Propaganda and Disinformation News from the Week of Oct. 21-28

The news this week about propaganda and disinformation revolves around social media – both of the stodgy (Facebook) and the teenybopper (TikTok) variety.

  • The big propaganda news this week was Facebook’s effort to deal with anticipated problems with the 2020 campaign on social media. At the beginning of the week Facebook announced a number of security, media literacy and fact-checking measures, but nothing on restricting politicians from lying. That came up at Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before congress Short answer: no problem. (Here’s C-SPAN’s coverage.) Others disagree, pointing out that the policy in combination with the business logic of Facebook are a disaster. On a more historic note: political advertising in broadcasting has been regulated, with varying degrees of rigor, since the early 1930s.
  • In an unintendedly ironic case related to political social media, Trump 2020 ads are running on the You Tube channel of Russian propaganda outlet RT. (RT’s American TV network has had to register as a “foreign agent” since 2017.) Trump’s campaign made the buys through Google, which uses algorithms to place the ad where it will most likely reach the advertiser’s desired audience. In Trump’s defense, some Democratic ads have showed up on RT as well. Overall, Trump is spending millions building his fund-raising network, spending nearly $5 million on Facebook alone in the third-quarter.
  • And as long as we’re talking Trump and social media, two new books about Cambridge Analytica – remember how they worked with Trump and Facebook in 2016? – have come out by insiders. The authors have been making the rounds with apocalyptic warnings about Facebook.
  • The Canadians have long felt smugly immune to the type of election chaos that afflicted the US, Britain and Brazil, but this week’s parliamentary election had plenty of shenanigans, according to a National Observer roundup.
  • The newest entry in potential disinformation and propaganda is TikTok, best known for short, entertaining teen-oriented video clips. Senators Tom Cotton and Chuck Schumer called for US intelligence agencies to investigate the counter-intelligence risks posed by the app’s Beijing-based app developer, Bytedance. This call came after a Guardian investigation found that the app had blocked any mention of the Tiananmen Square massacre, Tibetan independence and Falun Gong. News about Hong Kong protests were also squelched on the app. Then there were the ISIS videos. The company responded by pointing out that its servers are all outside China and that its business within China was done under a separate app. Both points avoid the main questions.

Author: Dr. John Jenks

I am a professor of Communication at Dominican University, and research the post-1945 history of propaganda and journalism.

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