Political lies aren’t new, but the methods of spreading them are

Aziz Huq

THE WASHINGTON POST – In the 20th Century, the political lie piped directly into an individual’s sightline flourished like a tenacious weed. In the 1910s, the United States (US) Committee on Public Information built public support for American involvement in World War I not just with films, pamphlets and posters, but also the judiciously delivered fib, often fed to a newspaper.

People know by now that social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram have become vehicles for a veritable tsunami of mendacious and polarising information.

But how much of this is really new? Has technology made the political lie any different from its Attic or Progressive-era precursor? Philip Howard, the author of Lie Machines, is unquestionably well-placed to illuminate this question.

Director of the Oxford Internet Institute, Howard was asked in 2017 by the Senate Intelligence Committee to conduct a postmortem on the social media activities of the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA). A modest operation run out of a non-descript St Petersburg office with between 40 and 100 employees and a USD10 million budget, the IRA has given President Vladimir Putin a large return on his small investment.

The work of Howard and his team was pivotal in clarifying the Russian strategy in 2016. They showed, for instance, how the IRA targetted Americans at the poles of the political spectrum, exacerbating their divisions, and flooded swing districts with misleading or inflammatory advertisements. Tens of millions of users viewed IRA ads.

Howard cautions against optimism that the quality of online political discourse will improve soon. To the contrary, a new tool kit for Web-based public lies has been tested by Russia and China, for use first at home and then against foreign foes. It is diffusing quickly to more nations. In 2020, there were “organised social media misinformation teams” working for parties and governments in some 70 countries. Howard spoke to firms in Poland and Brazil that are helping in those efforts and found robust competition among producers of the mediated lie.

In this market, his analysis suggests, the incentives driving supply are unlikely to abate.

So regardless of whether any specific electoral result changed because of Russian interference, Howard is persuasive when he identifies the emergent phenomenon of “computational propaganda” as a serious threat to democracy.

Using big-data analytics, this tactic involves the tailoring and targetting of propaganda to individuals’ fears and weaknesses. This is a bit different from what retailers do. Amazon endeavours to know what you want before you even think of it. In contrast, the propagandist seeks to exploit your fears and change what you believe, and hence how you vote.

Much of Howard’s analysis is haunted by a hazy notion that new computational tools are just different versions of earlier forms of propaganda. But he also gives a more specific and persuasive argument that these tools are really something new – Computational propaganda allows organised political forces to mainline influence directly into voters’ minds, appealing through manipulation of their emotions. Social psychologists have long stressed the importance of personal networks in learning about the world. This finding matters in this context because many people’s exposure to computational propaganda is a result of the sharing of posts by friends and family. This diffusion enables the IRA and its ilk to tap directly into the critical psychological infrastructure at work in individual belief formation.

If the supply of computational propaganda is likely to grow, what can be done? Here, Lie Machines disappoints. Howard bemoans the ways in which the data economy has changed the balance of power between the citizenry and organised powers. He presses for mandatory reporting and auditing of social media.

More vaguely, he gestures toward the possibility of unlocking the “real potential of social media platforms to support public life”. But this notion comes on the second-to-last page of the book. It is never given substance in the form of concrete and specific proposals.