After political powerhouse Hillary Clinton lost in a spectacular fashion against underdog Donald J. Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, the world was flabbergasted to learn of foreign election interference orchestrated by the Russian Internet Research Agency. Its mission: to secretly divide the electorate and skew votes away from Clinton and towards Trump. In order to understand the present, one must know the past. This is the baseline of ‘Active Measures – The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare’ by Johns Hopkins Professor of Strategic Studies Thomas Rid.
I bought this book to study the methodology, strategy and tactics of disinformation and political warfare. To my surprise, the book only spends 11 pages on disinformation. The remaining 424 pages introduce historic examples of influence operations with the bulk of it dedicated to episodes of the cold war. Rid offers insights into the American approach to defend against a communist narrative in a politically divided Germany. He details Soviet influence operations to time-and-again smear American democracy and capitalism. The detail spent on the German Ministry of State Security known as “Stasi” is interesting and overwhelming.
While my personal expectation wasn’t met with this book, I learned about retracing historic events to attribute world events to specific nations. Its readability is designed for a mass audience fraught with thrilling stories. What is the role of journalistic publications in political warfare? Did Germany politically regress under American and Soviet active measures? Was the constructive vote of no confidence on German chancellor Willy Brandt a product of active measures? Who did really spread the information the AIDS virus was a failed American experiment? On the downside, this book doesn’t really offer any new details into the specifics of disinformation operations. Most contemporary espionage accounts have already been recorded. Defectors told their stories. This makes these stories sometimes bloated and redundant. Nevertheless, I believe to understand our current affairs, we must connect the dots through the lens of political history. Rid presents the foundations for future research into influence operations.
U.S. foreign policy concerns a wide range of highly complex issues. It requires consistency, integrity and long-term strategy. President Trump demonstrates none of these characteristics in his presidency. Accordingly, foreign policy experts grow concerned about the direction of U.S. diplomatic relations. Does Trump have the leadership skills to recognize the weight of the office? Is his erratic behavior on social media a harbinger for isolationism? And what is the impact of Trump’s leadership style on U.S. foreign policy? It turns out: there is a method to this chaos.
This article examines President Trump’s foreign policy behavior as a product of a leadership style that is entrenched in a plutocratic worldview. We apply elements of Hermann’s leadership traits framework to Trump’s engagement with NATO, and characterize him as a low-conceptual complexity president, enabled by limited search for information and advice, a confrontational and insensitive approach to his environment, and proclivity to violate international norms and rules. We show that Trump’s low- conceptual complexity is underpinned by a plutocratic worldview which is transactional and money-first. We argue that while this signals change between Trump and his predecessors, this plutocratic approach has been one of the most significant sources of consistency within Trump’s administration.
When Trump was inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States, I began to wonder what his Presidency will mean for our country, then in pursuit of a grand strategy of primacy. The Donald Trump the world knew until 2016 seemed to be oblivious to pursuing long term objectives. His entertainment persona was crafted for instant gratification, quick returns and scorched earth when necessary. Isolationism seemed inevitable as promised in his campaign. How would he handle this dichotomy? I am fascinated with human behavior. In particular in leadership positions. I believe responsibility and public pressure does shape the character, but the outcome might be one leader becoming a beacon for hope and progress while another will be remembered as the demise of democracy as we know it. Which is President Trump? An intriguing paper by researchers from the University of Birmingham analyzed the influence of Trump’s leadership style on U.S. foreign policy. They argue that Trump follows a plutocratic worldview, basically placing a higher value on individual wealth than on social welfare, which in conjunction with his mercurial nature and often unpredictable decision-making has led him to conflate complex foreign policy with his simple transactional leadership style.
The Trump administration struggled from inauguration day with filling important cabinet and senior staff roles. A polarized election campaign produced the highest rate of staff turnover in the history of the U.S. government. As Trump’s campaign promises centered around domestic issues, a rigor negligence of foreign policy was omnipresent. The nature of America’s presidential system places Trump as the head of state and the head of government in a unique position to shape U.S. foreign policy based on his personality and his conduct. This resulted in a high degree of uncertainty of U.S. foreign policy and left allies as well as trade relationships in a suffocating limbo. This paper examined the degree of conceptual complexity present as observed in the President’s cognitive behavior over the course of his first term as President of the United States. Conceptual complexity refers to an individual’s ability to identify and differentiate several degrees of information. It indicates prowess to structure complex information using critical thinking and reflection. Magret G. Herman presented conceptual complexity as part of the seven leadership traits that can be analyzed based on what they (leaders) say. The researchers extrapolate this definition onto leaders, who
“understand reality through a multi-dimensional prism. They are sensitive to contextual variables and rely on information gathering and deliberation before making decisions. “
Within international and diplomatic relations this might encompass an ability to identify cultural nuances, economic dependencies and access to natural resources of one country in conjunction with multilateral trade agreements, historic alliances or geopolitical tensions and conflict zones. A leader’s soft skills to compare, weigh and reflect this plethora of competing information under pressure defines high-conceptual complexity leaders. This is in contrast with
“low-complexity leaders (who) generally do not differentiate the dimensions of their environment. They view the world in binary terms (e.g good/bad, friend/enemy), and are thus more likely to make decisions based on intuition and emotion“
Even the most lenient interpretation of it cannot suppress the immediate notion of Trump’s leadership style being drenched in low-conceptual complexity. Here, this paper is building a case that Trump effectively deceived his electorate of blue-collar workers who bought into the idea that a businessman with noble interests has arrived to ‘drain the swamp’. Through divisive and polarizing rhetoric, Trump disguised his administration of unprecedented wealthy staff as equals with the disenfranchised poor citizens in this country. Therefore creating a plutocratic rule by the few over the many – an American tendency with a rich history. Taking this together, the researchers find Trump’s decision-making process with regard to U.S. foreign policy is largely driven by plutocratic interests to allocate wealth of the many to a few wealthy. It places U.S. foreign policy in a transactional environment. In this environment, Trump allows few critical voices in his short process of deliberating foreign policy measures with little information at hand and an approach of keeping his hands close to the chest rendering complex diplomatic processes next to impossible to implement.
