From Smirking Chimp
As 2020 nears, disinformation -- intentionally false political propaganda -- is increasing and getting nastier. Central to this disturbing trend is President Trump, whose re-election campaign and allies revel in mixing selected truths, half-truths, knowing distortions and outright lies, especially with messaging sent and seen online.
Trump's rants about impeachment, Ukraine, the Bidens, Nancy Pelosi, the media, and any opponent abound: On Twitter, in statements to the press, at rallies, he sets the angry tone. His White House staff, right-wing media, 2020 campaign and surrogates embellish his cues. Hovering above this cultivated chaos is a larger goal, propaganda experts say, to create an omnipresent information operation driving news narratives.
Thanks to Trump, Americans have been subjected to a crash course in propaganda. When Russia used similar tactics in the West in recent years, its goals were to increase polarization, destabilize society, and undermine faith in democratic institutions, as noted in a 2019 report by Stanford University's Cyber Policy Center. When Trump and his supporters propagandize, it is to assert themselves, smear critics and rivals, and manipulate "unwitting Americans," according to NYU's Stern Center for Business and Human Rights.
With the continuing rise of online media, there is no end in sight to the trend of escalating disinformation. Platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter are the most direct way to target and reach any voter. They share an architecture built to elevate, spread, and track provocative content -- designed to push impulse sales. When used by political operatives, these tools favor inflammatory material and its most aggressive purveyors, namely figures like Trump and the messaging that promotes him.
Today's presidential campaigns, led by Trump, are spending more online than on television, exacerbating disinformation's spread. Making matters worse is that the biggest online platforms, led by Facebook and YouTube, have inconsistent standards on blocking ads containing clear lies.
Facebook will leave up political ads containing lies if they are posted by candidates. Google says it will not post dishonest ads, but ads with false claims have stayed up. Twitter will not sell political ads after this fall, but Trump's tweets violating its rules banning abusive content will remain. In contrast, many television and cable networks won't run the same ads. (Fox News is an exception, as its clips continue to be edited in ways that mangle the speech of Trump critics like Pelosi. His most loyal base watches Fox.)
But there's more going on than pro-Trump forces creating ugly content that plays to partisan bias and goes viral online. Because online media platforms spy on and deeply profile every user -- so their advertisers can find audiences -- Trump's campaign has used online advertising data and tools to find traumatized people and target them with intentionally provocative fear-based messages. (Its merchandise sales have similar goals.)
"This isn't about public relations. It isn't about online advertising. This is about information warfare," said Dr. Emma L. Briant. The British academic and propaganda expert has documented how U.S. and UK spy agencies, militaries and contractors developed, tested and used such behavioral modification tactics -- exploiting online platforms -- in national elections in the U.S., in the UK, and overseas.
Briant has detailed how Trump's 2016 campaign used personality profiles of voters (derived from Facebook data stolen) to identify anxious and insecure individuals in swing states. They were sent Facebook ads, YouTube videos, Instagram memes (photos or cartoonish images with mocking text) and Twitter posts to encourage or discourage voting. Her new book describes this effort amid a growing global influence industry.
"They were targeting people who are the most fearful in our society," Briant said. "They were deliberately trying to find those people and send them messages, and measuring how much they would be scared by it... We are pretending that this is advertising for the modern day. It actually is a hybrid system that has fused intelligence operations with public relations."
What Briant described about 2016 has only deepened in 2019 as more of our lives are lived and traceable online. Internet privacy has largely vanished. Digital devices record and share ever more revealing details with marketers. What worries Briant are not the sizeable numbers of people who can and will ignore propaganda screeds, but those individuals who are susceptible to the politics of blame and grievance and who might heed dark cues -- such as white supremacists, whose leafleting has increased, or people taking guns to the polls.
The Democrats have not yet joined a 2020 disinformation arms race. Some media analysts have suggested that they must do so to effectively compete with Trump, especially on Facebook where the audience is now trending older and more pro-GOP than it was in 2016 (as younger people have moved to other socializing apps, including Facebook-owned Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger).
One leading Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-MA, has gone beyond criticizing Facebook's recent policy to leave up demonstrably false political ads. Warren posted her own false ad -- saying that Facebook has endorsed Trump -- to underline her point: that online media operates under looser standards than TV.
More widely, Democrats have turned to new tools and tactics to detect and to counter false online narratives -- without embracing Trump's playbook. These higher-minded tools are being used by groups like Black Lives Matter to identify, trace and respond to attacks in real time. Top party officials also believe that they can draw on the relationships between Democrats across the nation with voters in swing states to counter pro-GOP propaganda.