Tag Archives: propaganda

It’s Much More Than Just Fake News

This is the time of year when my students–graduate and undergraduate–present the results of their research projects to their classmates (and, of course, me). One of my better undergraduate students focused upon the legal implications of the increasing use of household “personal assistants”–those sort of “Siri for home use” voice-activated electronic devices like Amazon’s “Echo.”

In addition to detailing the investigative uses of such devices by law enforcement, he pointed out potentials for informational mischief, especially when those devices are asked to conduct a search; unlike a google search performed on a computer screen, which yields pages of results and thus highlights inconsistent responses and the questionable credibility of certain of those responses, a virtual assistant simply responds with whatever information has been moved up in the response list by someone good at search engine optimization.

His example: responding to question “who won the popular vote,” one personal assistant read from a single (conspiracy) site reporting that Trump had actually won the popular vote.  No list, no context, no description of the source.

If the implications of his presentation weren’t troubling enough,a report from the Medium website gave me chills.

A data scientist and others had begun digging into so-called “fake news” sites after the election.  It soon became clear to them that they were dealing with a phenomenon that encompassed much more than just a few fake news stories. It was a piece of a much bigger and darker puzzle — a Weaponized AI Propaganda Machine being used to manipulate public opinions and behaviors to advance specific political agendas.

By leveraging automated emotional manipulation alongside swarms of bots, Facebook dark posts, A/B testing, and fake news networks, a company called Cambridge Analytica has activated an invisible machine that preys on the personalities of individual voters to create large shifts in public opinion. Many of these technologies have been used individually to some effect before, but together they make up a nearly impenetrable voter manipulation machine that is quickly becoming the new deciding factor in elections around the world.

Most recently, Analytica helped elect U.S. President Donald Trump, secured a win for the Brexit Leave campaign, and led Ted Cruz’s 2016 campaign surge, shepherding him from the back of the GOP primary pack to the front.

The company is owned and controlled by conservative and alt-right interests that are also deeply entwined in the Trump administration. The Mercer family is both a major owner of Cambridge Analytica and one of Trump’s biggest donors. Steve Bannon, in addition to acting as Trump’s Chief Strategist and a member of the White House Security Council, is a Cambridge Analytica board member. Until recently, Analytica’s CTO was the acting CTO at the Republican National Convention.

Analytica has declined to work on any Democratic campaigns,  and according to the story, is negotiating to help Trump manage both public opinion around his presidency and to expand sales for the Trump Organization.

Cambridge Analytica is now expanding aggressively into U.S. commercial markets and is also meeting with right-wing parties and governments in Europe, Asia, and Latin America….

There’s been a wave of reporting on Cambridge Analytica itself and solid coverage of individual aspects of the machine — bots, fake news, microtargeting — but none so far (that we have seen) that portrays the intense collective power of these technologies or the frightening level of influence they’re likely to have on future elections.

No, They Don’t “All” Do It

Every parent has heard a child respond to a scolding with “Everybody does it.”

When it’s children trying to evade responsibility, we see through that excuse pretty easily. When adults engage in such evasions, when they engage in “false equivalency argumentation,” we seem to be more gullible.

That has been especially true in politics, where complaints about political polarization and generally toxic partisan behaviors are routinely accompanied by rueful statements to the effect that, while reprehensible, “both sides do it.”

They don’t. At least, not with respect to phony “facts.”

A recent major study by the Columbia Journalism Review

shows that political polarization is more common among conservatives than liberals — and that the exaggerations and falsehoods emanating from right-wing media outlets such as Breitbart News have infected mainstream discourse….

The CJR study, by scholars at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, at Harvard Law School, and the MIT Center for Civic Media, examined more than 1.25 million articles between April 1, 2015, and Election Day. What they found was that Hillary Clinton supporters shared stories from across a relatively broad political spectrum, including center-right sources such as The Wall Street Journal, mainstream news organizations like the Times and the Post, and partisan liberal sites like The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast.