“His advisers didn’t know whether he was an isolationist or a militarist, or whether he could distinguish between the two.“
The result is a catastrophic U.S. foreign policy that creates fertile ground for political and diplomatic repercussions on the internal stage and is an invitation for threats against U.S. national security. Trump’s contradictions are further observed in the debate around climate change. In 2009, the private citizen Trump and other business leaders lobbied for decisive investments into clean and renewable energy. Ironically this is an acknowledgment of climate change, which Trump has later denied and is persistently questioning on social media. In 2017, then President Trump initiated the exit of the United States from the Paris Climate Accord rendering it as detrimental to U.S. economic interests. In another example of Trump exhibiting plutocratic low-conceptual complexity, the tradition of paying a first diplomatic visit to our neighbors in Canada or Mexico was set aside to ‘make a deal’ with Saudi Arabia. Incidentally, Trump did not hide his personal business interests in Saudi Arabia. Such insensitivity to diplomatic nuance is low-conceptual complexity fueled by the pursuit of increasing individual wealth (or here his personal brand value as dealmaker). The paper closes with the relationship of President Trump and NATO. Trump operates with a small staff and wealthy cabinet members. He possesses little to zero knowledge of details of fiscal procedures of NATO or the overarching purpose of NATO. Further, Trump, a native of New York City did not seem to be aware that the infamous Article 5 was invoked in the wake of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. And while all these examples imply erratic cognitive contradictions, the researchers were able to identify consistency in the chaos that is Trump’s leadership. Viewed through a prism of plutocratic worldview established in his business endeavors, Trump exhibits strong signals for a leadership style governed by low-conceptual complexity. His transactional mindset based on limited information and suppressing critical voices applied to U.S. foreign policy is a threat to the foundations of peace.
The way Americans choose their President is complicated. Foreign election interference in previous elections as well as a polarized, partisan political arena at home only made it more complicated to elect the leader of the free world. In the 2020 U.S. presidential election, the coronavirus pandemic completely upended how presidential campaigns rally supporters and how to run for public office at large. An underfunded and stripped of its human capital Postal Service is facing an unprecedented volume of mail-in ballots. This leaves me with the question: What is the impact of COVID on the race for the White House? How are both campaigns using it (or not) to drive their political pitch to capture voters? An answer might be a recent data memo by researchers from the University of Leeds – School of Politics and International Studies.
The impact of COVID on the upcoming November 2020 US election will be an important topic in the coming months. In order to contribute to these debates, this data memo, the final in our summer 2020 series on COVID, considers this question based on an analysis of social media discourse in two week-long periods in late May and early July. We find that only a very small proportion of tweets in election-related trends concern both the election and COVID. In the May period, there was much evidence of conspiracy-style and misinformative content, largely attacking the Democrats, the seriousness of COVID and postal-voting. Tweets also showed that the stances of the Presidential nominees towards the coronavirus has emerged as a major point of political differentiation. In the July period, tweets about COIVD and the election were dominated by the influence of a new anti-Trump Political Action Committee’s viral videos, with the hashtags associated with these videos found in 2.5% of all tweets in election-related trends across the period. However, this criticism was not mirrored in the wider dataset of election-related or political tweets in election-related trends. Criticism of Trump was frequent across all time periods and samples, but discourse focused far more on Trump especially in the July period in which tweets about Trump outnumbered tweets about Biden 2 to 1. We conclude that these patterns suggest the issue of COVID in the US has become so highly politicised that it is largely only one side of the political spectrum engaging with how COVID will impact the US election. Thus, we must ask going forward not how COVID will impact the process and outcome of the election but rather how COVID will be used as a political and campaign issue in the coming election.
