The Disinformation Century

As citizens all over the world confront a daunting number of challenges–climate change, the rise of populism and white nationalism, the decay of social and physical infrastructure, the wealth gap, endless wars, terrorism, and on and on–we find ourselves deprived of an essential tool with which to address them: reliable information.

Such information exists, but it is increasingly countered by seductive propaganda.

I say “seductive” because–thanks to technology– disinformation can be crafted and aimed with precision at people whose profiles suggest the nature of their vulnerabilities.

Remember Cambridge Analytica? It turns out that its influence was far greater than we originally understood.

An explosive leak of tens of thousands of documents from the defunct data firm Cambridge Analytica is set to expose the inner workings of the company that collapsed after the Observer revealed it had misappropriated 87 million Facebook profiles.

More than 100,000 documents relating to work in 68 countries that will lay bare the global infrastructure of an operation used to manipulate voters on “an industrial scale” are set to be released over the next months.

It comes as Christopher Steele, the ex-head of MI6’s Russia desk and the intelligence expert behind the so-called “Steele dossier” into Trump’s relationship with Russia, said that while the company had closed down, the failure to properly punish bad actors meant that the prospects for manipulation of the US election this year were even worse.

The documents were released by a former employee of Cambridge Analytica, Brittany Kaiser, who became a whistleblower. She starred in the Oscar-shortlisted Netflix documentary The Great Hack, and says she decided to go public after last month’s election in Britain.

“It’s so abundantly clear our electoral systems are wide open to abuse,” she said. “I’m very fearful about what is going to happen in the US election later this year, and I think one of the few ways of protecting ourselves is to get as much information out there as possible.”

Kaiser had shared some material with the British parliament in April 2018, but she has since said that there were thousands of additional pages, showing a “breadth and depth of the work” that went “way beyond what people think they know about ‘the Cambridge Analytica scandal.”

Kaiser said the Facebook data scandal was part of a much bigger global operation that worked with governments, intelligence agencies, commercial companies and political campaigns to manipulate and influence people, and that raised huge national security implications.

The firm helped develop what Kaiser describes as a “sophisticated infrastructure of shell companies that were designed to funnel dark money into politics.”

Among the documents are exchanges between Trump donors discussing how to disguise the source of the contributions, and others disclosing tactics used in the election in Great Britain. The most chilling aspect of the new disclosures, however, wasn’t the fact that the organization’s operations were much more far-reaching than previously known, but the description of what it did, and how.

Emma Briant, an academic at Bard College, New York, who specialises in investigating propaganda and has had access to some of the documents for research, said that what had been revealed was “the tip of the iceberg”…

“There’s evidence of really quite disturbing experiments on American voters, manipulating them with fear-based messaging, targeting the most vulnerable, that seems to be continuing. This is an entire global industry that’s out of control but what this does is lay out what was happening with this one company.”

Politics in 2020 are almost guaranteed to be uglier and more misleading than any in the recent past. If we can get past November without self-destructing, however, the growing effort to teach media literacy may make a longterm difference.

Ad Fontes Media has created a very useful media bias chart.  Media Literacy Now has a state report on the status of media literacy education,as well as model legislation for states that currently don’t require such education. There are other, similar efforts underway.

For a long time, it has been popular to claim that “there’s nothing new under the sun,” but we live in an era that disproves the saying. The technical ability to create what the White House celebrates as “alternate reality” is new; we need to respond by creating tools that separate fact from fiction.

11 thoughts on “The Disinformation Century

  1. If we expect the wholesale adoption of regulations limiting media bias, ALEC will have to take the lead; there may not be any legislators left who can actually interpret data and write legislation.

  2. Daleb,

    ALEC is part of the problem. They are a creation of the Koch brothers evil network of government control. The links go all the way back to Lewis Powell’s 1971 call to arms by corporate/banking America to literally dupe the people to their way of thinking. The CATO Institute, The Heritage Foundation and all the rest are part of this disinformation activity to destroy democracy for the sake of the rich. The culminating success of this operation is, of course, Citizens United vs. FEC. That misguided “decision” opened the spigots for unlimited funding of the disinformation efforts everywhere.

    Remember the original climate change reports? The scientist who produced the evidence that the Earth was warming and that dire events would occur were pilloried by concerted and targeted lies to not only downplay the hard evidence, but to also destroy the reputations of the scientists.

    These are the elements that support Karl Marx’s predictions that capitalism, left in the hands of the corporatists, will destroy everything it touches. Donald Trump is merely another example of that happening.

  3. Every state uses propaganda against its citizens – our government is in the business of misinformation and disinformation.

    Then, you have media companies that are owned by substantial corporate conglomerates who target their news for specific markets. For instance, newspapers have become loss leaders for industry. If it weren’t for unlimited campaign spending, our papers would fold up within a year.

    I also noticed that Indiana has “no information” on media literacy, a state dominated by Fox News and Gannett. #Shocking

    The role of our Fourth Estate was NOT to help disseminate propaganda to the people (manufacturing consent). The purpose of our Fourth Estate is to hold those in powerful government positions accountable (truth-seeking).

    In other words, there should be NO MEDIA BIAS SPECTRUM. If our Fourth Estate were doing its constitutional duty, there would be little or no difference in what’s reported across media companies.

