How Propagandists Co-Opt Audiences in a Digital Age

How do you know you aren’t a propagandist?

Becoming a propagandist is easier than you think.

You go online, search things that interest you. Soon you find others of like mind that share your beliefs and ideas. The more you read and share, the more content with a similar view begins to appear in your Facebook feed and search returns. Your likeminded friends help, of course, because they too are finding news and memes that resonate with your shared thinking. From time to time, a relative or past acquaintance might challenge your posts, but you quickly engage in a public debate online, attempting to demonstrate the error of this detractor’s thinking. Worse comes to worst, you might block people who really don’t get it. But it doesn’t matter. Your perspective is the correct one, which means you are in the right for trying to show others the light.

Yet, have you stopped to think what all of this means? Why do you share ideas? What’s your aim in arguing a point online? If any of your answers include wanting to make people feel a certain way, change a particular point of view, or get others behind a cause — you might be a propagandist.

Online communities are being targeted and mobilised to support political campaigns, becoming conduits for disinformation and ultimately participating in the spread of propaganda. As part of a participatory propaganda model, unsuspecting supporters are further sucked into digital echo chambers, reinforcing existing views, using their own accounts to spread fake news, memes, and data leaks, furthering the aim of the propagandist they follow.

Using regular people as disseminators creates a filter between the propagandist and other target audiences, as much of this content appears to be user-generated and difficult to trace back to a campaign itself. Likewise, content shared by a friend is more likely to be believed than from a stranger, leaving people much more susceptible to manipulation in this model.

This participatory propaganda model is apparent in the 2016 Trump presidential campaign and can be distilled into seven simple steps:

1. Conduct hyper-targeted audience analysis;

2. Create inflammatory content aimed at provoking target audiences;

3. Inject this content in online echo chambers;

4. Manipulate algorithms to bolster the spread of this content;

5. Mobilise followers to action;

6. Use online activity and scandals to win media attention;

7. Review, Adapt & Repeat

Through a combination of literature review as well as social network and content analysis (of three groups of Facebook pages: three pro-Trump pages; seven conservative-leaning and seven liberal-leaning media outlets), this study outlines each of these steps in more detail.

The three pro-Trump pages alone had a Facebook Page Like network of 5416 nodes with 100,208 edges between them. To put that into perspective, similar data pulls were made on the two media page groups. The three pro-Trump pages had 16.3 times more nodes and 55.86 times more edges than the liberal-leaning media group, and 6.45 times more nodes and 55.86 times more edges than the conservative-leaning media group. Moreover, major nodes inside of the pro-Trump page networks included Fox News, the NRA Institute for Legislative Action and the Heritage Foundation.

These pro-Trump pages spread fake news, memes, and data leaks to discourage people from voting for Clinton and to support Trump. This activity was bolstered by Twitter bots, and seeding of content across multiple websites, online forums, and social media, manipulating algorithms for search returns and newsfeeds. Through the trending of online content, scandals that could be interpreted in multiple ways, and a network integration of sympathetic news outlets, the Trump campaign — with the support of online followers — earned more media coverage than his competition, providing a much-needed edge.

Unfortunately, the changing nature of propaganda doesn’t bode well for liberal democracy. Propagandists are playing on cognitive biases, such as a tendency to prefer that which is familiar, increasing likeability through repetition, or pre-existing stereotypes, in real time to manipulate voters who simply do not have the critical thinking skills to cope with such a persuasive onslaught of information.