We had a good run in the first three months of 2020. Then the COVID pandemic spread across the globe. Most industrial nations had to shut down their economies with rigorous lockdown and shelter-in-place policies paralyzing its citizens and economies alike. COVID also impacted the democratic processes of many developed nations. For example, New Zealand rescheduled their national election until late 2020. Elections for the Hong Kong city legislature were postponed until 2021. At least 88 elections were impacted in one way or another by COVID. This data memo focuses on the 2020 U.S. presidential elections, which will not only decide a highly polarized presidential campaign between incumbent President Donald Trump and his democratic challenger Joe Biden, but also elect the entire U.S. House of Representatives, a third of the U.S. Senate and decide numerous races for public office. It takes a snapshot from the campaign trail comparing social media data discussing the elections and COVID in conjunction with either candidate and it does demonstrate how the pandemic not only impacts the 2020 U.S. presidential elections but how COVID is used as a political weapon to advance campaign objectives.
For most people across the globe, Mid-March marks the beginning of indoor restrictions, facemasks, social distancing and the loss of minimal certainty that our socio-economic environments have to offer. It was a pivot-point for political operatives, who in past elections were able to rely on a candidate’s charisma at in-person political rallies. COVID forced both campaigns to adhere to public health guidelines. Republican and Democratic campaign events were either cancelled or moved indoors and online. Supporters and candidates alike were confined to choppy Zoom calls on small screens. Studies have shown that these national crises usually create an increase in favorability for an incumbent president, e.g. the popularity of George W. Bush spiked following the terrorist attacks on September 11. They also tend to benefit Republican or conservative leaders more in particular in conjunction with a patriotic narrative. This effect is known as the ‘Rally-Round-The-Flag’ effect.However, its impact is subject to media coverage and proliferation of the political narrative that is spun up by the incumbent’s campaign. And Trump as an experienced social media operative stood to benefit from the COVID pandemic: the U.S. economy was in good shape in Q1 2020, the tactical assassination of Qasem Soleimani did not start another war in the Middle East nor did the impeachment proceedings cause any apparent political damage to his reelection campaign. The administration’s track record could have been far worse. Despite these advantages, however, Trump’s often erratic behavior prompted social media platforms to more restrictively apply content policies to public figures and politicians. Twitter started labelling Trump’s tweets as misinformation or removed tweets for violating Twitter’s content policies.
The researchers focused on a snapshot of both campaigns by analyzing Twitter data in the months of May and July. To avoid limitations or cognitive biases, the researchers took sample data from all trending topics within the U.S. They found a small number of trends solely focusing on elections while a large number of trends concerned general politics. COVID and the election was found to be a significant topic of discussion. However, the researchers found little evidence for trends directly discussing correlations between COVID and the election. Few example cases demonstrated hyper-partisan, authoritarian labelling to divide an in-group from an out-group. For example, the unrestricted proliferation of baseless conspiracy claims against the Democratic party in conjunction with misinformation, as seen below:
Other examples appeared to offer evidence but misunderstood it. Therefore shifting responsibilities away from the administration:
The majority of these hyper-partisan examples played out on the conservative end of the political spectrum. Democrats were found to capitalise on fewer opportunities to link administration failures to mitigate COVID with the election because Democrats treated finding a scalable policy solution as a serious health issue not to be trifled with. This imbalance between the two political campaigns created a further polarization of the issues: Democrats moving campaign activity online was used by Republicans as further ‘evidence’ for a conspiracy. Social media users reacted to this behavior by retracting support for both candidates. Anti-Biden content dropped as well while Trump remained at a consistent negative level. Trump, however, generated twice as much consistent traffic, which drove more voter attention to his campaign. Despite consistent criticism of the administration’s handling of the pandemic, the negative sentiment towards Trump did not create tangible support for Biden. And visibility can also be an indicator of success in the election. As the incumbent, Trump has the advantage over Biden. The researchers therefore conclude that a hyper-partisan narrative surrounding COVID and elections have been successful in using COVID as a political weapon to undermine the solutions-oriented approach driven by the Democratic party, which further entrenched both political camps at extreme ends making this election even more polarized. In summary, it can be argued that Republicans and Trump utilized COVID as a means for political gains. Democrats on the other side focused more on the issue of crisis management, which was spun by conservatives into a polarised partisan attack outside of scientific realities.
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” is an interpretation of Voltaire’s principles by Evelyn Beatrice Hall. Freedom of expression is often cited as the last frontier before falling into authoritarian rule. But is free speech, our greatest strength, really our greatest weakness? Hostile authoritarian actors seem to exploit these individual liberties by engaging in layered political warfare to undermine trust in our democratic systems. These often clandestine operations pose an existential threat to our democracy.