By contrast, Donald Trump supporters clustered around Breitbart — headed until recently by Stephen Bannon, the hard-right nationalist now ensconced in the White House — and a few like-minded websites such as The Daily Caller, Alex Jones’ Infowars, and The Gateway Pundit. Even Fox News was dropped from the favored circle back when it was attacking Trump during the primaries, and only re-entered the fold once it had made its peace with the future president.

Right-wing sites, led by Breitbart, were able to push traditional media outlets into focusing on Trump’s issues, and–even more importantly–able to get them to frame the issues as Trump did. Even more troubling, right-wing sources were able to influence portrayals of Clinton, and to keep the mainstream media focus on her supposed “scandals.”

As the study’s authors noted,

It is a mistake to dismiss these stories as “fake news”; their power stems from a potent mix of verifiable facts (the leaked Podesta emails), familiar repeated falsehoods, paranoid logic, and consistent political orientation within a mutually-reinforcing network of like-minded sites.

Use of disinformation by partisan media sources is neither new nor limited to the right wing, but the insulation of the partisan right-wing media from traditional journalistic media sources, and the vehemence of its attacks on journalism in common cause with a similarly outspoken president, is new and distinctive.

It turns out that the news appetites of liberals and moderates differ from those of the radical right-wing fringe that is today’s Republican base.

What’s at issue here is not just asymmetrical polarization but asymmetrical news consumption. The left and the center avail themselves of real journalism, however flawed it may be, while the right gorges on what is essentially political propaganda — all the while denigrating anything that contradicts their worldview as “fake news.”

It’s a winning business model: tell the paranoid what they want to hear, and assure them that everyone else is lying. That approach made Rush Limbaugh rich, then made Fox News highly profitable, and more recently, evolved into disinformation’s logical conclusion: Breitbart.

But “everyone” doesn’t consume this propaganda. The deficiencies in intellectual honesty on the left pale in comparison to the avid consumption of bullshit that characterizes the rabid right.

They aren’t equivalent.

More Than Just Worrisome

The Guardian recently had a chilling account of the tools available to today’s purveyors of what we used to call the “big lie,” and the people using those tools. As the reporter began,

Just over a week ago, Donald Trump gathered members of the world’s press before him and told them they were liars. “The press, honestly, is out of control,” he said. “The public doesn’t believe you any more.” CNN was described as “very fake news… story after story is bad”. The BBC was “another beauty”.

That night I did two things. First, I typed “Trump” in the search box of Twitter. My feed was reporting that he was crazy, a lunatic, a raving madman. But that wasn’t how it was playing out elsewhere. The results produced a stream of “Go Donald!!!!”, and “You show ’em!!!” There were star-spangled banner emojis and thumbs-up emojis and clips of Trump laying into the “FAKE news MSM liars!”

The reporter then consulted Google, typing in only “mainstream media is.” The first several “autofills” were negative: “dead” “fake” “biased” and the like. SEO (search engine optimization) at work. (Search engine optimization is a technique that catches Google’s attention, and ensures that a site’s URL will be prominent among search results.)

The reporter clicked on the first of the sites that Google returned; it was an obscure website named CNSnews.com.

Another couple of clicks and I discover that it receives a large bulk of its funding – more than $10m in the past decade – from a single source, the hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer. If you follow US politics you may recognise the name. Robert Mercer is the money behind Donald Trump. But then, I will come to learn, Robert Mercer is the money behind an awful lot of things. He was Trump’s single biggest donor. Mercer started backing Ted Cruz, but when he fell out of the presidential race he threw his money – $13.5m of it – behind the Trump campaign.

Since just 2010, it turns out that Mercer has donated $45 million dollars to Republican political campaigns, and another $50 million to an assortment of rightwing, ultra-conservative nonprofits. As the reporter noted, he is a billionaire who, “as billionaires are wont, trying to reshape the world according to his personal beliefs.”

And he evidently possesses both the money and the technological skills to reshape a good portion of it.

