“The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.” Russian chess master Garry Kasparov’s words perfectly capture the state of public discourse in the 21st century.
What is the nature of truth in the Age of Information? It seems like there is always a reason to question the news. Pundits sensationalize stories on cable news networks to generate ratings. Political screeds posted online promote marginal points of view. The general population relies on social media for newsworthy articles and trending topics. Objectivity no longer exists. An endless of stream of differing perspectives has fundamentally changed the very nature of truth and lies.
A Brief History of Social Media and Political Movements
You probably have a family member who shares posts that you and others find offensive. Maybe it’s an aunt or an uncle or a distant cousin. Whoever it is, they might have political or cultural beliefs that don’t align with your own. It may be uncomfortable to see that disagreeable content but social platforms have always served as a space for discourse in some sense.
World-changing movements in the last decade took things to a whole new level. From 2010 to 2012, protestors and dissidents across the Arab world used social media to organize themselves. The results shook governments throughout the Middle East. Beginning with Tunisia in December 2010, regimes in the region toppled or found themselves forced to combat waves of social unrest and violence. Libya, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, and Egypt all served as theaters where the Arab Spring played out.
Similar methods worked toward regime change in Ukraine in 2014. By organizing protests on social media platforms, protesters ousted President Viktor Yanukovych who many believed held significantly pro-Russian views. After the installation of a new government, Russia allegedly carried out a campaign of disinformation that ultimately led to the annexation of Crimea. Members of the international community now claim that Russia continues to use propaganda in Ukraine in an effort to further divide the country.
How is Disinformation Spread?
Disinformation has scarcely left the limelight since. America’s 2016 presidential race highlighted the systemic issues with advertising on Facebook, Google, and Twitter. It seems that everyone wanted to push their agenda using content on social media. Data-driven advertising changed the way that people interacted with their newsfeeds. Search for Milo Yiannopoulos enough times and the data miners take notice. Pretty soon, you find yourself bombarded with content pushing a very specific agenda. This push is often dangerously subtle, but it still shapes the way that you view the world. Interact with of these supposed stories and you end up in an echo chamber where everything you read and hear only serves to push a particular narrative.
Malicious algorithms are not the only perpetrators in all this. They are merely one of the many ways that online content shapes your perceptions. Other methods are more overt.
No single arm of influence and disinformation draws as much outrage as the infamous internet troll. Talk to anyone and these bullies are almost universally reviled. If data mining and targeted content are the drone strikes in the war of information, trolls are the invading army looking to conquer nations. These users don’t just antagonize people on web forums and social media for fun. Now, they use their numbers to espouse specific political and cultural agendas. Alt-right movements, men’s rights activists, and other internet “countercultures” use lies, deception, and threats to intimidate and control public discourse.
Controversies such as Gamergate prove how poisonous trolls are. The scandal, from only a handful of years ago, used these tactics to spread false information about a female game designer. Misogynistic trolls claimed that the young woman had slept with journalist in order to garner favorable reviews for her work. Though completely false, the efforts of the digital bullies crafted a narrative with two distinct sides. They were able to legitimize their existence through sheer force of will.
Investigations into Russian tampering with U.S. elections have shed light on another powerful weapon in the spread of disinformation: bots. Bots are simple, customizable programs that carry out a wide array of functions. They specialize in repetitive, routine tasks. Hackers and ideological content creators used bots to repeatedly post false or malicious comments on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Though companies disabled many of these fake accounts, reports claim bots did enough damage to swing votes and public opinion on a variety of issues.
The Attention Economy
Today’s disinformation easily spreads to billions of people across the globe. It is like a virus. Lies metastasize inside the code of social media and shape the opinions of anyone who sees them.
Why is it so easy to spread “fake news,” though? The answer is a concept known as attention economics. Your attention is a scarce resource, one which you must preserve in order for it to be viable and effective. The more media you consume or the more stimuli you expose yourself to, the less attention you have. Disinformation uses distraction and huge amounts of content in an attempt to distract you. All the white noise overwhelms your brain and you have difficulty deciding what you should actually pay attention to.
These attempts to mislead members of the public rely on your attention. However brief it might be, purveyors of falsehoods want you to notice what they have to say. Your brain does not even have to absorb all the information contained in the message. It merely has to make a fleeting impression. People are hungry for content, for distraction. In an effort to sate their appetites, they may not even understand the exact nature of the news they consume.
Regardless of your political stance, the widespread use of disinformation has damaged discourse throughout the world. Do you think that there are ways to combat this rampant spread of disinformation? If tracked down, should internet trolls and bullies face legal penalties? Should technology giants such as Google and Facebook crack down on falsehoods spread through the services? Tell us your thoughts in the comments. The truth is out there.