The digital age has permanently changed the way states conduct political warfare—necessitating a rebalancing of security priorities in democracies. The utilisation of cyberspace by state and non- state actors to subvert democratic elections, encourage the proliferation of violence and challenge the sovereignty and values of democratic states is having a highly destabilising effect. Successful political warfare campaigns also cause voters to question the results of democratic elections and whether special interests or foreign powers have been the decisive factor in a given outcome. This is highly damaging for the political legitimacy of democracies, which depend upon voters being able to trust in electoral processes and outcomes free from malign influence— perceived or otherwise. The values of individual freedom and political expression practised within democratic states challenges their ability to respond to political warfare. The continued failure of governments to understand this has undermined their ability to combat this emerging threat. The challenges that this new digitally enabled political warfare poses to democracies is set to rise with developments in machine learning and the emergence of digital tools such as ‘deep fakes’.
This paper’s central theme is at the intersection of democratic integrity and political subversion operations. The authors describe an increase of cyber-enabled espionage and political warfare due to the global spread of the internet. They argue it has led to an imbalance between authoritarian and democratic state actors. Their argument rests on the notion that individual liberties such as freedom of expression put democratic states at a disadvantage compared to authoritarian states. Therefore authoritarian states are observed to more often choose political warfare and subversion operations versus democracies are confined to breaching cyber security and conducting cyber espionage. Cyber espionage is defined as
“the use of computer networks to gain illicit access to confidential information, typically that held by a government or other organization”
and is not a new concept. I disagree with the premise of illicit access because cyberspace specifically enables the free flow of information beyond any local regulation. Illicit is either redundant for espionage does not necessarily require breaking laws, rules or customs or it is duplicative with confidential information, which I interpret as synonymous with classified information. Though one might argue about the difference. From a legal perspective, the information does not need to be obtained through illicit access.
With regard to the broader term political warfare, I found the definition of political warfare as,
“diverse operations to influence, persuade, and coerce nation states, organizations, and individuals to operate in accord with one’s strategic interests without employing kinetic force”
most appropriate. It demonstrates the depth of political warfare, which encompasses influence and subversion operations outside of physical activity. Subversion operations are defined as
“a subcategory of political warfare that aims to undermine institutional as well as individual legitimacy and authority”
I disagree with this definition for it fails to emphasize the difference between political warfare and subversion – both undermine legitimacy and authority. However, a subversion operation is specifically aimed to erode and deconstruct a political mandate. It is the logical next step after political warfare influenced a populace in order to achieve political power. The authors see the act of subversion culminating in a loss of trust in democratic principles. It leads to voter suppression, reduced voter participation, decreased and asymmetrical review of electoral laws but more importantly it poses a challenge to the democratic values of its citizens. It is an existential threat to a democracy. It favors authoritarian states detached from checks and balances that are usually present in democratic systems. These actors are not limited by law or civic popularity or reputational capital. Ironically, this bestows a certain amount of freedom upon them to deploy political warfare operations. Democracies on the other hand uphold individual liberties such as freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly or equal treatment under law and due process. As demonstrated during the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, a democracy generally struggles with identifying political warfare initiated by a foreign (hostile) state from certain segments of the population pursuing their strategic objectives by leveraging these exact individual freedoms. An example from the Mueller Report
“stated that the Internet Research Agency (IRA), which had clear links to the Russian Government, used social media accounts and interest groups to sow discord in the US political system through what it termed ‘information warfare’ […] The IRA’s operation included the purchase of political advertisements on social media in the names of US persons and entities, as well as the staging of political rallies inside the United States.”
And it doesn’t stop in America. Russia is deploying influence operations in volatile regions on the African continent. China has a history of attempting to undermine democratic efforts in Africa. Both states aim to chip away power from former colonial powers such as France or at least suppress efforts to democratise regions in Africa. China is also deeply engaged in large-scale political warfare in the Southeast Asian region over regional dominance but also territorial expansion as observed in the South China Sea. New Zealand and Australia recorded numerous incidents of China’s attempted influence operations. Australia faced a real-world political crisis when Australian Labor Senator Sam Dastyari was found to be connected to political donor Huang Xiangmo, who has ties to the Chinese Communist Party. Therefore, China having a direct in-route to influence Australian policy decisions.
The paper concludes with an overview of future challenges posed by political warfare. With more and more computing power readily available the development of new cyber tools and tactics to ideate political warfare operations is only going to increase. Authoritarian states are likely to expand their disinformation playbooks by tapping into the fears of people fueled by conspiracy theories. Developments of machine learning and artificial intelligence will further improvements of inauthentic behavior online. For example, partisan political bots will become more human and harder to discern from real human users. Deep fake technology will increase sampling rates by tapping into larger datasets from the social graph of every human being making it increasingly possible to impersonate individuals to gain access or achieve certain strategic objectives. Altogether, political warfare poses a greater challenge than cyber-enabled espionage in particular for democracies. Democracies need to understand the asymmetrical relationship with authoritarian actors and dedicate resources to effective countermeasures to political warfare without undoing civil liberties in the process.
I put together a list of my favorite political documentaries. The focus is on the upcoming election. It’s not a complete list, it never will be. It’s taking pulse ahead of the conclusion of a polarized campaign year. Maybe it will help you to unwind before you cast your vote (if you haven’t already)!
