Computational Propaganda

The most chilling reading in this week’s collection comes from the New York Times, which reports on the rise of the disinformation industry. Over the past five years, professional communicators and ordinary people have learned that there is big money in social media marketing for political causes, especially when it is carefully disguised to look like the work of ordinary people. Platform companies have set their algorithms to maximize engagement, and that means that disinformation is an attractive way to reach audiences in an attention economy. We learned this week that human operators fuel most of the disinformation industry, even as bots & decks are used to amplify hateful, divisive and inflammatory content.

The disinformation industry is becoming professionalized. One of the reasons why I wanted to view and discuss The Hater, directed by Jon Komassa, is that it features a young man who discovers that the disinformation business taps into his natural talent for deception. The rise of public relations (and the decline of journalism) has emphasized the power of the professional communicator who delivers messages to the public on behalf of a business client. I am also aware that “market rewards” shape people’s sense of identity, and there’s a whole generation who aspires to become YouTubers, a phenomenon I find fascinating.

My concern? The same reason people aspire to be YouTube famous can lead people to see a future in the disinformation industry, After all, disinformation enables:

  • Creativity: crafting content that solves a problem or involves creativity can be emotionally satisfying, especially when you are able to compartmentalize potential (and actual) harms.
  • Money: it can be profitable to be a disinformation expert, whether you are producing it (or exposing it or critiquing it).

I wonder: Is part of the appeal of #StoptheSteal populism the result of energized new partisans who find it creativity thrilling (and profitable) to serve as Trump’s foot soldiers in the MAGA (‘Make America Great Again’) political movement? In the January 6, 2021 assault on the Capitol, the “party atmosphere” evident among the crowd was something that I found truly chilling. It’s why we can only understand the concept of post-truth epistemologies by looking carefully at the insurrection of January 6, 2021.

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