English 211C – English Composition
17 March 2018
Propaganda and Partisanship
Political activism has changed drastically with the advent of social media. A generation ago, most people only paid attention to the government they lived under, and even then, only during election season (at least, for those countries with elections). Today, though, with the internet at their fingertips, citizens from all over the world are becoming more politically engaged. Protestors coordinate marches over social media, and people living under dictatorships use it to agitate for change and make the rest of the world aware of their struggle. While this is certainly something to be celebrated, there is a dark side: the more information that is available to the masses, the easier it is for mistakes, propaganda, and outright falsehoods to infiltrate the collective consciousness. For every Kony 2012 and Egyptian Revolution, there is also a Pizzagate and Emailgate, and it can be difficult for the average citizen to separate the “fake news” from the truth. Fact checking has never been a more important skill than it is in this “post-truth” era. Good outcomes have occurred because of Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms, but social media has had an overall detrimental effect on the political world due to the ease with which falsehoods can be spread, both intentionally and not. Facebook makes it easy to retreat into an echo chamber, where no one need consider views they disagree with. If someone does not think critically about opposing ideas, then they have no need to think critically about their own views. Without that introspection, it becomes easy to accept a meme or a dubious article at face value. Russia took advantage of that blind spot to influence the electoral process, and so did Donald Trump, by hiring Cambridge Analytica. The technology to determine who a voter is likely to support, and what leverage to apply to produce a desired outcome, has already been invented. It works. It is here to stay. Politicians are unlikely to work toward a solution, because an electorate that is just aware enough to be angry, but unaware enough to be easily lied to, makes for a reliable voting bloc. Until people learn to think critically about the content of what they read on the internet, and the sources that content is coming from, the situation is unlikely to improve.
Recently, much has been made of the “echo chamber” effect of Facebook and other social media, but what does that mean? Essentially, it is the end-result of users purging their newsfeeds of others who do not share their values. Stories abound of families and friends unfollowing, unfriending, and otherwise removing each other from their social media accounts due to different worldviews. This is reinforced by the algorithms that social media sites use to determine what content users see first. If someone is likely to click on links to liberal news sites, but scroll past links from Fox News, Breitbart, and other conservative sources, the algorithms will adapt and show that person more liberal stories and fewer conservative ones CITATION Hos16 l 1033 (Hosanagar). Eventually, this results in liberals talking to other liberals about liberal news, and conservatives talking to other conservatives, and ne’er the twain shall meet. The user ends up surrounded by people who all agree with each other, politically speaking. This exacerbates the tribal “us versus them” nature of politics into full-blown hyper-partisanship. Democrats and Republicans are no longer friendly rivals who can disagree while still recognizing that, at the end of the day, both sides want what is best for the country. Now, through the lens of the other side, all Democrats are godless Communists who want to destroy America, while all Republicans are Christian nutjobs who want a theocracy and would rather see thousands of children dead than wait one day longer to buy their precious guns. The center is gone, a forbidden field that no politician may venture into, for fear of being cast out by his or her own side as a traitor to the cause. This is a problem, because with no middle to meet in, there can be no compromise. America has become a pendulum, swinging wildly from the Left to the Right on the whims of the electorate. There can be no progress, because a pendulum does not move, but only marks the passage of time. Unfortunately, hyper-partisanship does not only grind progress to a halt; it also makes people easier to manipulate.
Before Donald Trump co-opted the term and applied it to anything that made him look bad, “fake news” referred to completely fabricated news stories meant to act as clickbait, news articles with intentionally outrageous headlines, shared on social media sites in hopes of going viral for the purposes of making money through advertising CITATION Wen18 l 1033 (Wendling). In other words, yellow journalism for the information age. However, when lies and misinformation are spread with the goal of influencing the populace, they go by another, less friendly name – propaganda, and it is alive and thriving thanks to social media. It featured prominently in Jacob Zuma’s ascent to the Presidency of South Africa, and Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines, has a “keyboard army” which spreads false narratives to ensure he keeps power – but neither holds a candle to Vladimir Putin. Russia is not only using propaganda for domestic control; they are exporting it to influence other nations CITATION How17 l 1033 (How the World Was Trolled). It is indisputable that Russia used social media in attempts to influence the 2016 U.S. Presidential election: according to The Economist, one fifth of all political posts on Twitter were generated by bot networks, and thousands of those bots were run by, or on the orders of, the Russian government.
