in bullshit– swamped by outlets purveying partisan propaganda and lunatic conspiracy theories–and citizens at that media smorgasbord are invited to pick and choose from the copious selection. 

I’m very much afraid this “rhyme” is uncharted territory.

The Rebirth Of Unions?

I grew up in Anderson, Indiana, when that town’s Guide Lamp and Delco Remy plants employed large numbers of workers, and unions were strong. My father was a small businessman–he owned and operated an auto parts store–and I can still remember conversations between my parents that focused on the excesses of those unions. Strikes, of course, hurt my father’s business, but it went beyond that; union members sometimes engaged in thuggish behaviors of which my parents strongly disapproved. 

Those snatches of conversations were really all I knew growing up about labor unions, or the issues that came under the heading of “labor-management disputes.” Then, earlier in our married life, my architect husband often railed against construction unions that brought projects to a halt until their complaints were addressed, pointing out how those stoppages–often over “jurisdictional disputes” that seemed petty–drove up costs.

Let’s just say I wasn’t a fan of unions. I missed the point.

What I now understand is that wildly uneven distribution of power is never a good thing. Both management and unions have been guilty of bad behaviors, and those behaviors ought to be punished when they occur, but when management holds all the cards, the economy suffers and inequities and social discord increase.

The success of the business community in crushing unions has been a substantial contributor to the current, enormous gap between the rich and the rest, and to the resentments that feed America’s culture wars. So–despite my earlier bias–I see the signs of union resurgence as unequivocally good news. 

The Guardian recently reported on the elevation of Liz Schuler to the presidency of the AFL-CIO. The article noted that

Public approval for organized labor in the US has climbed to its highest level in more than 50 years, as many young workers are flocking into unions and millions of overstressed, underpaid frontline workers are impatient to improve their lot.

There are obvious barriers to a rebirth of vigorous unionism. At this point in time, only 6% of private-sector workers are in unions, and as the article points out, “the Republican party is intent on weakening unions, and most US corporations – led by behemoths Amazon and Walmart – are fiercely opposed to unionization.” Add in the prevalence of gig workers, tech workers and immigrant labor, and the employment landscape is considerably different than the largely factory-based labor force of my youth.

That said, we need only turn on the evening news to hear reports of efforts to unionize behemoths like Amazon and Starbucks, and more recently, striking workers in a number of sectors. The reluctance of workers to return to low-wage and often dangerous jobs in the wake of the pandemic and the proliferation of “help wanted” signs points to workers’ new ability to bargain for change. How all of this will play out is anyone’s guess.

The new aggressiveness of workers is just one piece of the social upheavals Americans are currently experiencing. Those upheavals remind me of another facet of my earlier life: the period we now refer to as “The Sixties.” Many of us in my (advanced) age cohort vividly remember the Sixties as a time of extreme social discord, a time the nation seemed to be coming apart. But that turmoil generated enormous–and largely positive–social change: it gave impetus to the civil rights movement, expanded healthcare for the elderly and the poor, reinvigorated the women’s movement and the gay-rights movement…The Sixties shook America out of the complacency and conformity of the Fifties. 

Regular readers of this blog may be shocked by this evidence of actual positivity, but as troubling and fraught as the current landscape is, I am convinced that we are going through a time of reordering and reconsideration not unlike what Americans experienced in the Sixties–hopefully, without the degree of violence that erupted during that time.

 If we can protect our basic democratic system–which, in my view, absolutely requires passage of the Voting Rights Act–we can emerge with a new understanding of civic equality and economic justice, a new recognition of the proper balance between “I” and “we,” and a renewed appreciation of the significant degree to which “my” prospects require a healthy and robust “us.”

So I’m cheering on the unions, rooting for the Biden Administration, appreciating the millions of Americans who’ve protected their neighbors by getting their vaccines, applauding the educators and historians who are correcting propaganda in the face of racist blowback– and reminding myself (sometimes daily) that a degree of upheaval–disquieting as it is–really can lead to a better tomorrow. 

