The “Time” article, “Inside Russia’s Social Media War on America” by Massimo Calabresi with reporting by Pratheek Rebala, details the budding research into how the Russian government may have sought to use social media and the internet to manipulate public opinion in the US and elsewhere. Clearly, insights presented in the article can be generalized to any attempt to use propaganda and technology to manipulate public opinion and powerful actors. The lessons learned can also be used to help develop ways to defend against attempts to utilize mass propaganda.
The Calabresi article argues that Russian cyber operatives target influential individuals, i.e. aides to policymakers, national security experts, journalists, and anyone else who might help shape public opinion and public policy. Russian cyber operatives then profile their targets to determine who might be sympathetic to some aspect of their message. They then flood these individuals with messages that reinforce their predisposed opinions and slowly ”train” them to trust in Russian propaganda . These individuals then became an extension of the Russian propaganda machine. Those who do not are discredited and silenced by any means possible.
In essence, Russia created a propaganda machine so big and so loud that, when trained don targets, it can drown out arguments that expose the true agenda of the propaganda. Unfortunately, what people consider true is too often based more on what others believe than actual fact. Recognizing widely accepted facts and the Main Street Media cannot be directly challenged, Russian operatives sowed the seeds of doubt. The goal was not to simply overwhelm the general public with misinformation or attract attention from those who could discredit the Russia propaganda. Operatives simply wanted to suppress and discredit those who had the ability able to refute their propaganda.
Because bias plays a major role in how people perceive truths and events, Russian cyber operatives prayed on the inconsistencies between differing viewpoints to foster distrust. In doing so, they created “alternative facts” and ”alternative news” that made targets feel “facts,” which conflicted with the Russia propaganda, could not be trusted. Although the reach and invasive nature of the internet makes it far easier to cast doubt on known facts, undermine the credibility of news stories, and spread misinformation, the world of science has long had to confront the need to overcome bias, thus it has developed techniques to overcome bias. It is also why scientists do not rely on absolute truths.
Instead, they take a relativistic approach that assigns a probability to the validity of a known and perspective. Simply put, scientists acknowledge the potential to be wrong. Most people do not think in relativistic, probabilistic terms, but most will respond to honest arguments that address counterarguments. The strongest arguments have always been made by confronting the weaknesses, assumptions, and the failures of one’s own arguments after confronting the strengths, weaknesses, assumptions, and failures of credible alternatives. Counterarguments must be refuted, not simply dismissed or ignored. Although mass propaganda is designed to manipulate, it always holds a grain of truth.
The Calabresi article ends by suggesting truth telling can be an answer to mass propaganda. Truth is not, however, enough. Simply stating the facts is not enough. The aim of mass propaganda is to divide people into camps, so they do not unite. Effective propaganda utilizes facts, unkowns, distrust, and counterarguments to divide public opinion with enough chaos that people cannot coalesce around common solutions and threats. This allows weak or minority factions to seize control of governments, which are far easier to bent to one’s will.
To combat the threat of mass propaganda, technology firms like Google, Twitter, Facebook, and others try to identify and censor spammers. Done incorrectly, they risk creating unforeseen and devastating opportunities to suppress legitimate points of view, including counterarguments to propaganda. If, for example, Google identities spammers by association,. low-profile users and low-traffic websites can easily be deemed guilty by association. Through armies of of trolls and bots, cyber operatives could potentially shift traffic patterns in “inorganic” ways, which can trick anti-spam filters.
To neutralize the effects of mass propaganda, one must look to what Russian seeks to suppress, i.e. those capable of exposing and confronting mass propaganda with arguments that counteract the influence of propaganda. Transparency and facts are not enough to counteract the manipulate effects of mass propaganda. Both are easily drowned out by propaganda. Censoring propaganda, in turn, creates greater doubt and distrust, i.e. what is not being said always undermines what is being said. Unfortunately, it is always easier to attack an idea than it is to defend one, which is why the only defense against mass propaganda is overwhelming the message of propaganda with proactive transparency that confronts issues.
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