It was a great pleasure to convene a workshop at the European Digital Media Observatory today featuring Claire Wardle (Brown), Craig Matasick (OECD), Daniela Stockmann (Hertie), Kalypso Nicolaidis (Oxford), Lisa Ginsborg (EUI), Emma Briant (Bard) and (briefly) Alicia Wanless (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace). The title was “Information flows and institutional reputation: leveraging social trust in times of crisis” and the far-ranging discussion touched on disinformation, trust vs. trustworthiness, different models of content moderation, institutional design, preemptive red-teaming of policies, algorithmic amplification, and the successes and limits of multi-stakeholder frameworks. A very productive meeting, with more to come in the near future on this front.
Adam Satariano in the NYT reports on the latest instance of platform manipulation, this time by Chinese tech giant Huawei against unfavorable 5G legislation being considered in Belgium. There’s nothing particularly novel about the single pieces of the process: paid expert endorsement, amplified on social media by coordinated fake profiles, with the resultant appearance of virality adduced by the company as a sign of support in public opinion at large. If anything, it appears to have been rather crudely executed, leading to a fairly easy discovery by Graphika: from a pure PR cost-benefit standpoint, the blowback from the unmasking of this operation did much more damage to Huawei’s image than any benefit that might have accrued to the company had it not been exposed. However, the main take-away from the story is the adding of yet another data point to the process of convergence between traditional government-sponsored influence operations and corporate astroturfing ventures. Their questionable effectiveness notwithstanding, these sorts of interventions are becoming default, mainstream tools in the arsenal of all PR shops, whatever their principals’ aims. The fact that they also tend to erode an already fragile base of public trust suggests that at the aggregate level this may be a negative-sum game.
French-language news outlets, among others, have been reporting a Facebook takedown operation (here is the full report by Stanford University and Graphika) against three separate influence and disinformation networks, active in various sub-Saharan African countries since 2018. Two of these have been traced back to the well-known Russian troll farm Internet Research Agency; the third, however, appears to be linked to individuals in the French military (which is currently deployed in the Sahel). In some instances, and notably in the Central African Republic, the Russian and French operations competed directly with one another, attempting to doxx and discredit each other through fake fact-checking and news organization impersonations, as well as using AI to create fake online personalities posing as local residents.
The report did not present conclusive evidence for attribution of the French influence operation directly to the French government. Also, it argues that the French action was in many ways reactive to the Russian disinfo campaign. Nonetheless, as the authors claim,
[b]y creating fake accounts and fake “anti-fake-news” pages to combat the trolls, the French operators were perpetuating and implicitly justifying the problematic behavior they were trying to fight […] using “good fakes” to expose “bad fakes” is a high-risk strategy likely to backfire when a covert operation is detected […] More importantly, for the health of broader public discourse, the proliferation of fake accounts and manipulated evidence is only likely to deepen public suspicion of online discussion, increase polarization, and reduce the scope for evidence-based consensus.
What was not discussed, either in the report or in news coverage of it, is the emerging geopolitical equilibrium in which a private company can act as final arbitrator in an influence struggle between two Great Powers in a third country. Influence campaigns by foreign State actors are in no way a 21st-century novelty: the ability of a company such as Facebook to insert itself into them most certainly is. Media focus on disinformation-fighting activities of the major social media platforms in the case of the US elections (hence, on domestic ground) has had the effect of minimizing the strategic importance these companies now wield in international affairs. The question is to what extent they will be allowed to operate in complete independence by the US government, or, otherwise put, to what extent will foreign Powers insert this dossier into their general relation with the US going forward.
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 outor 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.