Tag Archives: propaganda

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.

Beating That Dead Horse

I’m still mulling over that screenshot I referenced a few days ago–the one from the pro-Trump website showing the names and pictures of four people identified as Democratic Senators who were switching to the GOP in protest of the President’s Impeachment.

As you’ll recall, none of them were real Senators–or, probably, real people.

Whoever created that website clearly operated on the assumption that visitors would be  partisans so civically-ignorant that the phony names and stock photos wouldn’t trigger doubts or send them to a fact-checking site.

It was probably a well-founded assumption.

We occupy a fragmented media environment that increasingly caters to confirmation bias.  As I’ve frequently noted, Americans no longer listen to the same three network news shows and read the same daily newspapers; the ensuing intense competition for eyes, ears and clicks has spawned a treacherous information terrain.

A post at The World’s Most Dangerous Beauty Salon, Inc. is enough to curl your hair. (Sorry–couldn’t resist.) It even has graphs showing how Right-wing hoaxes and Trump’s tweeted lies proliferate.

Yesterday I talked about how Trumpists flocked to their latest article of faith that Trump isn’t really impeached because the House hasn’t transmitted the articles of impeachment to the Senate.  There is no basis in law or fact for that belief, but it’s there anyway, virally spreading throughout Trumpland.

Another profoundly stupid message that has evidently convinced those who want to believe: now that Trump is impeached, he’s automatically eligible to run 2 more times.

With rampant propaganda proliferated over social media facts or truth no longer matter.  Worse, Trump’s Twitter account amplifies these lies.  Every time he tweets one of his insults, childish taunts, threats, or lies,  it goes out to millions or users, retweeted thousands of times.  In the hands of an immoral politician like Trump, social media is weaponized for the dark side.  You can see it, but can also measure it.

The above-referenced graphs of Google trend lines show searches for these “facts.”

When I first practiced law, an older lawyer in my firm told me that there is really only one legal question, and that’s “what should we do?” That maxim applies more broadly; it absolutely applies to the absence of what has come to be called “news literacy.”

Every so often, one of my more naïve students asks why the government can’t just pass a law requiring media outlets to tell the truth. As I try to explain, truth and fact are often honestly contested—and of course, there’s the First Amendment. But we aren’t powerless just because government is prohibited from censoring us.

There’s no reason the private sector cannot develop tools to help citizens determine who they can reasonably rely on—and who they can’t. (The current criticism of Facebook for allowing campaigns to post dishonest political ads is based upon that company’s legal and technical ability to eliminate them.)

What if a nonpartisan, respected nonprofit—say the Society for Professional Journalists—developed an analog to the “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval,” attesting to the legitimacy of a media source? The award of that seal wouldn’t indicate the truth or falsity of any particular article, but would confirm that the organization was one that adhered to the procedures required of ethical, reputable journalists.

It would take substantial funding, of course, to develop and maintain the capacity to monitor the practices and procedures of media outlets claiming to be “news.” And that “seal of approval” wouldn’t mean that any given report wasn’t flawed in some way—genuine reporters are human and make mistakes. But it would allow citizens who actually care about accuracy and evidence-based reporting to be reassured about the journalistic bona fides of sources they encounter.

Those bona fides are important, because in the new information world we all must navigate, each of us is our own “gatekeeper.” The days when editors and reporters decided what constituted verifiable news are long gone.

And that brings me back to the screen shot shared by my friend.

I know I’m beating a dead horse, but propaganda flourishes when only 26% of adults can name the three branches of government, fewer than half of 12th graders can define federalism and only 35% of teenagers know that “We the People” are the first three words of the Constitution. When politicians make claims that are blatantly inconsistent with America’s history and form of government, widespread civic ignorance virtually guarantees the uncritical acceptance of those claims by partisans who desperately want to believe them.

Adequate civic knowledge can’t guarantee that visitors to a website will know fake Senators when they see them–but it’s an essential first step.

More Of This…

I don’t know about all of you, but I get positively desperate for good news. The American political landscape is so bleak–every day, it seems there is a new report of really egregious wrongdoing: trashing the environment, screwing over students and public education, kicking hungry children off food stamps,  the President’s corruption and conflicts of interest…the list is endless, and it’s all aided and abetted by the propaganda that litters the Internet.

As we head into 2020, the effectiveness of that propaganda has been enhanced by “deep fakes”–doctored photographs that look so real the distortions are difficult to detect.

Rather than sighing and wondering how effective this new method of disinformation will prove to be, Governing Magazine reports that a couple of universities are doing something about it.

If you were under any illusion that online hooey peaked with the 2016 election, brace yourself for the era of “deepfakes” — fabricated videos so realistic they can put words in the mouths of politicians or anyone else that they never said.

As the 2020 election approaches, a new University of Washington initiative aims to combat the wave of increasingly sophisticated digital counterfeiting and misinformation coursing through social media and give the public tools to sort fact from fakery.

