The Technology of Propaganda, Fake News & Information Warfare

The Technology of Propaganda, Fake News & Information Warfare

Well, this is pretty terrifying.

My oldest son recently sent me a link to an article from an online magazine called Paste. I had never heard of the publication; it seems, after a cursory investigation, to be credible. The title was “How the Trump-Russia Data Machine Games Google to Fool Americans.” The author identified himself as a former member of an online marketing team.

I’m not going to get into the weeds of SEO (search engine optimization). But I am going to say something that sounds completely insane, and warn you that we’re in the middle of something we’ve never experienced in America: a full-on psychological war. And Google, of all places, is a main battlefield…

There are other information weapons, such as bots and fake news sites, but other stories have those pretty well covered. But before we get started, though, two things to keep in mind:

First, most of us don’t even know we’re in this war yet. You don’t know when you’ve been wounded, when you’ve been killed. And that’s the whole point: You’re not supposed to.

Second, the attacks in this war aren’t aimed at your enemies. You attack your own side.

The author says that highly selective information is being presented in ways that encourage “selective reading” and offer “psychological and social rewards.” We are being rewarded, essentially, for being stupid and for spreading stupid to others. Where this lesson in the uses and misuses of search engines got really chilling was in the following example.

A couple weeks ago I saw an insane person on my Facebook feed screaming about how Obama had leaked classified information about the Bin Laden raid that got people killed. What the fuck? I’d never heard anything about this, and the raid was six years ago, and this guy was a total right-wing crackpot, which is the trifecta for guaranteeing at least fifteen full minutes of batshit conspiracy theory misinfotainment. So I duly Googled “obama classified information bin laden.” If you do that right now, here’s what you get.

If you click through, he has reproduced a large number of links to sites offering variations of the same “Obama gives classified information” story. Several of them were clearly products of a political fringe, others looked reputable. But as the author pointed out

Look … at the dates on those articles. May 16 and 17 of this year. This year. The Bin Laden raid, again, was six fucking years ago. What’s happening here? Why are all these different white nationalist news sites suddenly writing about this together? Why did they start doing it on May 16? Why do those articles even exist?

Well, on May 15, you might remember, The Washington Post broke this little gem: President Trump shared top secret intel with the Russian Foreign Minister and Russian Ambassador. In the Oval Office. In front of Russian state media.

The author suggests another experiment:

Together, we’re going to Google the phrase “trump no evidence collusion.” (And because Google searches change over time, I’ll drop screenshots of my results here.) What will emerge is a picture of an invisible hand writing a specific argument, over and over and over. That hand belongs to Robert Mercer, Trump’s data man, who gamed Google and fake news during the campaign and whose return to the scene is heralded by Trump’s war room and bot boom. If you want, you can read more

And here’s where the optimization comes into play: pages one and two of the Google search results do not include any reputable sources. Not until page three!

There, buried under InfoWars and National Review and The Blaze and not one, not two, but three pieces from The Free Beacon, we finally find good old Reuters! And, lo: the good old Washington Post! And what about The Failing New York Times? Truly failing.

The article is lengthy, and it takes the reader through the strategy of optimization, step by step. It is eye-opening.

I strongly suggest you read the entire article. It’s illuminating–and very, very depressing…

 

[Originally published at SheilaKennedy.net on June 15, 2017]

Sheila Kennedy is a former high school English teacher, former lawyer, former Republican, former Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, former columnist for the Indianapolis Star, and former young person. She is currently an (increasingly cranky) old person, a Professor of Law and Public Policy at Indiana University Purdue University in Indianapolis, and Director of IUPUI’s Center for Civic Literacy. She writes for the Indianapolis Business Journal, PA Times, and the Indiana Word, and blogs at www.sheilakennedy.net. For those who are interested in more detail, links to an abbreviated CV and academic publications can be found on her blog, along with links to her books..

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