Ballistic Books: Disinformation

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

Active Measures is a term coined by the Soviet and Russian intelligence services to influence foreign nations, collect intelligence and subvert public opinion in favor of Russian interests. The term received global attention after it was linked to successful influence operations during the 2016 U.S. Presidential elections. It is also the name of a widely circulated documentary. Though it seems Thomas Rid wasn’t interviewed for it.

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

2. The Hacker and the State: Cyber Attacks and the New Normal of Geopolitics by Ben Buchanan

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

Why Are We Sharing Political Misinformation?

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. 

tl;dr

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:

  1. 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.  
  2. 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. 
  3. 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.

The Influence of Technology on Presidential Primary Campaigns

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.