Make sure to vote on November 3rd. Also make sure to watch The Choice 2020 and Dark Money. Both documentaries offer clear, unfiltered insights into the minds of Joe Biden and Donald Trump. Both documentaries are designed to critically reflect on the impact your vote has on the health of our democracy. Lastly, I recommend taking a look at The Circus too. It’s an entertaining yet jaw-dropping show about the inner workings of campaigns. It’s a reminder that as long as not everybody can afford to run for office, our democracy needs to improve.
Get Me Roger Stone (2017)
This 1 ½ hour long documentary film details the rise and fall of Republican political operative, former Nixon-aide, long-time friend of Donald Trump and convicted felon Roger Stone. The life of Roger Stone is marked by political victories without ever becoming successful in politics. A long-time political fixture in Republican politics, Roger Stone was never accepted by the Republican establishment. Stone is the central piece in this film showing his eccentric character in interviews about his journey from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump. While the stories told are intriguing in nature, the film allocates too much credit to a marginalized political strategist, who merely deployed shock and awe techniques to stun his opposition without much long-term strategy at play.
The Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC was a landmark ruling to pave the way for political interest groups influencing U.S. elections. Dark Money is a 1 ½ hour long documentary film that follows John S. Adams of the Montana Free Press on his journey to investigate how corporate money is undermining American politics. It is a harrowing contemporary film that should rattle all Americans for it details the existential threat to local journalism in being the last check to properly balance corporate exploitation. This shocking story of intentional deceit of the American voters contributes to a larger debate the U.S. electorate must face about how their democracy is eroded when elections are bought and sold.
This 1 ½ hour long documentary film follows four female democratic candidates in their 2018 midterm election campaigns for the U.S. House of Representatives. The candidates are Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (New York), Amy Vilela (Nevada), Cori Bush (Missouri), Paula Jean Swearengin (West Virginia) each facing a long-term democratic incumbent in their respective campaigns that hasn’t been challenged in decades. The film is a gripping story about the absurdity of election campaigning in American politics. But more importantly, it tells the stories of four women, who not only face a long-term incumbent with years of political experience and a large donor base, but the challenge of overcoming the stigma that a woman can be a leader in an executive role. With the documentary following four candidates, I found too much screen time focusing on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has a polarizing nature but really is only one fourth of this larger, systemic issue. Nevertheless, this documentary is a must-see to get an understanding of the critical failures in diversity and equality that America has turned a blind on.
Across four episodes, this 4 ½ hour long documentary series about Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful 2016 presidential campaign is chronicling the roller coaster emotions of running a national campaign. It reveals an unseen personal side of Hillary Clinton by looking at milestones in her career and personal life that shaped her thinking as a woman, mother and politician. Archival footage is seamlessly interlaced with contemporary interviews. This documentary delivers a perfect balance of Hillary Clinton’s extraordinary intellectual breadth and impact on foreign and domestic political affairs while keeping it captivating and worth your while.
The Circus: Inside The Craziest Campaign On Earth, Season 5 (2020)
I am not sure if The Circus needs any introduction. Running for five seasons with currently 84 individual episodes each 30 minutes and longer, this epic TV documentary series is a real-time political insider show you simply cannot miss out on. In season 5, the show begins in the aftermath of the impeachment trial against Donald Trump quickly transitioning to the first primary elections for the 2020 U.S. presidential elections in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. Then COVID-19 hit the country. The restrictions and nationwide lockdown measures changed this election like it has never seen before in history. After episode 8 in March 2020, the show stops due to the lockdown measures only to resume “The New Abnormal” with episode 9 in August 2020. The long break changed everything yet it didn’t change the tension and excitement that is a run for the highest office in the land of the free. The hosts of the Circus John Heilemann, Mark McKinnon, and Alex Wagner are doing a stellar job in observing the candidates’ campaigns and asking the hard questions while reflecting on the bizarre experience it is to run for president during a pandemic.
This 1 ½ hour long documentary film follows three Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz (Florida), Thomas Massie (Kentucky), and Ken Buck (Colorado) in their efforts to leave a mark on the American political landscape. It details the need for fundraising and donations that are at liberty of interest groups and lobbyists. It is another concerning picture of American politics chained to corporate interests. The documentary is hosted by Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig, who founded “Rootstrikers” to reduce the corrosive influence of corporate money in the American democracy.
The name is the game of this 2 hour long documentary film by Frontline. Ahead of the most polarized elections in U.S. history, the film focuses on interviews with family, friends and foes of both candidates Joe Biden and Donald Trump. It chronicles how both Biden and Trump handled themselves during times of crisis and how they responded to adversity. It’s about who these men are that are asking for your vote.
Do you always know who you are dealing with? Probably not. Do you always recognize when you are influenced? Unlikely. I found it hard to pick up on human signals without succumbing to my own predisposed biases. In other words maintaining “an open mindset” is easier said than done. A recent study found this to be true in particular for dealing with political bots.