Robert Mercer very rarely speaks in public and never to journalists, so to gauge his beliefs you have to look at where he channels his money: a series of yachts, all called Sea Owl; a $2.9m model train set; climate change denial (he funds a climate change denial thinktank, the Heartland Institute); and what is maybe the ultimate rich man’s plaything – the disruption of the mainstream media. In this he is helped by his close associate Steve Bannon, Trump’s campaign manager and now chief strategist. The money he gives to the Media Research Center, with its mission of correcting “liberal bias” is just one of his media plays. There are other bigger, and even more deliberate strategies, and shining brightly, the star at the centre of the Mercer media galaxy, is Breitbart.

Mercer’s money funded Breitbart; the express intent was to “take back the culture.” (I shudder to think just how far back.)

But there was another reason why I recognised Robert Mercer’s name: because of his connection to Cambridge Analytica, a small data analytics company. He is reported to have a $10m stake in the company, which was spun out of a bigger British company called SCL Group. It specialises in “election management strategies” and “messaging and information operations”, refined over 25 years in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan. In military circles this is known as “psyops” – psychological operations. (Mass propaganda that works by acting on people’s emotions.)

I encourage you to click through and read the entire Guardian article. It goes a long way toward explaining what I have found inexplicable: popular beliefs and attitudes that legitimize the antics of a man whose increasingly obvious mental illness has allowed him to be used as the tool of ideologues like Mercer and Bannon.

According to Andy Wigmore, a key figure who worked for the Brexit “Leave” campaign,

Cambridge Analytica had worked for them, he said. It had taught them how to build profiles, how to target people and how to scoop up masses of data from people’s Facebook profiles. A video on YouTube shows one of Cambridge Analytica’s and SCL’s employees, Brittany Kaiser, sitting on the panel at Leave.EU’s launch event.

Facebook was the key to the entire campaign, Wigmore explained. A Facebook ‘like’, he said, was their most “potent weapon”. “Because using artificial intelligence, as we did, tells you all sorts of things about that individual and how to convince them with what sort of advert. And you knew there would also be other people in their network who liked what they liked, so you could spread. And then you follow them. The computer never stops learning and it never stops monitoring.”

There has always been propaganda. There hasn’t always been the Internet or Facebook. We’re about to find out just how malleable and gullible we are.

What the Hell is Epistemic Closure?

Epistemic closure is a fancy term for the practice of defining–or redefining– reality in ways that support your pre-existing ideological preferences. Most of us think of it as “creating and living in a bubble.”

A recent report from Political Animal illustrates the concept perfectly. Consider this result from a recent PPP poll:

There continues to be a lot of misinformation about what has happened during Obama’s time in office. 43% of voters think the unemployment rate has increased while Obama has been President, to only 49% who correctly recognize that it has decreased. And 32% of voters think the stock market has gone down during the Obama administration, to only 52% who correctly recognize that it has gone up.

In both cases Democrats and independents are correct in their understanding of how things have changed since Obama became President, but Republicans claim by a 64/27 spread that unemployment has increased and by a 57/27 spread that the stock market has gone down.

Another poll–also referenced in the linked post–is even more illuminating: approximately 60% of Republican respondents said that the economy had declined since 2008; but that number jumped to 80% when the question was phrased differently– not in terms of how the economy had performed since 2008, but “since Obama was first elected.”

In 2010, the New York Times book review section had an extended essay devoted to the phenomenon, and in the Age of Trump, it is reasonable to assert that matters have only gotten worse.

The phrase is being used as shorthand by some prominent conservatives for a kind of closed-mindedness in the movement, a development they see as debasing modern conservatism’s proud intellectual history. First used in this context by Julian Sanchez of the libertarian Cato Institute, the phrase “epistemic closure” has been ricocheting among conservative publications and blogs as a high-toned abbreviation for ideological intolerance and misinformation.

Conservative media, Mr. Sanchez wrote at juliansanchez.com — referring to outlets like Fox News and National Review and to talk-show stars like Rush Limbaugh, Mark R. Levin and Glenn Beck — have “become worryingly untethered from reality as the impetus to satisfy the demand for red meat overtakes any motivation to report accurately.” (Mr. Sanchez said he probably fished “epistemic closure” out of his subconscious from an undergraduate course in philosophy, where it has a technical meaning in the realm of logic.)