So, social media was flooded with fake news, misinformation, and propaganda, but much of it was easily-debunked stories with headlines like “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President”. Why, then, if the stories were transparently false, did they garner such a following of people who “knew” that they were true? This is the other problem with echo-chambers and hyper-partisanship: once a user has purged and filtered their newsfeed to a sufficient degree, it becomes easy to accept any post that makes it to the feed at face value, especially when it has that essence of, as Stephen Colbert so eloquently coined, “truthiness.” Truthiness, for the unaware, is “the belief that a particular statement is true, based on the intuition or perceptions of some individual or individuals, without regard for evidence, logic, or facts.” It does not matter whether something is objectively true, only whether it feels true. “Of course the Pope endorsed Trump, he may have some crazy liberal ideas, but he is still a Christian, so obviously he was not going to endorse Clinton!” Thus, the objective truth or falsity of something becomes irrelevant. So long as a person’s gut instinct is to believe what they are seeing, it will be treated as truth in their mind.
32238956159500Liberals are guilty of this as well: the image to the right, supposedly a quote by Trump in a 1998 interview with People Magazine, went viral in October 2015 CITATION LaC15 l 1033 (LaCapria). Democrats latched onto the image, because it felt true. After all, Trump was a Yankee billionaire who had never done an honest day’s hard labor in his life. Obviously, he was running as a Republican because only Republicans would be dumb enough to vote for him! Thus, the image spread, from Democrat to Democrat in a smug “At least we are smart enough not to be taken in by this guy” way, and from Democrat to Republican, as proof that conservatives were being duped by a grifter. Snopes debunked the image as a hoax soon after it appeared, searching People Magazine’s archives and finding nothing even similar to the image, but more than a year later, it was still being shared on social media as a “gotcha” by liberals who believed that Clinton was going to easily sweep the election CITATION Ama16 l 1033 (Amatruda).
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Note: No third part or conclusion yet, going to be about the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal, and it is a doozy. I have not quite worked out how I am going to set it all up. Sticking in a block quote here from one article, for the purposes of asking Prof. Skrobacki about how best to include the data
Kosinski and his team tirelessly refined their models. In 2012, Kosinski proved that on the basis of an average of 68 Facebook “likes” by a user, it was possible to predict their skin color (with 95 percent accuracy), their sexual orientation (88 percent accuracy), and their affiliation to the Democratic or Republican party (85 percent). But it didn’t stop there. Intelligence, religious affiliation, as well as alcohol, cigarette and drug use, could all be determined. From the data it was even possible to deduce whether someone’s parents were divorced.
The strength of their modeling was illustrated by how well it could predict a subject’s answers. Kosinski continued to work on the models incessantly: before long, he was able to evaluate a person better than the average work colleague, merely on the basis of ten Facebook “likes.” Seventy “likes” were enough to outdo what a person’s friends knew, 150 what their parents knew, and 300 “likes” what their partner knew. More “likes” could even surpass what a person thought they knew about themselves. On the day that Kosinski published these findings, he received two phone calls. The threat of a lawsuit and a job offer. Both from Facebook CITATION Gra17 l 1033 (Grassegger and Krogerus).
BIBLIOGRAPHY Amatruda, Tatianna. “That Trump quote calling Republicans ‘the dumbest group of voters’? Fake!” CNN. 10 November 2016. ;https://www.cnn.com/2016/11/10/politics/trump-quote-facebook-trnd/index.html;.
Aro, Jessikka. “The Cyberspace War: Propaganda and Trolling as Warfare Tools.” European View 15.1 (2016): 121-132.
Faris, Robert M, et al. “Partisanship, Propaganda, and Disinformation: Online Media and the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election.” Berkman Klein Center for Internet ; Society Research Paper (2017).
Grassegger, Hannes and Mikael Krogerus. The Data That Turned the World Upside Down. 28 January 2017. 22 March 2018. ;https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/mg9vvn/how-our-likes-helped-trump-win;.
Hosanagar, Kartik. Blame the Echo Chamber on Facebook. But Blame Yourself, Too. 25 November 2016. ;https://www.wired.com/2016/11/facebook-echo-chamber/;.
“How the World Was Trolled; Social Media and Politics.” The Economist 2017: 21.
LaCapria, Kim. FACT CHECK: Did Donald Trump Say Republicans Are the “Dumbest Group of Voters”? 16 October 2015. ;https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/1998-trump-people-quote/;.
Lynch, Marc, Dean Freelon and Sean Aday. “Blogs and Bullets III: Syria’s Socially Mediated Civil War.” Peaceworks (2014).
Trottier, Daniel and Christian Fuchs. Social Media, Politics and the State: Protests, Revolutions, Riots, Crime and Policing in the Age of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Taylor and Francis, 2014.
Wendling, Mike. The (almost) complete history of ‘fake news’. 22 January 2018. ;http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-42724320;.