The Disinformation Age: a Revolution in Propaganda

From The Guardian:

Father came out of the sea and was arrested on the beach: two men in suits standing over his clothes as he returned from his swim. They ordered him to get dressed quickly, pull his trousers over his wet trunks. On the drive the trunks were still wet, shrinking, turning cold, leaving a damp patch on his trousers and the back seat. He had to keep them on during the interrogation. There he was, trying to keep up a dignified facade, but all the time the dank trunks made him squirm. It struck him they had done it on purpose, these mid-ranking KGB men: masters of the small-time humiliation, the micro-mind game.

It was 1976, in Odessa, Soviet Ukraine, and my father, Igor, a writer and poet, had been detained for “distributing copies of harmful literature to friends and acquaintances”: books censored for telling the truth about the Soviet Gulag (Solzhenitsyn) or for being written by exiles (Nabokov). He was threatened with seven year’s prison and five in exile. One after another his friends were called in to confess whether he had ever spoken “anti-Soviet fabrications of a defamatory nature, such as that creative people cannot realise their potential in the USSR”.

Forty years have passed since my father was pursued by the KGB for exercising a citizen’s simple right to read, to listen to what they chose and to say what they wanted. Today, the world he hoped for, in which censorship would end – as the Berlin Wall would fall – can seem much closer: we live in what academics call an era of “information abundance”. But the assumptions that underlay the struggles for rights and freedoms in the 20th century – between citizens armed with truth and information and regimes with their censors and secret police – have been turned upside down. We now have more information than ever before, but it hasn’t only brought the benefits we expected.

. . . .

More information was supposed to mean more freedom to stand up to the powerful, but has also given the powerful new ways to crush and silence dissent. More information was supposed to mean a more informed debate, but we seem less capable of deliberation than ever. More information was supposed to mean mutual understanding across borders, but it has also made possible new and more subtle forms of subversion. We live in a world in which the means of manipulation have gone forth and multiplied, a world of dark ads, psy-ops, hacks, bots, soft facts, deep fakes, fake news, Putin, trolls, Trump.

Forty years after my father’s interrogation I find myself following the palest of imprints of his journey, though with none of his courage, or certainty, and none of the risk. I run a programme at a London university that researches the newer breeds of malign influence campaigns across the world – and tries to find ways to combat them. But the language, ideals, tactics and stories that sustained the struggle for democracy in the 20th century are now used by the very forces they were meant to fight.

. . . .

Consider the Philippines. As my parents were enjoying the pleasures of the KGB in the 1970s, the Philippines were ruled by Colonel Ferdinand Marcos, a US-backed military dictator, who used the army to impose censorship and indulge in spectacular forms of torture, leaving victims’ skulls stuffed with their underpants by the side of the road, so as better to intimidate passersby. Marcos’s regime fell in 1986 when millions came out on the streets demanding an end to censorship and torture.

Today Manila greets you with sudden gusts of rotting fish and popcorn smells, wafts of sewage and cooking oil. Soon you start noticing the selfies. Everyone is at it: the sweaty guy in greasy flip-flops riding the metal canister of a bus; the Chinese girls waiting for their cocktails in the malls. The Philippines has the highest use of selfies in the world, the world’s highest use of social media per capita, the highest use of text messages: 20th-century style censorship would be near impossible to impose here. But the new president, Rodrigo Duterte, is rehabilitating Marcos’s reputation; he has also found new ways of exerting oppression.

Glenda Gloria remembers the Marcos years. In the 1980s she was a student journalist covering the regime’s torture of opposition figures. Her boyfriend had been arrested for running a small independent printing press and had had electrodes connected to his balls.

“The psychological warfare that Marcos mastered is very similar to what is happening now,” Gloria told me. “The difference is, Duterte doesn’t have to use the military to attack the media … How is it made possible? With technology.”

Gloria is managing editor at Rappler, the Philippines’ first online news agency, designed not merely to report on current affairs, but to crowdfund for important causes, and gather vital information to help victims of floods and storms. Experienced journalists like Gloria and editor-in-chief Maria Ressa hired 20-year-olds who knew about social media. When you walk into Rappler’s orange, open plan office you notice how young and largely female the staff are, with a small band of older journalists overseeing them with a hint of matronly severity. In Manila they are known as “the Rapplers”.

When Duterte decided to stand in the presidential election of 2015 he and Rappler seemed made for each other. A mayor from a provincial town with a reputation for being tough on drug offences, Duterte got relatively little TV time and so focused on social media. When Rappler hosted a Facebook presidential debate, he was the only candidate to turn up. It was an overwhelming success. His message – to vanquish drug crime – was catching on. Rappler reporters found themselves repeating his soundbites about the “war on drugs”. When Duterte later went on his killing spree, they would regret using the term “war”. It helped to normalise his actions: if this was a “war”, then casualties became more acceptable.

. . . .

When Rappler began to report on Duterte’s killings the site’s carefully curated online community suddenly turned on it. At one point there were 90 messages an hour: claims that Rappler was making up the deaths, that it was in the pay of Duterte’s enemies, that it was all “fake news”. The messages were like an infestation of insects, swarming into email inboxes and descending like a scourge on to the site’s community pages. Rappler journalists were shouted at in the malls: “Hey, you – you’re fake news! Shame on you!” Hashtags calling for the arrest of Ressa began to trend. The government launched a court case against her. She walked around town with bail money on her. As soon as one case was thrown out another would appear. International human rights groups call them politically motivated.