 

 

 

 

The Rest Of The Story

A disheartening aspect of our national life is the disinformation industry. I’m not talking about “spin” or “puffery.” I’m talking about widespread, deliberate propaganda.

For example, a recent Yahoo News story was summed up in this headline: “Antifa website cited in conservative media attacks on Biden is linked to–wait for it–Russia.”  (Speaking of Russia, the New. York Times confirmed that a story about bible-burning in Portland, also embraced by the Right, was both wildly inaccurate and linked to Russia.)

It turns out that propaganda dissemination isn’t confined to Fox News, although Fox is clearly a. predominant “player” in the richly rewarding field of lying for fun and profit. Others have noticed how lucrative propaganda can be, as The Washington Post recently reported.

The reality curated by “The Bearded Patriot” and “The Wolf of Washington” is dismal.
The websites tell of nonstop riots and “crazed leftists.” They warn of online censorship and the wiles of an “anarchist billionaire,” a reference to George Soros, the liberal investor and Holocaust survivor.
 
The material is tailor-made to inflame right-wing passions. But its underlying purpose is to collect email addresses and other personal information from impassioned readers, whose inboxes then fill up with narrowly targeted ads. The effect is to monetize the anger stoked by misleading political content — for as much as $2,500 per list of contacts.

For-profit fear-mongering is rewarding, and so-called “merchants of misinformation” are exploiting new techniques of data collection to capitalize on American polarization.

Another article I came across–this time from Buzzfeed– provides yet another an example.

The clip that was posted to Twitter — and subsequently viewed over 1.2 million times — purports to show protesters invading a church, screaming “Black Lives Matter” and even abusing parishioners. One demonstrator is filmed calling a church member “a dumb fuck.”

The clip was uploaded by Charlie Kirk, one of the leading voices in the Trump Youth Movement, who added his own interpretation of events: “Christians have not been allowed to attend church for months,” Kirk tweeted, referring to coronavirus-related pauses in services. “But when they finally are, BLM inc. rioters are allowed to assault them. Christianity is now under physical assault by radical left wing terrorism. Where is the media coverage of this?”

Kirk, the founder of Turning Points USA, has 1.8 million followers. His chief creative officer, Benny Johnson — who also tweeted the video, has more than 315,000. The video was picked up by a who’s who of conservative and fringe media: Dinesh D’Souza, Nigel Farage, Laura Ingraham, OAN, the Daily Wire, the Blaze, PJ Media, and Mike Cernovich. The Republican candidate for US House District 20 — which includes Troy, New York, where the events in the clip took place — tweeted it. So did RT, the state-controlled Russian propaganda network. The message of the coverage was a variation on the same theme: This is the real BLM, and they’re coming for your churches next.

Years ago, Paul Harvey hosted a radio show that would begin with an attention-getting story he wouldn’t finish until (after an intervening advertisement) he returned with “the rest of the story.”

The rest of this one’s a doozy.

The church being “assaulted” is affiliated with Westboro Baptist, and the day the video was filmed, it was hosting the second of two AR-15 give-aways.  In the middle of a neighborhood that had  been wracked with gun violence for years, a neighborhood where  faith leaders and public officials had organized gun buy-backs to get firearms off the street, it was giving away deadly guns.

Furthermore,

The Black Lives Matter protesters had been invited inside by the church’s pastor, John Koletas, a self-proclaimed “bigot” who has preached against interracial marriage, defends the use of the n-word, and believes that Black people, as descendants of Ham and Canaan, are cursed by God. He thinks Black History Month is “communism and Marxism month.” He calls Black Lives Matter protesters “savages.” He places a pork product — a ham or hot dogs — at the door, and requires all church attendees to touch it, supposedly to ward off would-be jihadists. He abhors feminists and gay people. He hates Catholics and thinks Muslims shouldn’t be allowed in the country. He mocks sexual abuse victims and the #MeToo movement. And videos of Koletas preaching these beliefs are readily available on the church’s Facebook and YouTube pages.