Political bots are social media algorithms that impersonate political actors and interact with other users, aiming to influence public opinion. This research investigates the ability to differentiate bots with partisan personas from humans on Twitter. This online experiment (N = 656) explores how various characteristics of the participants and of the stimulus profiles bias recognition accuracy. The analysis reveals asymmetrical partisan-motivated reasoning, in that conservative profiles appear to be more confusing and Republican participants perform less well in the recognition task. Moreover, Republican users are more likely to confuse conservative bots with humans, whereas Democratic users are more likely to confuse conservative human users with bots. The research discusses implications for how partisan identities affect motivated reasoning and how political bots exacerbate political polarization.
The modern democratic process is technological information warfare. Voters need to be enticed to engage with information about a candidate and election campaigns need to ensure accurate information is presented to build and expand an audience, or a voter base. Assurances for the integrity of information do not exist. And campaigns are incentivised to undercut the opponent’s narrative while amplifying its own candidates message. Advertisements are a potent weapon in any election campaign. Ad spending on social media for the 2020 U.S. presidential election between Donald Trump and Joe Biden is already at a high with a projected, total bill of $10.8 billion driven by both campaigns. Grassroots campaigns are another potent weapon to decentralize a campaign, mobilize local leaders and impact a particular (untapped) electorate. While the impact of the coronoavirus on grassroots efficacy is yet to be determined, these campaigns are critical to solicit game-changing votes.
Which brings me to the central theme of this post and the paper: bots. When ad dollars or a human movement are out of reach bots are the cheap, fast and impactful alternative. Bots are algorithms to produce a programmed result automatically or human induced with the objective to copy and create the impression of human behavior. We have all seen or interacted with bots on social media after reaching out to customer service. We have all heard or received messages from bots trying to set us up with “the chance of a lifetime”. But do we always know when we’re interacting with bots? Are there ways of telling an algorithm apart from a human?
Researchers from Indiana University of Bloomington took on these important questions in their paper titled Asymmetrical Perceptions of Partisan Political Bots. It explains the psychological factors that impact our perception and decisioning when interacting with partisan political bots on social media. Political bots are used to impersonate political actors and interact with other users in an effort to influence public opinion. Bots have been known to facilitate the spread of spam mail and fake news. They have been used and abused to amplify conspiracy theories. Usage leads to improvement. In conjunction with enhanced algorithms and coding this poses three problems:
(1) social media users become vulnerable to misreading a bot’s actions as human. (2) A partisan message, campaign success or sensitive information can be scaled up through networking effects and coordination of automation. A certainly frightening example would be the use of bots to declare to have won the election while voters are still casting their ballot. And (3) political bots are by virtue partisan. A highly polarized media landscape, offers fertile ground for political bots to exploit biases and overcome political misconceptions. That means becoming vulnerable isn’t really necessary; a mere exposure to a partisan political bot can lay the groundwork for later manipulation or influence of opinion.
The research is focused on whether certain individuals or groups are easier to be influenced by partisan political bots than others. This recognition task depends on how skillful certain individuals or groups can detect a partisan narrative, recognize their own partisan bias and either navigate through motivated reasoning or drown in it. Motivated reasoning can be seen as in-group favoritism and out-group hostility, i.e. conservatives favor Republicans and displease democrats. Contemporary detection methods include (1) network-based, i.e. bots are presumed to be inter-connected – detecting one exposes connections to other bots. (2) Crowdsourcing, i.e. engaging experts in the manual detection of bots. And (3) feature-based, i.e. a supervised machine-learning classifier is trained with categorization statistics of political accounts and is constantly matching against inauthentic metrics. These methods can be combined to increase detection rates. At this interesting point in history, it is an arms race between writing code for better bots against building systems to better identify novel algorithms at scale. This arms race, however, is severely detrimental for democratic processes as they are potent enough to deter or at least undermine confidence of participants at the opposing end of the political spectrum.
The researchers found that knowingly interacting with partisan political bots only magnifies polarization eroding trust in the opposing party’s intentions. However, a regular user will presumably struggle to discern a political bot from a politically motivated (real) user. It leaves the potential voter base vulnerable to automated manipulation. To overcome this manipulation, the researchers focused on identifying the factors that make up the human perception when it comes to ambiguity between real user and political bot as well as recognition of the coded partisanship of the bot. Active users of social media were more likely to establish a mutual following with a political bot. These users happened to be more conservative while the political bots they chose to interact were likely conservative too. Time played a role insofar as active users who took more time to investigate and understand the political bot, which they only saw as a regular-looking, partisan social media account, were less likely to accurately discern real user from political bot. In their results, this demonstrated (1) a higher chance for conservative users to be deceived by conservative political bots and (2) a higher chance for liberal users to misidentify conservative (real) users for political bots. The researchers conclude that
users have a moderate capability to identify political bots, but such a capability is also limited due to cognitive biases. In particular, bots with explicit political personas activate the partisan bias of users. ML algorithms to detect social bots provide one of the main countermeasures to malicious manipulation of social media. While adopting third-party bot detection methods is still advisable, our findings also suggest possible bias in human-annotated data used for training these ML models. This also calls for careful consideration of algorithmic bias in future development of artificial intelligence tools for political bot detection.