The Center for an Informed Public (CIP) has been seeded with $5 million from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, part of a $50 million round of grants awarded this year to 11 U.S. universities and research institutions to study how technology is transforming democracy.

The mission is to use the new research to help everyone vulnerable to being fooled by online manipulation — whether it’s schoolkids unsure about which news sites are trustworthy or baby boomers uncritically sharing fraudulent news stories on Facebook.

Kate Starbird is a UW associate professor and one of the CIP’s principal researchers. She has spent years studying the spread of conspiracy theories and deliberate misinformation in the wake of crisis events like school shootings and the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, and she says this is “not a K-12 problem. It’s a K-99 problem.”

Starbird and other researchers have examined millions of tweets and discovered how various actors, including foreign intelligence operatives, have worked to intensify political divisions in America.

In 2016, for example, Twitter accounts associated with Russia’s Internet Research Agency impersonated activists supportive and critical of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Tweets from those accounts became some of the most widely shared. “Russian agents did not create political division in the United States, but they were working to encourage it,” Starbird recounted in a Medium post about the research.

Fighting the bots and trolls and pervasive propaganda is essential–but it won’t be easy.

The CIP grew in part out of the UW’s popular course, “Calling BS in the Age of Big Data,” created two years ago by West and biology professor Carl Bergstrom. The course is in such demand that its 160 seats filled within one minute of registration opening this quarter, West said.

Sam Gill, who leads community and national initiatives for the Knight Foundation, said he sees the new UW center as “sort of like the first public health school in the country for the Internet.”

The link between quality information and public health is not merely metaphorical, as Internet-fueled misconceptions about vaccines have contributed to outbreaks of measles and other diseases once thought eradicated. An ongoing measles outbreak in Samoa has killed 50 children.

Similarly, misinformation has made it harder for the U.S. to combat climate change, which scientists predict will wreak havoc in the coming decades unless big cuts are made in greenhouse-gas emissions. Emma Spiro, an assistant professor in the Information School and another CIP researcher, said there is already talk of collaboration with the UW’s EarthLab research institute to address climate knowledge.

I don’t think it is hyperbole to say that there is a war being fought between fact and deliberate fiction. We need new weapons in order to win that war.

I hope this very promising effort to create those weapons will be joined by many others.

 

Reviving Real News

The reports of local journalism’s demise are coming fast and furious.

The Guardian recently reported on the emergence of a conservative “news” ecosystem devoted to spreading rightwing propaganda.The article told how one “fake news” source opposed a school referendum in an Illinois town.

The referendum was hotly contested – an organized, enthused Vote Yes campaign was pushing hard for people to back the vote. It looked like the referendum might deliver a yes verdict.

Enter Locality Labs, a shadowy, controversial company that purports to be a local news organization, but is facing increasing criticism as being part of a nationwide rightwing lobbying effort masquerading as journalism.

The company, with two other linked organizations, was responsible for the Hinsdale School News, a print newspaper that was distributed around Hinsdale voters. The paper had the Hinsdale high school district logo, and the look of a journalistic organization. But, as the Hinsdalean reported, the “newspaper” was stuffed full of articles, mostly byline-free, which had a distinct anti-referendum skew….

Locality Labs operates scores of sites across Illinois, Michigan, Maryland and Wisconsin, often sharing content. In Michigan alone, the Lansing State Journal reported, almost 40 sites opened in one fell swoop this fall.

The effectiveness of what is essentially a national “disinformation campaign” is amplified enormously by what columnist Margaret Sullivan has called “The  death knell for local newspapers.”

Local watchdog journalism matters: Just check the front page of the Baltimore Sun, which on Thursday carried a huge headline about the former mayor’s indictment; the Sun — even in its diminished state — broke the story in March that set those wheels in motion.

I could give you dozens of other examples from this year alone. And consider that sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein might have gotten away with most of his misdeeds if not for local journalism, particularly at the Miami Herald.

But the recent news about the news could hardly be worse. What was terribly worrisome has tumbled into disaster.

Sullivan ticks off the reasons for her dismay: the just-completed Gannett and GateHouse merger, which threatens to further reduce newsrooms throughout the country; the fiscal woes of McClatchy, the sale of the Chicago Tribune–a sale that

“ushers the vultures into Tribune,” said a Nieman Lab analysis by Ken Doctor. The implications of all these developments are stunning, he wrote: “The old world is over, and the new one — one of ghost newspapers, news deserts, and underinformed communities — is headed straight for us.”

Sullivan reminds us that, in the past 15 years, more than 2000 newspapers have simply gone out of business, and of those that are left, far too many are “phantoms” of their former selves.  Yet we still rely on local newspapers to provide original local journalism — in many communities, more than all other news sources combined.

Sullivan then makes an incredibly important point:

One of the worst parts about what has happened is that local news sources are relatively well-trusted. In an era of deep antipathy toward the media, that’s no small thing.

They still are one of the ways that many communities maintain a sense of unity and shared facts.

Losing that should be unthinkable. But as of this moment, it isn’t.