The invitation was a trap–a set-up intended to incite a protest. The timing was instructive: George Floyd was killed on May 25. The protests in Minneapolis started on the 26th. On May 28, the church tweeted that the church would be giving away additional AR-15s.

The Buzzfeed  article goes into substantial detail about these events, including the  strategies employed to generate confrontations and get video useful to rightwing provocateurs. The “rest of the story” was that BLM got played.

The rest of our story is clear: Unless we can somehow get a handle on this tsunami of disinformation without running afoul of the First Amendment,  the “American experiment” simply won’t survive. 

FaceBook, Disinformation And The First Amendment

These are tough times for Free Speech purists–of whom I am one.

I have always been persuaded by the arguments that support freedom of expression. In a genuine  marketplace of ideas, I believe–okay, I want to believe– that better ideas will drive out worse ones. More compelling is the argument that, while some ideas may be truly dangerous, giving   government the right to decide which ideas get expressed and which ones don’t would be much more dangerous. 

But FaceBook and other social media sites are really testing my allegiance to unfettered, unregulated–and amplified–expression. Recently, The Guardian reported that more than 3 million followers and members support the crazy QAnon conspiracy on Facebook, and their numbers are growing.

For those unfamiliar with QAnon, it

is a movement of people who interpret as a kind of gospel the online messages of an anonymous figure – “Q” – who claims knowledge of a secret cabal of powerful pedophiles and sex traffickers. Within the constructed reality of QAnon, Donald Trump is secretly waging a patriotic crusade against these “deep state” child abusers, and a “Great Awakening” that will reveal the truth is on the horizon.

Brian Friedberg, a senior researcher at the Harvard Shorenstein Center is quoted as saying that Facebook is a “unique platform for recruitment and amplification,” and that he doubts  QAnon would have been able to happen without the “affordances of Facebook.”

Facebook isn’t just providing a platform to QAnon groups–its  algorithms are actively recommending them to users who may not otherwise have been exposed to them. And it isn’t only QAnon. According to the Wall Street Journal, Facebook’s own internal research in 2016 found that “64% of all extremist group joins are due to our recommendation tools.”

If the problem was limited to QAnon and other conspiracy theories, it would be troubling enough, but it isn’t. A recent essay by a Silicone Valley insider named Roger McNamee in Time Magazine began with an ominous paragraph:

If the United States wants to protect democracy and public health, it must acknowledge that internet platforms are causing great harm and accept that executives like Mark Zuckerberg are not sincere in their promises to do better. The “solutions” Facebook and others have proposed will not work. They are meant to distract us.

McNamee points to a predictable cycle: platforms are pressured to “do something” about harassment, disinformation or conspiracy theories. They respond by promising to improve their content moderation. But– as the essay points out– none have been successful at limiting the harm from third party content, and  so the cycle repeats.  (As he notes, banning Alex Jones removed his conspiracy theories from the major sites, but did nothing to stop the flood of similar content from other people.)

The article identifies three reasons content moderation cannot work: scale, latency, and intent. Scale refers to the sheer hundreds of millions messages posted each day. Latency is the time it takes for even automated moderation to identify and remove a harmful message. The most important obstacle, however, is intent–a/k/a the platform’s business model.

The content we want internet platforms to remove is the content most likely to keep people engaged and online–and that makes it exceptionally valuable to the platforms.

As a result, the rules for AI and human moderators are designed to approve as much content as possible. Alone among the three issues with moderation, intent can only be addressed with regulation.

McNamee argues we should not have to accept disinformation as the price of access, and he offers a remedy:

At present, platforms have no liability for the harms caused by their business model. Their algorithms will continue to amplify harmful content until there is an economic incentive to do otherwise. The solution is for Congress to change incentives by implementing an exception to the safe harbor of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act for algorithm amplification of harmful content and guaranteeing a right to litigate against platforms for this harm. This solution does not impinge on first amendment rights, as platforms are free to continue their existing business practices, except with liability for harms.

I’m not sure I share McNamee’s belief that his solution doesn’t implicate the First Amendment.

