The future of computational propaganda

On January 17, 2017, Girl 4 Trump USA joined Twitter. She was silent for a week, but on January 24, she suddenly got busy, posting an average of 1,289 tweets a day, many of which were in support of U.S. President Donald Trump. By the time Twitter figured out that Girl 4 Trump USA was a bot, “she” had tweeted 34,800 times. Twitter deleted the account, along with a large number of other Twitter bots with “MAGA,” “deplorable,” and “trump” in the handle and avatar images of young women in bikinis or halter tops, all posting the same headlines from sources like the Kremlin broadcaster RT. But Twitter can’t stop the flood of bots on its platform, and the botmakers are getting smarter about escaping detection.

What’s going on? That’s what Sam Woolley is finding out. Woolley, who recently joined Institute for the Future as a Research Director, was the Director of Research at the Computational Propaganda Project at Oxford University. In this episode of For Future Reference, we asked Sam to share highlights of his research showing how political botnets — what he calls computational propaganda — are being used to influence public opinion.

Listen to the podcast interview with Sam Woolley here. Subscribe to the IFTF podcast on iTunes | RSS | Download MP3 Read the rest

Research report explains how adtech supercharges political deceit, allowing even bumblers to be master propagandists

A new report from the New America Foundation uses the current fear that Russian government elements manipulated the 2016 US election to explore the relationship between advertising technology, surveillance capitalism, and "precision propaganda," showing how the toolsuite developed for the advertising industry is readily repurposable by even modestly competent actors to spread disinformation campaigns. Read the rest

Anti-propaganda classic 'PsyWar' is available to watch online for free

In these spin-filled times, the documentary PsyWar feels as relevant as when it was released. Metanoia Films has made it available for free to all, so check it out.

Via a review on PR Watch:

The new documentary "Psywar," featuring CMD founder John Stauber, explores corporate and government use of propaganda and public relations to manipulate American people. The movie explores how the U.S. government staged events to manipulate public opinion about the Iraq war, like the rescue of Private Jessica Lynch, the supposedly spontaneous mob that pulled over the larger-than-life statue of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. It also discusses the Pentagon pundit scandal, and the hidden activities of the Rendon Group, a PR firm specializing in spinning war. The film exposes government and corporate activities to blur the lines between real news and fake news, as well as the development over time of public relations misinformation campaigns, strategic corporate campaigns to generate goodwill and the perception of good works, the use of staged photo-ops, and other manipulative PR tools that have turned the land of the free and the home of the brave into a place where citizens are now manipulated with great efficiency, and on a massive scale.

Bonus: Their film Counter-Intelligence is on their Vimeo channel:

PsyWar (via S DN Vimeo channel) Read the rest

Facebook: 126 million Americans may have seen Russian pro-Trump propaganda

Facebook is reported to soon reveal it exposed an estimated 126 million Americans, many of whom voted, to what was effectively Russian state propaganda (served from Russian webservers in Russia) during the runup to the U.S. 2016 presidential election. All of that content favored Trump, who is now President of the United States.

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Watch: Bizarre 'news' show launched by Trump is hosted by daughter-in-law Lara

To combat what Trump perceives as "fake news" in the mainstream media, he's launched his own propaganda, er, I mean "news" show on his Facebook page. Lara Trump, his daughter-in-law who is married to his son Eric, plays the part of news anchor.

"This is a president who is putting America before himself," she says in her first "newscast."

"I bet you haven't heard about all the accomplishments the president had this week because there's so much fake news out there," she said. "The economy is booming, ladies and gentlemen."

According to Buzzfeed:

A Google search shows mainstream media outlets did cover the stories she recounted, such as Trump donating his salary, a new Foxconn manufacturing plant in Wisconsin, and economic growth. But they also reported on the turmoil within the White House, the failure of his party to repeal and replace Obamacare, and the president's tweets saying that he wanted to ban transgender people from serving in the military.

Trump's abrupt reversal of Department of Defense policy was a dominant news story in the mainstream media last week. BuzzFeed News reported that the White House did not have a plan for its implementation, how the news seemed to stun military leaders, and how the news was received by trans veterans.