I have been intrigued with these findings. Humans tend to struggle to establish trust online. It’s surprising and concerning that conservative bots may be perceived as conservative humans by Republicans and conservative humans may be perceived as bots by Democrats. The potential to sow distrust to polarize public opinion is nearly limitless for a motivated interest group. While policymakers and technology companies are beginning to address these issues with targeted legislation, it will take a concerted multi-stakeholder approach to mitigated and reverse polarization spread by political bots.
I am currently reading Active Measures. Thomas Rid authored the paper Cyberwar Will Not Take Place which stirred up excellent controversy during my studies. I will write a review in due time. The Hacker and the State caught my attention for its unique position at the intersection of cybersecurity and geopolitics. Ben Buchanan became known to me for his contributions to the Lawfare Blog. And Infowars emits an intriguing combination of current global affairs and psychological warfare. Stengl describes the battle with Russian disinformation while countering terrorist propaganda. Without having read the book, I wonder if Operation Glowing Symphony came across Stengl’s desk as Undersecretary of State to President Barack Obama.
Ballistic books is a series to present literature of interest. Each edition is dedicated to a specific topic. I found it challenging to discover and distinguish good from great literature. With this series, I aim to mitigate that challenge.
1. Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare by Thomas Rid
Thomas Rid is a professor for strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University. Born in Germany, Rid is best known for his contributions to political science at the intersection of technology and war studies. You can find Thomas Rid on Twitter at @RidT
Ben Buchanan is an assistant professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, where his research and teaching is focused on the intersection of cybersecurity and public affairs. You can find Ben Buchanan on Twitter at @BuchananBen
3. Information Wars: How We Lost the Global Battle Against Disinformation and What We Can Do About It by Richard Stengel
Richard Stengl is an American journalist, former government official and served as president and CEO for the National Constitution Center. You can find Richard Stengl on Twitter at @Stengl
Democracy is built upon making informed decisions by the rule of the majority. As a society, we can’t make informed decisions if the majority is confused by fake news in the shape of false information distributed and labeled as real news. It has the potential to erode trust in democratic institutions, stir up social conflict and facilitate voter suppression. This paper by researchers from New York and Cambridge University examines the psychological drivers of sharing political misinformation and is providing solutions to reduce the proliferation of misinformation online.
The spread of misinformation, including “fake news,” disinformation, and conspiracy theories, represents a serious threat to society, as it has the potential to alter beliefs, behavior, and policy. Research is beginning to disentangle how and why misinformation is spread and identify processes that contribute to this social problem. This paper reviews the social and political psychology that underlies the dissemination of misinformation and highlights strategies that might be effective in mitigating this problem. However, the spread of misinformation is also a rapidly growing and evolving problem; thus, scholars also need to identify and test novel solutions, and simultaneously work with policy makers to evaluate and deploy these solutions. Hence, this paper provides a roadmap for future research to identify where scholars should invest their energy in order to have the greatest overall impact.
Make sure to read the full paper titled Political psychology in the digital (mis)information age by Jay J. Van Bavel, Elizabeth Harris, Philip Pärnamets, Steve Rathje, Kimberly C. Doell, Joshua A. Tucker at https://psyarxiv.com/u5yts/
It’s no surprise that misinformation spreads significantly faster than the truth. The illusory truth effect describes this phenomenon as misinformation that people had heard before were more likely to be believed. We all have heard of a juicy rumor in the office before learning it is remotely true or made up altogether. Political misinformation takes the dissemination rate to the next level. It has far greater rates of sharing due to its polarizing nature driven by partisan beliefs and personal values. Even simple measures seemingly beneficial to all of society are faced with an onslaught of misinformation. For example, California proposition 15 designed to close corporate tax loopholes was opposed by conservative groups resorting to spread misinformation about the reach of the law. They conflated corporations with individuals making it a family affair to solicit an emotional response from the electorate. It’s a prime example for a dangerous cycle in which political positions are the drivers of misinformation which in turn is facilitating political division and obstructing the truth to make informed decisions. Misinformation is found to be shared more willingly, quicker and despite contradicting facts if the misinformation was in line with the political identity and seeking to derogate the opposition. In the example above, misinformation about proposition 15 was largely shared if it (a) contained information in line with partisan beliefs and (b) it sought to undercut the opponents of the measure. As described in the paper, the more polarized a topic is (e.g. climate change, immigration, pandemic response, taxation of the rich, police brutality etc.) the more likely misinformation will be shared by its individual political in-groups to be used against their political out-groups without further review of its factual truth. This predisposed ‘need for chaos’ is hard to mitigate because the feeling of being marginalized is a complex, societal problem that no one administration can resolve. Further, political misinformation tends to be novel and trigger more extreme emotions of fear and disgust. It tends to confuse the idea of being better off is equal to being better than another political out-group.