The (relative) newness of the Internet and social media creates uncertainty. What, exactly, are these platforms? How should they be classified? They aren’t traditional publishers–and third parties’ posts aren’t their “speech.” 

As 2020 campaigns heat up, more attention is being paid to how FaceBook promotes propaganda. Its refusal to remove or label clear lies from the Trump campaign has prompted advertisers to temporarily boycott the platform. FaceBook may react by tightening some moderation, but ultimately, McNamee is right: that won’t solve the problem.

One more conundrum of our Brave New World……

Happy 4th!

 

The Trolls Are Sophisticated–And Effective

A recent headline from Rolling Stone addressed an issue that is likely to keep thoughtful voters up at night. The headline? “That Uplifting Tweet You Just Shared? A Russian Troll Sent it.”

Rolling Stone is hardly the only publication warning about an unprecedented effort–and not just by Russian trolls–to use the Internet to sow disinformation and promote discord.

Who and what are these trolls?

Internet trolls don’t troll. Not the professionals at least. Professional trolls don’t go on social media to antagonize liberals or belittle conservatives. They are not narrow minded, drunk or angry. They don’t lack basic English language skills. They certainly aren’t “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds,” as the president once put it. Your stereotypical trolls do exist on social media, but the amateurs aren’t a threat to Western democracy.

Professional trolls, on the other hand, are the tip of the spear in the new digital, ideological battleground. To combat the threat they pose, we must first understand them — and take them seriously.

The Russian effort is incredibly sophisticated: the article explained that non-political, often heartwarming or inspiring tweets are used to grow an audience of followers. Once a troll with a manufactured name or identity has amassed sufficient followers, the troll will use that following to spread messages promoting division, distrust, and above all, doubt.

The authors of the article are two experts in the use of social media to spread propaganda, and they admit to being impressed by the Russian operation.

Professional trolls are good at their job. They have studied us. They understand how to harness our biases (and hashtags) for their own purposes. They know what pressure points to push and how best to drive us to distrust our neighbors. The professionals know you catch more flies with honey. They don’t go to social media looking for a fight; they go looking for new best friends. And they have found them.

Disinformation operations aren’t typically fake news or outright lies. Disinformation is most often simply spin. Spin is hard to spot and easy to believe, especially if you are already inclined to do so. While the rest of the world learned how to conduct a modern disinformation campaign from the Russians, it is from the world of public relations and advertising that the IRA learned their craft. To appreciate the influence and potential of Russian disinformation, we need to view them less as Boris and Natasha and more like Don Draper.

Lest you think it’s only the Russians employing these tactics, allow the Atlantic to disabuse you in an article headlined “The Billion Dollar Disinformation Campaign to Re-elect the President.”

The article began with a report on the approach the re-election campaign had taken to Impeachment–” a multimillion-dollar ad blitz aimed at shaping Americans’ understanding of the recently launched impeachment proceedings. Thousands of micro-targeted ads had flooded the internet, portraying Trump as a heroic reformer cracking down on foreign corruption while Democrats plotted a coup.”

That this narrative bore little resemblance to reality seemed only to accelerate its spread. Right-wing websites amplified every claim. Pro-Trump forums teemed with conspiracy theories. An alternate information ecosystem was taking shape around the biggest news story in the country.

The author, who had followed the disinformation campaign, writes of his surprise at how “slick” and effective it was.

I was surprised by the effect it had on me. I’d assumed that my skepticism and media literacy would inoculate me against such distortions. But I soon found myself reflexively questioning every headline. It wasn’t that I believed Trump and his boosters were telling the truth. It was that, in this state of heightened suspicion, truth itself—about Ukraine, impeachment, or anything else—felt more and more difficult to locate.

This, then, is where we are: in an environment in which facts–let alone truths–are what we want them to be. An environment in which the pursuit of power by truly reprehensible people working to re-elect a dangerous and mentally-ill President can target those most likely to be susceptible to their manipulation of reality.

I have no idea how reality fights back. I do know that Democrats too “pure” to vote unless their favored candidate is the nominee are as dangerous as the trolls.

I think it was Edmund Burke who said “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”