Collective Intelligence

Fighting online propaganda with a new, 21st Century institution of Democracy

Photo by Eugenio Mazzone on Unsplash

The problem: Extremists and state-sponsored actors are using computational propaganda platforms to spread disinformation, manipulate cognition, and push dangerous narratives to the U.S. population. (See endnotes 1,2) In the U.S., the Alt-Right, has created a computational propaganda platform that captures people using emotionally appealing disinformation, traps them in what they think is a rich media environment, and then addicts them to disinformation custom designed for their political and psychological frame.

In this computational propaganda platform, a few monolithic entities create disinformation that is fed to a target audience. This disinformation is replicated in high volume across a network of websites designed to look like regional newspapers, through blogs of self-proclaimed “experts,” and via hundreds of thousands of social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, news site comment sections, and the rest of the social web.

This disinformation is emotionally appealing to the target audiences. People captured in this collective propaganda network think they are in a rich media environment surrounded by hundreds of websites and thousands of people who believe and echo the disinformation they are receiving. In fact, they have been captured inside a media environment where disinformation is fed to them by a few malign actors, disinformation is replicated across websites, video feeds and blogs run by those actors and their allies, and disinformation is reinforced by paid trolls or bot accounts impersonating people just like their target audience. These are designed to create the appearance of community consensus and promote acceptance of the disinformation. And the victims of this propaganda voluntarily, and unwittingly, spread the disinformation to their network of friends and family. (see endnote 3)

Over time, the number of captured minds grows and grows. Disinformation begins to jump from fringe websites and social media feeds to the normal population, to mass media and cable news within days. Soon, disinformation and conspiracy theories become the norm. No one knows what to believe, so they believe whatever reinforces their identity and confirms their pre-existing beliefs. Truth and critical thinking die as people are captured in the computational propaganda network. And we enter a dangerous post-truth environment.

A problematic response: elements of the Alt-Left are considering using similar tools to combat the Alt-Right computational propaganda system. However, fighting propaganda and disinformation with more of the same would just exacerbate our slide towards a post-truth society and further fragment U.S. society. This is not a positive response.

Moderates and supporters from the right and left who support the foundations of liberty and justice underlying democracy, and who favor Enlightenment principles of reason and the search for truth, should unite to create a new democratic institution: a Collective Intelligence system.

What is collective intelligence? Collective intelligence (CI) is shared or group intelligence that emerges from the collaboration, collective efforts, and competition of many individuals.

What is a collective intelligence system? This is a network of networks, bound by a unified, open source information exchange protocol, that is enables humans and artificial intelligence to help other humans make more informed choices, such as:

i) determining fact from fiction

ii) judging the validity of information

iii) uncovering the true sources of information

iv) making informed choices about information consumption

A collective intelligence system is a democracy enhancing system that will help undermine the impact of collective intelligence disinformation networks.

A collective intelligence system would provide a voice to all. It would give everyone the opportunity to provide inputs and opine on the integrity of the information through crowdsourcing. There will be no monolithic control of information.

A collective intelligence system will use advanced artificial intelligence tools to:

  • Analyze how ideas germinate and spread across the Internet
  • Identify social media accounts that are driven by bots, AI tools or other autonomous agents
  • Track memes and narratives back to their source to identify whether they originate from malicious actors
  • Alert users when they encounter likely disinformation or non-human bot activity
  • Automatically share information on propaganda and disinformation with other AI tools and human users

A collective intelligence system will have tools for determining the integrity of reporting; i.e. how much work went into articles. Articles citing known disinformation websites and sources will be downgraded. Articles meticulously researched, sourced and verified will be upgrades. Anyone will be able to validate sources and supporting information.

A collective intelligence system will have reputation scoring to weed out bad actors and those who try to game the system. Similarly, verified experts’ opinions will have more weight in evaluating information in their specialty than non-experts’ opinion, although everyone will have the opportunity to become an expert by providing valid information over time.

All of these tools will be tied together through standard, open source information exchange systems and protocols. Social media companies, governments, NGOs, corporations, associations, academics and individuals,will be enabled to share data on disinformation campaigns and propagandists with each other and the public.

All of this information, tied together and united through open source protocols, will form a Collective Intelligence System, that will empower everyone to be smarter consumers of information. It won’t tell people what to think, but it will help people make informed information choices.

We built the Internet to allow anyone, anywhere to share information with everyone on Earth. Now we need a system to determine the reliability, integrity, and truth of that information.

The challenge of our time is to build a collective intelligence system dedicated to truth and reason that can out-compete the growing number of disinformation and propaganda platforms which are toxifying the information environment.

Democracy’s very survival depends on it.

I encourage anyone interested in these topics to review the following sources for more information:

Jordan Greenhalls writing on Medium, especially his manafesto: the War on Sensemaking and the Rally Point Alpha/Bravo materials

The work of the Weaponized Narrative Initiative at ASU and Brad Allenby’s article Weaponized narrative Is the New Battlespace’s article The Rise of the Weaponized AI Propaganda Machine

Rand Waltzman’s articles on cognitive security and the Information Professionals Blog.

John Robbs blog Global Guerrillas and his concept of open source insurgency.

There are many more, but those will get you started.

(1) Propaganda is: a systematic form of purposeful persuasion that attempts to influence the emotions, attitudes, opinions, and actions of target audiences for ideological or political purposes through the transmission of one-sided messages (which may or may not be factual) via mass and direct media channels.

(2) Disinformation is: false information or intentionally misleading facts communicated with the intent to deceive.

(3) Note: this is similar to the strategy Russia uses to push disinformation and propaganda.