Potential solutions to limit the spread of political misinformation can already be observed across social media:
Third-Party Fact Checking, is the second review by a dedicated, independent fact-checker committed to neutrality in reporting information. Fact-checking does reduce belief in misinformation but is less effective for political misinformation. Ideological commitments and exposure to partisan information foster a different reality that, in rare extreme cases, can create scepticism of fact-checks leading to an increased sharing of political misinformation, the so-called backfire effect.
Investing in media literacy to drive efforts of ‘pre-bunking’ false information before they gain traction including to offer tips or engage in critical reflection of certain information is likely to produce optimal long-term results. Though it might be problematic to implement effectively for political information as media literacy is dependent on the provider and bi-partisan efforts are likely to be opposed by their respective extreme counterparts.
Disincentivizing viral content by changing the monetization structure to a blend of views, ratings and civic benefit would be a potent deterrent for creating and sharing political misinformation. However, this measure would likely conflict with growth objectives of social media platforms in a shareholder-centric economy.
This paper is an important contribution to the current landscape of behavioral psychology. Future research will need to focus on developing a more comprehensive theory of why we believe and share political misinformation but also how political psychology correlates with incentives to create political misinformation. It will be interesting to learn how to manipulate the underlying psychology to alter the lifecycle of political information on different platforms, in different mediums and through new channels.
Without social media, there would not be a President Trump. We all felt the Bern in 2016. And let’s not forget “pizzagate” or “Yes we can”. The power of technology has undeniably impacted elections for political office, but how does it influence voters’ decisions on election day? Is social media the lone culprit undermining the integrity of our democracy or does history offer insights of sobering nature? These and other questions are subject to analysis by Anthony J. Gaughan with Drake University. Here’s a rundown of his paper “The Influence of Technology on Presidential Primary Campaigns”
The paper examines technological innovations impacting Presidential primary campaigns. Supreme Court decisions Buckley v. Valeo or Citizens United v. FEC appear to have paved the regulatory playing field towards unrestricted campaign spending. Contrary to popular belief, Presidential primary campaigns are not skewed to the wealthiest of candidates. They simply favor the Presidential candidate who is most savvy of current technology to leverage his audience for the benefit of the campaign.
Gaughan starts his analysis as early as 1912 when Presidential primary campaigns relied on the rail network to expose the candidate to crucial constituents. The radio would bring about change by offering a low cost, easy and broad access medium available to the general public. It would demonstrate that a candidate with an ability to make his audience feel they know him like nobody else could overcome other limitations of his persona. By the early 1950s, television would enter the scene to influence voters. The Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy overcame incredible odds of winning the Protestant state of West Virginia despite being of Catholic belief by leveraging TV ads displaying himself as a handsome, professional leader who “would not take orders from any Pope, Cardinal, Bishop or Priest”. Television gave rise to Roger Ailes and others who would reshape the appearance of political candidates for public office. Most notable in the 1968 Presidential primary campaign of Richard Nixon. Nixon’s “funny-looking” appearance would be carefully marketed by only distributing selected shots, accompanied by strong sound tracks and professional flattery – in the process beating Nelson Rockefeller and former president Ronald Regan.
Gaughan concludes his analysis with the emergence of the internet. Senator Barack Obama managed to outfox Senator Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Presidential primary campaign by leveraging social media that allowed his campaign to build a volunteer network that utilized data analytics to identify potential voters and could eventually outperform the Clinton campaign in the majority of voting metrics. The internet also offered a platform to establish direct communication with his constituents. Obama’s success, however, inspired a real-estate business man and reality TV-celebrity from the other end of the political spectrum. It gave rise to Donald J. Trump. Trump took the Regan playbook of celebrity fame gone politics and merged it with 21st century innovations. On Twitter and Facebook, the Trump campaign selectively spent ads in crucial swing states to gain political momentum with polarizing memes and divisive content. His existing television fame helped with national recognition, but the free coverage generated through the power of social networks put him over the edge to beat established Republican candidates, front and center of the voter.
The paper concludes that the 2016 Presidential primary campaign was a harbinger of things to come. It is not far-fetched to reason that internet communication will continue to boost political speech across new platforms like TikTok or through new mediums such as virtual or augmented realities. Political candidates entering a primary race can leverage these tools by hiring campaign staff who are native in social media communications, possess the ability to detect the pulse of not only millennial and adolescent voters but the party’s voter base beyond retirement age and everybody in between. New tools to analyze, scale and engage audiences that most platforms offer as part of the advertisement deal have the power to enable political novices to make a bid for office. From a regulatory point of view, legislators must revisit campaign spending to level the playing field for networking effects that come with social media. In the interest of the voter, fair and democratic elections, it might be advised to not focus future legislation on campaign spending in the sense of financial assets but the actual reach of audience including the means to facilitate the reach.