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.
Wu is always worth reading, as in this New York Times piece about Facebook.
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?
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.
The propaganda and disinformation developments this past week were dominated by US studies – either official, quasi-official or connected think-tanks, institutes and writers. All are open about their affiliations.
- Obama’s public diplomacy head Richard Stengel talks in an Atlantic Council event about his new book, Information Wars, in which he highlights the successes of Russian propaganda in sowing confusion and distrust and the failure of ISIS propaganda. ISIS’s gloating brutality made its messaging comparatively easier to combat — “the content is the crime.” No major breakthroughs here.
- Updates, again from the Atlantic Council (this time its Digital Forensics Research Lab) on recent developments related to bots and disinformation activities in the Middle East and North Africa. (FYI: the Atlantic Council think-tank has been around since 1961 and has been a revolving door with the American foreign policy establishment. In its early years it promoted NATO; now its remit is broader and there is some criticism of its funding patterns.)
- Another establishment organ, Atlantic Media’s Defense One, re-examined the fight against disinformation as an aspect of counter-intelligence. Some suggestions are sensible and probably are already being done – trying to penetrate foreign adversaries disinformation operations and making faster and better use of open source information. Others are sure to raise concerns as they involve the national security machinery telling Americans what is or is not true. With polarization at current levels, that might not be viewed all together unanimously.
- China’s propaganda chief warns against a new “Cold War mentality” on cyber-security cooperation at the Chinese censorship bureau’s annual conference.
- A review of code of the new Chinese app Study the Great Nation, which has been downloaded at least 100 million times, shows that the app studies the user just as much. The study was by the Open Technology Fund, which, fyi, is a US-sponsored outgrowth of Radio Free Asia.
The latest news in propaganda and disinformation from the week of Oct. 6-12:
- The big news in propaganda this week is the release of a second report from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Russian disinformation during the 2016 election campaign. Some of the key takeaways are that they started much earlier, concentrated on exacerbing racial divisions on all sides and are continuing the mischief. The past isn’t history. It’s not even past.
- An internal “town hall,” i.e. corporate, meeting at Facebook produced some interesting news from America’s main engine of disinformation — about fear of anti-trust and Elizabeth Warren in particular. Here the Columbia Journalism Review dissects the latest news.
- Just in time for holiday stocking-stuffing — a disinformation game with real-life examples courtesy of Finnish television. Check out “Troll Factory.“
- Meanwhile, Cold Warriors seems merely to rework many of the facts, stories and ideas from earlier works on the harnessing (or harassing) of literary figures in the Cold War, but a recent review seems to think it is quite the page-turner.
An effective propaganda campaign can endure and embed itself in public memory and popular culture. The Communist charges that the US engaged in bacteriological warfare during the Korean War is one of the most enduring of these campaigns.
During the early 1950s the Soviet, Chinese and allied Communist media around the world trumpeted allegations that the US deliberately had spread cholera, smallpox, typhoid and other diseases in North Korea and the bordering Chinese region of Manchuria. Captured US airmen publicly “confessed” to the crimes. The US denied everything; the repatriated airmen recanted. Continue reading “Germ-warfare propaganda campaign resurfaces in Netflix’s ‘Wormwood’, Stephen Kinzer’s ‘Poisoner in Chief’”
My other work continues in the international history of media structures and political-economy.
One theme involves the growth of commercial broadcasting via cross-border radio stations from the 1930s to the 1960s. This resulted in the 2017 publication of Commercial Temptation: Commercial Cross-border Radio and the Comparative Transformation of Public Service Broadcasting in Britain, South Africa and India. Ipresented a related paper at the 2018 International Communication Association conference, Crossed Signals: The British Labour Government and Cross-Border Commercial Radio after World War II.
I also explore how the British and American states, and their private and quasi-official partners, used subsidies as well as education and aid to extend influence into the newly independent countries of Africa in the 1960s. My most recent work is the 2019 Crash Course: The International Press Institute and Journalism Training in Anglophone Africa, 1963-1975. I’d looked more directly at state and corporate action in the 2016 The Scramble for African Media: The British Government, Reuters, and Thomson in the 1960s.
My early work on propaganda culminated in the 2006 book British Propaganda and News Media in the Cold War. The book is currently available on Amazon. Reviews include H-Albion, European Journal of Communication and the Journal of Contemporary History