    Furthermore, the role of our government is to hold private industry accountable. Not be partners with them (Fascism) in oppressing the people.

    It’s called checks and balances, and we haven’t had the proper checks and balances in decades.

  4. This is what I mean about being connected. The technological advances in media and the willingness to give up all of your information for nothing is a scourge not easily controlled.

    It’s the fourth quarter and you’re behind by four touchdowns, it can be done, but is it likely?

    One thing that would make a statement, is to close your Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and all of the other social media accounts. Of course they’ve already harvested much of your information, even financial documentation.

    The next thing would be to band together and file class action lawsuits for damages from these companies.I’m not sure how successful that would be, considering people willfully put all of their information online. But, everyone was misled about the security of that information, and financial profits that were being made off of it.

    Just another form of slavery in my opinion, you’re being used as a commodity,, when they’re done they move on to the next one and suck the corpse dry so to speak…

    Right now, we are way behind in the fourth quarter, so, all of the plays should be in desperation. Everyone could start with a statement by getting off of social media completely, these blogs and that sort of thing should be sufficient for keeping in touch.

    it definitely would make a statement and hit them in their pocket books which is their God of choice for their idolatrous craving of treasure and wealth.

    Remember, there would have been no Cambridge analytica if it were not for the complicity the social media giant’s and other sources. They had to know what was going on, there was willful ignorance to what was happening by these companies. Too much internal documentation has come forward showing this. So not only were they complicit in the misuse of everyone’s information and the rise of all of the disinformation being splayed out there for everyone’s consumption, but they were the Doctor Frankenstein that created the monster.

  5. If Goebbels had had today’s technology available to him in the early 1930s, there’s a good chance that the world would be speaking German by now. Manipulating minds = manipulating choices. I foresee overuse of the First Amendment by such propagandists as cover for their manipulation. Dictatorial design often employs democratic principles in reaching authoritarian status, upon which such principles are discarded.

    Not all wars are fought with armies these days; cyber wars are much easier to conduct, far less expensive, and along with ego flattering (see Putin’s conquest of the Oval Office), can result in winning wars albeit unconventionally – and an argument can be plausibly made that we are currently in a war for the minds and souls of America sponsored by the rich and corporate class and those who aspire to Big Brother status, among other bottom feeders on our democracy. To do: tell the truth, resist these incursions into our democratic values, and elect those who understand where we are and where we are going unless we do in fact resist.

    And here I thought 1984 was fiction. I was wrong. Eric Blair (aka George Orwell) got it right. Big Brother’s goal is the same; only the means have changed due to innovation.

  6. Facebook has publicly declared it is not making any changes to any of it’s policies in place since 2016. Facebook will continue to allow target-casting. Facebook will NOT screen to see if posted items are even true. Facebook also owns Instagram and WhatsApp.

    The chief enabler of this disinformation age is social media and Facebook is going to make sure it continues.

    If you are not sure how bad this might be, you can target-cast advertisement down to where only 100 people in a given zip code might see it. Of these 100 people, because you are almost exactly certain of your audience, you might get a 25% response, where they share some inflammatory untruth with 2500 (25 shares with 100 friends each) “friends”. Once an item shared, it loses it “sponsored” tag and looks like something the average Joe might be sharing and it acquires a new look of legitimacy. Now if 1-2% of those 2500 share it, it is seen by an additional 5000 people.

    I don’t know how to stop it. Since profit “trumps” democracy, I think it can only stopped through regulation and good luck there, because the new rule seems to be: it is not how you play the game, but whether you win or loose.

  7. Tump was the first of the invaders to get into the castle. Now he’s brought in more (his entire cabinet and Whitehouse staff) and bought another key one (McConnell). He is downgrading our defense (The Judicial and Legislative Branches and the Intelligence and Law Enforcement community) as fast as he can.

    We’re lucky he’s so stupid.

    We can go for armed insurrection but with our military it would be futile. The only real weapon that we have is democracy buts that’s the breech that our enemies used to get into the castle.

    We may be conquered already but if not we have one last chance to repel the enemies of our country, our ideals, our legacy to future generations. Twenty, twenty.

    Last night we met again the people who will lead the charge. I didn’t see one not on our side. Whoever the people pick in the Primary and at the Convention will be fine with me. In fact I hope all of them will end up in leadership positions in restored government. In these truly desperate times I will vote blue no matter who.

  8. Corporations targeting a selected market is nothing new at all. They employ a variety of methods to convince you to buy their product. Ex-athletes and actors are hired as spokespersons to pitch a product. NASCAR drivers have their cars and uniforms festooned with corporate logos. Stadiums are named for corporations, etc.

    So there should be no surprise when the same marketing tools are used in politics.

    CNN, FOX and MSDNC will never give Medicare for All a fair and unbiased analysis. Even though Canada, France, Germany and Japan among others have some form of universal health care for all – We are told in so many words Medicare For All cannot work here in the USA by their “readers” (reporters) and panels of “experts”.

    Of course, CNN, FOX and MSDNC make millions, probably billions in advertising per year from the Wall Street vampires representing a “For Profit” healthcare system. So these networks have no interest at all in comparing the US system of healthcare vs others countries.

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