After several months of this onslaught, the Rapplers dedicated themselves to making sense of the attacks. First to catch their eye were the Korean pop stars. They kept appearing in their online community, commenting on how great Duterte was. How likely was it that Korean pop stars would be interested in Filipino politics? When they checked out the comments the pop stars were making they matched one another word for word: obviously fake accounts, most likely controlled from the same source.

They ran a program that scoured the internet to see who else was using the same language. They found other accounts repeating the same phrases. These looked more realistic, claiming to be real Filipinos with real jobs. The Rapplers began researching each one individually, calling their purported places of employment. No one had heard of them. Altogether they found 24 well disguised but fake accounts repeating the same messages at the same time and reaching an audience of 3 million. This was a coordinated attack. But proving who was behind it was near impossible.

Gloria remembers how in Marcos’s time you could see the enemy. There was a sort of predictability: they could kill you, or you could skip town, contact a lawyer, write to a human rights group, take up arms. You knew who the agents were, who was coming for you, who your enemy was. But now? You couldn’t tell who you were up against. They were anonymous, everywhere and nowhere. How could you fight an online mob? You couldn’t even tell how many of them were real. And of course this allowed the government to claim they had nothing to do with these campaigns. Wasn’t it just a question of concerned citizens exercising their right to free speech?

. . . .

Alberto Escorcia is a social media wizard and has helped coordinate some of the largest anti-corruption protests in Mexico over the last half decade. He and his friends started with pranks to provoke the police: after students were beaten by police officers, they went on silent marches and staged lie-ins, where they stretched out supine on the street, blocking the road. In time, he realised that if he knew in advance which subjects brought people together, and which words strengthened the interconnections between people, he would be able to “summon up” and strengthen protests. He had long believed that, at its best, the internet can connect society with its deepest needs for social change. He was inspired by how Google managed to predict and nip in the bud a flu epidemic when the company saw how many people were looking up flu symptoms at the same time in one place. Something similar, Alberto argued, could be done with political issues. You can tell what people really care about from their searches and online conversations.

But by the time I met Escorcia in Mexico City he looked too tired even to be frightened any more. Someone had been ringing his doorbell then running away again so he couldn’t sleep at night, shining acid-green lasers into his bedroom, pinging online death threats with his name spelt out in bullets – thousands every day so that his phone vibrated with alerts 24/7, turning it into an instrument of psychological torture. One takes such threats seriously in Mexico. During my visit I was told the story of a social media activist who had run an anonymous Twitter account cataloguing crimes committed by narcos. When the narcos found out who she was they first shot her and then posted her blasted off face on her own Twitter feed: “TODAY MY LIFE HAS COME TO AN END. DON’T MAKE THE SAME MISTAKE AS I DID … I FOUND DEATH IN EXCHANGE FOR NOTHING.”

It wasn’t just the personal threats that Escorcia was worried about – he feared troll farms were doing something more fundamentally damaging. The government was intervening in the relationship between people and their own desire for social change, spamming the internet with messages from fake accounts impersonating support for the government, using part-automated, part-human “cyborg” accounts to distract protesters from organising, sending in social media sock-puppets who pretend to support protesters, and then encourage violence to discredit movements. For 70 years, during the 20th century, Mexico had been a one-party state in which “truth” had been dictated top down. Today bots, trolls and cyborgs could create the simulation of a climate of opinion, which was more insidious, more all-enveloping than the old broadcast media – as it wormed its way into the feeds on your phone and you couldn’t tell whether it was coming from a friend or propagandist.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

In the United States, one of the standard methods of dealing with bad speech was formulated by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who advised, in his Whitney v. California opinion in 1927, “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

More from Brandeis:

Those who won our independence believed that the final end of the State was to make men free to develop their faculties, and that, in its government, the deliberative forces should prevail over the arbitrary. They valued liberty both as an end, and as a means. They believed liberty to be the secret of happiness, and courage to be the secret of liberty. They believed that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth; that, without free speech and assembly, discussion would be futile; that, with them, discussion affords ordinarily adequate protection against the dissemination of noxious doctrine; that the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a political duty, and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government. They recognized the risks to which all human institutions are subject. But they knew that order cannot be secured merely through fear of punishment for its infraction; that it is hazardous to discourage thought, hope and imagination; that fear breeds repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies, and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones. Believing in the power of reason as applied through public discussion, they eschewed silence coerced by law — the argument of force in its worst form. Recognizing the occasional tyrannies of governing majorities, they amended the Constitution so that free speech and assembly should be guaranteed.

It should be noted that Brandeis concurred with the unanimous opinion of the Supreme Court that the speech involved was a “clear and present danger” and, thus, could be restricted under Supreme Court precedent. This line of cases was eroded through the twentieth century until a 1969 case titled Brandenburg v. Ohio substantially modified the clear and present danger by adding the requirement that 1) such speech be “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action,” and 2) the speech is “likely to incite or produce such action.”

An underlying proposition of the OP is that more speech is not always a good thing when disinformation can be automated.

3 thoughts on “The Disinformation Age: a Revolution in Propaganda”

  1. It used to be that only certain entities had monopoly on speech or written material distribution, if the ideas were free-speech or uncensored depended on what political system you lived under. Nowadays everyone can broadcast their free-speech, and it seems the more it is the more we (the people) want to censor it. In reality we are not for hearing other people’s free speech, but hearing what we agree with. The rest is fake news.

    • Old Problem: You can’t trust the news, because it’s filtered.

      New Problem: You can’t trust the news, because it’s not filtered.

      One of the things that is happening as I get old is that I find myself increasingly unable to trust what I am told, read, or remember. Outside the measurable sciences, everything I think I know is framed by my experience or belief, and undercut by memory’s fabrications.

      It turns out that the story of the Tower of Babel was really about information.

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