Propaganda and Disinformation News from the Week of Nov. 3-10

It’s been a relatively slow week in the world of propaganda and disinformation, but here are some of the highlights:

  • The 2020 US census is another possible target of social media disinformation, according to the MIT Technology Review and NPR. The stakes are high. There are fears that Black and Latino populations could be undercounted, and that trolls or foreign governments could try to target them with disinformation to discourage census response to skew the count and hence congressional representation.  The Census is working with social media companies and has started a rumor-control page. Let’s see what happens…

 

  • Freedom House related its annual Freedom on the Net report, and it is not pleasant reading. Despite improvements in places like Ethiopia and Lebanon, the general trend was “digital authoritarians” increasingly mastering social media for propaganda, disinformation and surveillance. The report gives country-by-country detail. The section on the United States is bracing, especially as Freedom House gets most of its funding from the US government, with the opening paragraph quoted here:
    • “Internet freedom in the United States declined for the third consecutive year as immigration and law enforcement agencies expanded their surveillance of the public, eschewing robust oversight and transparency. Officials increasingly monitored social media platforms and conducted warrantless searches of travelers’ electronic devices, in some cases to glean information about constitutionally protected activities such as peaceful protests and critical reporting. While the online environment remains vibrant, diverse, and free from state censorship, disinformation was prevalent during the 2018 midterm elections and other key political events, at times exacerbated by top government officials and political leaders.”
  • Facebook is still making the news in malevolent ways as new studies show disinformation still proliferating on the social media platform. Most of it is false and the overwhelming majority of it attacks centrists, liberals or left-wingers.
  • And in one of the more bizarre stories of the week, visitors to a shopping mall in Colorado reported men dressed as Hasidic Jews handing out noxious anti-Semitic propaganda. Apparently no one complained to police.

Propaganda and Disinformation News from the Week of Oct. 28-Nov. 3

There’s an interesting assortment of news in the propaganda field this week.

A new study on fake grass-roots campaigns (“astroturfing”) summarized in the Washington Post  came to some interesting conclusions: Most tweets and posts are from actual human beings, not bots. And those human beings are lazy. They tend to work just during office hours, repeat language verbatim (often cutting-and-pasting) from their co-workers, and respond to the bosses’ push, rather than an organic schedule. So, if you see a lot of repetitious tweets trying to yank your chain from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. (9-5 in St. Petersburg), they’re probably from bored trolls, not bots.

The Russians are also busy in Africa, with AFP reporting Facebook taking down fake accounts in eight countries. The accounts are linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Putin ally behind the Internet Research Agency, which had cause so much mischief in the 2016 US elections. Analysts say the Africa operation is a way to reassert Russian power in Africa. The mercenary army Wagner Group, also run by Prigozhin, has been more, ah, physically active in promoting Russian interests in Africa and Syria.

Some interesting news about twitter popped this past week as well. The big one that you’ve already heard about is CEO Jack Dorsey announcing a ban on political ads. Of course, politicians such as the Big Kahuna in the White House can continue to tweet lies to their hearts’ content. He clearly punked Zuckerberg, whose decision to accept all sorts of lying political ads was couched in all sorts of free speech platitudes, but was undoubtedly a cover for the business suicide mission of monitoring politicians’ and political groups’ lying. (Check out this interesting CJR discussion on the topic.) Maybe Mark should stick to cat videos.

Of course, propaganda is not limited to shadowy Russians or pasty-faced trolls.  Prominent anti-vaxxer Robert Kennedy Jr. is putting out a new propaganda film, “Vaxxed II,” this coming week. The sequel to “Vaxxed” should persuade a lot of people to put their kids and their communities at risk from easily avoided and often lethal diseases. Maybe they can all get red baseball hats with something like “Make Polio Endemic Again” on them?