I've been researching and publishing a lot lately on misinformation, disinformation, ad-tech, sockpuppets, bots, media literacy, election hacking, and the Trump administration. There's a lot there. And it's scary stuff. But in the midst of the current head-spinning, scandal-a-minute news cycle, I can understand how this stuff can quickly get overwhelming.
So here's the too-long-didn't-read version.
There are multiple, powerful forces waging a psychological information war against the American people. The Trump campaign (and administration) has made use of it and contributed to it, but they don't control it, and possibly don't fully understand it.
A student of mine asked me if I really thought all the news about Russia, social media bots, propaganda, etc. was connected. After all, it sounds like a pretty unbelievable conspiracy theory.
My answer to her was: "There's not a single conspiracy behind it all. There are several conspiracies that, for a time at least, have overlapping interests."
- A large, powerful actor on the level of a major state coordinated a massive disinformation campaign on social media in the spring and summer of 2016, with the goal of electing Donald Trump. This powerful actor is likely Russia.
- Far-right extremists, and anonymous individuals playing white nationalist collective "for the lulz", sought to use their digital media skills to elect Donald Trump. Some were extremists who believed his [White] America First message (and want to bring the "Make [whatever] Great Again" message to Europe next), others were punks with nothing better to do than prank the free world and put liberal democracy at risk.
- Online media entities have hacked the pay-per-click advertising model of internet publishing by creating networks of sites that collect, share, and sell user data. They have found that generating right-wing-friendly "fake news", or simply combining existing fake-news headlines with links to their own sites, is a great way to generate clicks ― and therefore, cash.
- The psychological impact of casually scrolling through all of these social media posts from Russia, white nationalist, diabolical pranksters, and ad-tech ― even if you never click on any of them ― is that the outlandish claims in them become more plausible, more "truthy", even more so when someone you know, trust, and care for shares them. No matter our education, or our media literacy, we are all susceptible to this.
Many of us want a single smoking gun to explain all of this. (And many of us want it to be Trump, Bannon, or Breitbart.) But the reality is that Trump/Bannon only control one of these forces, and only in part. To paraphrase William Gibson, sometimes the simplest explanation is that there is more than one explanation. Or to paraphrase any scholar worth their salt, it's more complicated than it looks on the surface.
I was talking to Jonathon Morgan about this over a beer last night. (that was super-fun, let's do that again soon!) We both ruminated on how comforting it would be ― frightening, but comforting ― if there were a single cause, and if it were an American (even if it were the president or his chief of staff). When there's one cause, you can cut off the head. And when they're American, we have clear legal actions to take. When there's a singular cause and it's a foreign power, things are a lot more messy. When there are multiple causes and one of them is the problematic funding model of internet-based media ― a model that the entire industry is trying to re-think and replace, to no avail ― the necessary response is far less clear.
Even more frightening is that all of these root causes capitalize (literally) on the loss of America's collective grip on reality. Gaslighting is their business model.
There are actions we can take. (And I'll be posting in the future about some of those actions being taken by groups I'm working with.) But the first step in combating a mass gaslighting campaign is to take a breath and help everyone get oriented and grounded in the truth. More than anything, that's what I'm trying to do. Shine light in nasty, dark places so we know exactly where we are and what we're dealing with.
But sometimes even that is disorienting. There are so many nasty things, we just don't know what we can do. I'm spending a lot of time researching them, and it's hard for me to keep it all in my head. So hopefully this post will help. I wrote it as much for myself as anyone.
Keep fighting the good fight.
Header image by Sergey Zolkin.