Those stories were not included in Lara Trump's news update...

She first promoted what will apparently be a series two weeks ago, encouraging the president's 23 million followers on Facebook to tune in every week.

"We're going to bring you nothing but the facts — stay tuned," she said.

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Three kinds of propaganda, and what to do about them

Jonathan Stray summarizes three different strains of propaganda, analyzing why they work, and suggesting counter-tactics: in Russia, it's about flooding the channel with a mix of lies and truth, crowding out other stories; in China, it's about suffocating arguments with happy-talk distractions, and for trolls like Milo Yiannopoulos, it's weaponizing hate, outraging people so they spread your message to the small, diffused minority of broken people who welcome your message and would otherwise be uneconomical to reach. Read the rest

Six essays on media, technology and politics from Data & Society

danah boyd writes, "Yesterday, a group of us at Data & Society put out six essays on 'media, technology, politics.' Taken together, these pieces address different facets of the current public conversation surrounding propaganda, hate speech, and the US election. Although we only allude to specifics, we have been witnessing mis/disinformation campaigns for quite some time as different networks seek to manipulate both old and new media, shape political discourse, and undermine trust in institutions and information intermediaries. In short, we are concerned about the rise of a new form of propaganda that is networked, decentralized, and internet-savvy. We are also concerned about the ongoing development of harassment techniques and gaslighting, the vulnerability of old and new media to propagate fear and disinformation, and the various ways in which well-intended interventions get misappropriated. We believe that we're watching a systematic attack on democracy, equality, and freedom. There is no silver bullet to address the issues we're seeing. Instead, a healthy response is going to require engagement by many different constituencies. We see our role in this as to help inform and ground the conversation. These essays are our first attempt to address the interwoven issues we're seeing. Read the rest

Dr. Seuss, Chuck Jones, and Mel Blanc's US Army cartoon warning against loose lips (1943)

Private Snafu was the US Army's series of instructional cartoons from World War II, written and/or directed by the likes of Theodor "Dr. Seuss" Geisel, Chuck Jones, and PD Eastman. The voice of Private Snafu is performed by Mel Blanc (Buggs Bunny, Daffy Duck, etc.). In this episode, written by Dr. Seuss and titled "Spies," Private Snafu learns a military secret but he can't seem to keep his lips sealed. Note the grossly racist depiction of an Asian man, sadly typical of the era.

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Trump Spokesmonster Scottie Nell Hughes: 'There's No Such Thing as Facts'

We have officially entered the post-fact American era. Donald J. Trump presidential surrogate Scottie Nell Hughes, known for being one of the most wack in Trump's pack, explicitly said on public radio's “The Diane Rehm Show” yesterday that lying is official Trump strategy.

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NPR tracks down "fake news" entrepreneur claiming up to $30,000 a month from ads: "I have a beautiful life"

The Denver Guardian looked enough like a real news site to convince legions of Facebookers that its fake news about Hillary Clinton was worth sharing. The anonymous creator reused an old handle in an early posting there, though, allowing NPR to track him down to the LA suburbs.

Jestin Coler, 40, weasels at first, claiming it's all an attempt to "highlight the extremism" and show "how easily fake news spreads." But he's soon boasting of a business operation that brings in five figures a month from ads.

Coler's company, Disinfomedia, owns many faux news sites — he won't say how many. But he says his is one of the biggest fake-news businesses out there, which makes him a sort of godfather of the industry.

At any given time, Coler says, he has between 20 and 25 writers. And it was one of them who wrote the story in the Denver Guardian that an FBI agent who leaked Clinton emails was killed. Coler says that over 10 days the site got 1.6 million views. He says stories like this work because they fit into existing right-wing conspiracy theories.

"The people wanted to hear this," he says. "So all it took was to write that story. Everything about it was fictional: the town, the people, the sheriff, the FBI guy. And then ... our social media guys kind of go out and do a little dropping it throughout Trump groups and Trump forums and boy it spread like wildfire."