As a result, he complained, many conservatives have developed a distorted sense of priorities and a tendency to engage in fantasy, like the belief that President Obama was not born in the United States or that the health care bill proposed establishing “death panels.”

In his recent speech to Rutgers’ graduates, President Obama included an eloquent rejoinder to those who wish to construct their own realities:

… when our leaders express a disdain for facts, when they’re not held accountable for repeating falsehoods and just making stuff up, while actual experts are dismissed as elitists, then we’ve got a problem.

You know, it’s interesting that if we get sick, we actually want to make sure the doctors have gone to medical school, they know what they’re talking about. If we get on a plane, we say we really want a pilot to be able to pilot the plane.

And yet, in our public lives, we certainly think, “I don’t want somebody who’s done it before.” The rejection of facts, the rejection of reason and science — that is the path to decline. It calls to mind the words of Carl Sagan, who graduated high school here in New Jersey, he said: “We can judge our progress by the courage of our questions and the depths of our answers, our willingness to embrace what is true rather than what feels good.”

“Epistemic closure” is a more elegant phrase than the ones that come more readily to mind: “The big lie.” “Propaganda.” “Bullshit.”

Or–perhaps most accurate of all–“bat-shit crazy.”

Propaganda’s Willing Audience

Talking Points Memo recently shared the findings of a paper by Bruce Bartlett, former economic advisor to Ronald Reagan, documenting the so-called “Fox Effect.” Bartlett’s conclusions are similar to those of others who’ve studied the political impact of what is widely recognized as the propaganda arm of the GOP.

A 2007 study in the Quarterly Journal of Economics found that the arrival of Fox had a “significant effect” on the presidential elections from 1996 to 2000: Republican candidates gained 0.4 to 0.7 percentage points in towns that broadcast the channel. (The research also credited Fox with GOP gains in the Senate.)

Meanwhile, a 2014 study by The National Bureau of Economic Research found that the likelihood of voting Republican increased by 0.9 points among viewers who watched “four additional minutes per week.”

Bartlett also found research that shows the Fox Effect caused congressmen in both parties to “increase their support for Republican policies.”

Last year, researchers out of Princeton and Vanderbilt found that during the Clinton years, members of Congress became “less supportive of President Clinton in districts where Fox News begins broadcasting than similar representatives in similar districts where Fox News was not broadcast.”

No serious observer doubts that Fox is a wildly inaccurate propaganda mill. (Several studies have found that people who watch Fox regularly know less than those who don’t watch any news at all.) The more important question, of course, concerns what researchers call “self-selection,” and what more down-to-earth folks call the “chicken and egg” conundrum. Why do certain people choose to watch Fox? Why does its propaganda work? More to the point, upon whom does any particular propaganda work? What makes person A receptive to misinformation that is crude and obvious to person B? 

At least one writer suggests that “white fragility” is the fertile ground being tilled by Fox and conservative talk radio.

White fragility is a termed coined by Robin DiAngelo, an associate professor of education at Westfield State University in Massachusetts. In her 2011 academic pedagogical analysis titled “White Fragility,” DiAngelo goes into a detailed explanation of how white people in North America live in insulated social and media spaces that protect them from any race-based stress. This privileged fragility leaves them unable to tolerate any schism or challenge to a universally accepted belief system. Any shift away from that (like a biracial African-American president) triggers a deep and sustaining panic. Racial segregation, disproportionate representation in the media, and many other factors serve as the columns that support white fragility.

At the end of the day, there are two very different reasons people follow the news: to understand what is happening in the world (even if those events or outcomes aren’t consistent with their worldviews, and may require adjusting those worldviews), or to confirm pre-existing fears and beliefs.

Propaganda outlets let partisans select reinforcement over reality.

As Bartlett points out, however, when reality bites and self-delusion is no longer possible (when, for example, the polls predicting Mitt Romney’s defeat turned out not to be “skewed”), the shock and disbelief can be overwhelming.