Category Archives: Information and the public sphere

Disinformation at the weakest link

There was an interesting article recently in Quartz about 2020 electoral disinformation in Spanish-language social media. While the major platforms have taken credit for the fact that the election did not feature a repeat of the coordinated foreign influence operations of 2016, arguably the victory lap came somewhat too soon, as the problem cases in the information sphere this cycle are only gradually coming to light. Post-electoral myth-building about a rigged process and a stolen victory, for one, while of little practical import for the present, has the potential to plant a deep, lasting sense of grievance in conservative political culture in the US over the long term. Similarly, the fact that less public attention, less civil-society scrutiny, less community-based new-media literacy, and less algorithmic refinement were available for Spanish-speaking electoral discourse meant that disinformation was allowed to expand much more broadly and deeply than in English. The mainstream liberal narrative that such a fact per se helps explain the disappointing electoral results of the Democratic Party with this demographic (especially in States like Florida or Texas) is itself fairly insensitive and stereotyped. The Latinx electorate in the US is not a monolith, and segments within it have distinct political preferences, which are no more the product of disinformation than anyone else’s. Yet, it seems clear that in this electoral campaign factually false political statements received less pushback, both from above and from below, when they were uttered in Spanish.

Two general facts are illustrated by this example. On the one hand, because of the production and distribution dynamics of disinformation, it is clear that its spread follows a path of least resistance: minority languages, like peripheral countries or minor social media platforms, while unlikely to be on the cutting edge of new disinformation, tend to be more permeable to stock disinformation that has been rebutted elsewhere. On the other hand, where disinformation has the ability to do the most damage is in spaces where it is unexpected, in fields that are considered separate and independent, subject to different rules of engagement. In this sense, fake news does not simply provide partisans with ‘factual’ reasons to feel how they already felt about their adversaries: it can legitimately catch the unsuspecting unawares. One of the reasons for disinformation’s massive impact on American public discourse is that in a hyper-partisan era all manner of domains in everyday life once completely divorced from politics have been reached by political propaganda, and in these contexts a weary habituation with such wrangling has not yet set in, effectively tuning them out. This dynamic has been reflected in social media platforms: the ‘repurposing’ of LinkedIn and NextDoor in connection with the BLM protests is telling.

So, if disinformation at its most effective is the insertion of narratives where they are least expected, and if its spread follows a path of least resistance, seeking out the weakest link (while its containment follows an actuarial logic, the most effort being placed where the highest return is expected), what does this portend for the possibility of a unitary public sphere?

There is reason to believe that these are long-run concerns, and that the Presidential campaign may have been the easy part. As Ellen Goodman and Karen Kornbluh mention in their platform electoral performance round-up,

That there was clearly authoritative local information about voting and elections made the platforms’ task easier. It becomes harder in other areas of civic integrity where authority is more contested.

Foreign counterexamples such as that of Taiwan reinforce the conundrum: cohesive societies are capable of doing well against disinformation, but in already polarized ones a focus on such a fight is perceived as being a partisan stance itself.

What misinformation is better than

A good piece in Slate underlining the mismatch between the (bipartisan) attention that misinformation has garnered in the US electoral campaign and the evidence that voting decisions depend overwhelmingly on social identity. Fake news does not land on a blank slate, mysteriously swaying otherwise innocent targets; a much more likely scenario is that it permits the articulation of already entrenched partisan views, and in this sense its truth value is not the key consideration. In a way, though, agreeing that misinformation is decisive is a last-gasp attempt on the part of the American public to hold on to a fact-checking, objective view of politics; accepting a notion of politics as extreme value pluralism is much more disturbing, at least for non-practitioners.

Risk communication

I just read an interesting piece in the Harvard Business Review by three researchers at UC Berkeley’s Center for Long-Term Cybersecurity on how to communicate about risk. It is helpful as a pragmatic, concrete proposal on how to handle institutional communication about fundamentally uncertain outcomes in such a way as to bolster public trust and increase mass literacy about risk.

Long-term erosion of trust

Interesting article on Slashdot about the historical roots of the weaponization of doubt and scientific disagreement by special interests.

It is notable that these phenomena start at scale with the pervasive political engagement of corporations with American politics in the 1970s and ’80s: this is the moment in which business as a whole detaches from automatic support for a particular political party (choosing its battles and the champions for them –whether financing an insurgent movement, litigation, legislative lobbying, and so forth– on a case-by-case basis), and also the dawn of the end-of-ideologies era. These themes are well discussed by Edward Walker in Grassroots for Hire (2014).

As for the present predicament, one is reminded of an NYT op-ed from last year by William Davies, “Everything Is War and Nothing Is True” on public political discourse:

Social media has introduced games of strategy into public discourse, with deception and secrecy — information warfare — now normal parts of how arguments play out

or of a similarly-dated piece by Z. Tufekci on the commercial side of things:

The internet is increasingly a low-trust society—one where an assumption of pervasive fraud is simply built into the way many things function.

There definitely seem to be systemic aspects to this problem.

Inter-institutional trust deficit

Piece in Axios about tech companies’ contingency planning for election night and its aftermath. The last paragraph sums up the conundrum:

Every group tasked with assuring Americans that their votes get counted — unelected bureaucrats, tech companies and the media — already faces a trust deficit among many populations, particularly Trump supporters.

In this case it is not even clear whether a concurrence of opinion and a unified message would strengthen the credibility of these actors and of their point of view or rather confirm sceptics even further in their conspiracy beliefs.