As with other fake news hucksters, Coler says he also targeted liberals and lefties too, but found that they didn't fall for it the way others do. Read the rest

Governments see social media as "a new front in warfare"

Propaganda, psychological warfare, and real-time surveillance were all on the agenda at the Sixth Annual Conference on Social Media Within the Defence and Military Sector. Read the rest

China's $10B/year PR ministry mired in political fight with anti-corruption/loyalty enforcers

China's Propaganda Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party (in English, "Publicity Department") spends $10B/year -- only part of its budget -- getting the official Chinese party line into foreign news outlets, with the rest of its activity directed internally, at government communications discipline and media censorship. Read the rest

South Korea having a female leader has made North Korea even crazier

Even within the batty realms of North Korea's propaganda, the invective thrown at South Korean President Park Geun-hye is remarkable.

In perhaps its lengthiest and harshest verbal attack on Park since she took office in 2013, the North's official Korean Central News Agency on Saturday called her a "tailless, old, insane bitch," a "senile old woman" and a "murderous demon" destined to meet "a sudden and violent death."… North Korea previously called Park a "prostitute" and said she lives on the "groin of her American boss." It has frequently questioned her womanhood because she has no children, which the North labels as an "obligation" for women. North Korea also frequently refers to the "swish of her skirts," a Korean phrase used to describe women seen as overly aggressive.

"The swishes of Park Geun-hye's skirt, created by her American boss, are so unpredictable they're dumbfounding," an unnamed spokesman of the North's Joint National Organization of Working People said in a statement last year published by the KCNA. "This is all because the United States' black, hairy hands reach deep into Park Geun-hye's skirt."

Apart from the absurd sexism, there's a more politically unnerving aspect to it. For all its apparent insanity, North Korea's propaganda traditionally tried to appeal to South Korean leftists. This messaging indicates a new level of ignorance of the world outside, a turning-inwards of its paranoia. Read the rest

Unintentionally funny 1969 anti-LSD film by Lockheed Aircraft Corporation

In 1969 the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation took a break from making planes to drop bombs on Vietnamese villages and turned their attention to making films about dropping acid. The results of both their efforts were awful. And of course they were richly rewarded at the taxpayer's expenses.

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Watch Pages of Death, the long-lost anti-porn public information film

Oregon Historical Society has posted Pages of Death, a "long-lost" anti-pornography movie in similar vein to the legendary Reefer Madness: "These kids can pick up girly magazines and sex-violence stuff all over town!"

It was released in 1962, much later than most of those propaganda exploitation flicks. If it was already old-fashioned at the time it came out, that fact might not be obvious to present-day viewers.

The blurb follows… Read the rest

Gallery of infamously altered photographs

National Review, a periodical that Fox News viewers think of as the magazine their literate friends read, published this cover in 2012 showing Obama supporters waving blue signs that said "ABORTION." The signs originally said "FORWARD" before they were altered without attribution by the editors. Read the rest

End of the United States' "weaponized anthropology" program

After eight years, the US army's $725 million Human Terrain System, a controversial social science program ostensibly established to help the military understand the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, but criticized as a tool for propaganda and psyops, has ended. At CounterPunch, San José State University anthropology professor Roberto J. González published a fascinating history and critique of the program. From CounterPunch:

HTS supporters frequently claimed that the program would increase cultural understanding between US forces and Iraqis and Afghans–and therefore reduce American and civilian casualties. The program’s leaders insisted that embedded social scientists were delivering sociocultural knowledge to commanders, but the reality was more complex. HTS personnel conducted a range of activities including data collection, intelligence gathering, and psychological operations. In at least one case, an HTS employee supported interrogations in Afghanistan (Weinberger 2011).

The program also served a more insidious function: It became a propaganda tool for convincing the American public–especially those with liberal tendencies–that the US-led occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan were benevolent missions in which smart, fresh-faced young college graduates were playing a role. It appeared to demonstrate how US forces were engaged in a kinder, gentler form of occupation. Department of Defense photos portrayed HTS personnel sitting on rugs while drinking tea with Afghan elders, or distributing sweets to euphoric Iraqi children. Here was a war that Americans could feel good about fighting.

"The Rise and Fall of the Human Terrain System"

Human Terrain System (Army.mil)

(photo: Spc. Jason A. Young / Army) Read the rest

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