When we lose trusted sources of common information, we become easy prey for the propagandists and the conspiracy theorists.

Sullivan references the still-fledgling efforts of nonprofits and foundations to fill the local news gap. (Students in my Media and Public Policy class have wondered why local “do-gooders” don’t form a nonprofit to purchase and revitalize the pathetic remains of our local paper–something that, unfortunately, is highly unlikely to happen.)

The conventional wisdom among media observers is that there is no longer a viable business model for local newspapers (even those that are entirely on-line)–that the loss of advertising dollars that provided them with once-cushy profit margins, together with the dramatic decline in subscriptions, simply dooms them.

But here’s a “what if” for our “who can you trust?” age.

What if a local news source marketed itself with a twofold promise: that it would staff its newsroom with enough reporters to adequately cover its geographic area, including especially the agencies of local government; and that it would report nothing those reporters had not verified?  The reason we used to trust local newspapers was our confidence that they had actually confirmed the facts they reported. However, they rarely felt the need to point that out. In the era of “fake news,” trustworthiness needs to be an explicit part of marketing campaigns.

I have to believe that a lot of us would gladly pay for real news. And some advertisers might even see the reputational benefit of supporting actual journalism.

After all, someone is paying for the propaganda…

 

An Epistemic Crisis

Epistemology is the study of knowledge, justification, and the rationality of belief. Epistemic may not be a word we commonly use, but I think it was entirely appropriate in this Vox headline: “With Impeachment, America’s Epistemic Crisis has Arrived.”

The Vox article focuses on what it calls a “stress test,” and considers whether the right can shield itself from “plain facts in plain sight.”

Unlike Mueller’s report, the story behind the impeachment case is relatively simple: Congress approved military aid for Ukraine, but Trump withheld it as part of a sustained campaign to pressure Ukraine into launching an investigation of his political rival Joe Biden’s family. There’s a record of him doing it. There are multiple credible witnesses to the phone call and larger campaign. Several Trump allies and administration officials have admitted to it on camera. Trump himself admitted to it on the White House lawn.

It’s just very, very obvious that he did it. It’s very obvious he and his associates don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. And it’s very obvious there is something wrong with it. Holding US foreign policy hostage to personal political favors is straightforward abuse of power, precisely the sort of thing the Founders had in mind when they wrote impeachment into the Constitution.

It’s a clearly impeachable pattern of action, documented and attested to by multiple witnesses, confessed to multiple times, in violation of longstanding political precedent and a moral consensus that was, until 2016, universal. Compared to Mueller, that is a much more difficult test of the right’s ability to obscure, distract, and polarize.

The article asks the question that all sane, “reality-based” Americans have been asking ourselves: Can the right-wing propaganda machine successfully keep the right-wing base believing an alternate reality–at least long enough to get through the next election?

Earlier in 2017, I told the story of Donald Trump and the rise of tribal epistemology. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that has to do with knowing and coming to know things — what counts as true, what counts as evidence, how we accumulate knowledge, and the like. It’s where you find schools of thought like skepticism (we can’t truly know anything) and realism (the universe contains observer-independent facts we can come to know).

Tribal epistemology, as I see it, is when tribalism comes to systematically subordinate epistemological principles.

When tribal interests overwhelm standards of evidence and internal coherence,  what is seen as “good for our tribe” becomes the primary determinant of what is true. Who is “part of our tribe” becomes the test of who to trust.

A decades-long effort on the right has resulted in a parallel set of institutions meant to encourage tribal epistemology. They mimic the form of mainstream media, think tanks, and the academy, but without the restraint of transpartisan principles. They are designed to advance the interests of the right, to tell stories and produce facts that support the tribe. That is the ultimate goal; the rhetoric and formalisms of critical thinking are retrofit around it.

It began with talk radio and Fox, but grew into an entire ecosystem that is constantly working to shape the worldview of its white suburban/rural audiences, who are being primed for what the author calls “a forever war with The Libs, who are always just on the verge of destroying America.”

The article is lengthy and well worth reading in its entirety, but the following paragraphs graphically describe what that “epistemic crisis” will look like over the next year:

This is the story of American politics: a narrowly divided nation, with raw numbers on the side of the rising demographics in the left coalition but intensity and outsized political power on the side of the right coalition. Put in more practical terms, the right still has the votes and the cohesion to prevent a Senate impeachment conviction.

On the downslope of a fading, unpopular coalition is not a great place for Republicans to be. It doesn’t augur well for their post-2020 health as a party. But it is enough to get them through the next election, which is about as far ahead as they look these days.

All they need to do is to keep that close partisan split frozen in place. Above all, they need to ensure that nothing breaks through to the masses in the mushy middle, who are mostly disengaged from politics. They need to make sure no clear consensus forms, nothing that might find its way into pop culture, the way the entire nation eventually focused its attention on Nixon’s impeachment.

It’s a kind of magic trick they’re going to try to pull off in full view.

If it succeeds, reality and America both lose.