Political Propaganda in the Online Age

Erik Nolan Analysis

5 minute read

Propaganda, as it is understood in a colloquial sense, is a tool used by the elite to manipulate masses into supporting the interests of the state, to which the recipient public are but hapless victims. In the highly charged political climate of the 21st century, the skeptical and instantly-informed public of the Online Age ought to be immune to such manipulations. But, as several high-profile events in recent years have demonstrated, efforts to manipulate public opinion has become a full time activity of both state and non-state actors—and the most optimal avenue for fulfilling these objectives is undoubtedly social media.

Platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube connect people from across the world and allow instant and widespread communication to a massive global audience. Increasingly, those spreading propaganda invent entire personas online in an effort to appear as legitimate as possible through these platforms. A recent report from Oxford University’s Internet Institute analyzed the proliferation and effect of bots in spreading political messages throughout social media, examining several countries including the United States, Russia, and China, among others. The report found bots were employed in a decisively political manner multiple times against both foreign and domestic audiences.On Twitter, for instance, the use of bots in the American 2016 presidential election by entities reportedly sympathetic to Russian interests not only showed up in the OII report, but has had a deleterious impact on the American public’s confidence in the government and traditional media which has lasted well into the year.

Online propaganda is openly subsidized by governments worldwide. The US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) dedicates a special group called the Military Information Support Operations Command (MISOC) to manage sock puppets to support US military and diplomatic interests abroad. Russian propagandists increasingly target “democratized” spaces online to create a completely toxic atmosphere where there is zero credibility and sow doubt and confusion online, or polarize public opinion on domestic social media networks such as LiveJournal and VKontakte.

The technique which best enables propaganda to be so effective is the building of consensus through the bandwagon effect. Manipulating a post’s metrics—measured in number of views, “likes”, and retweets—can have an amplifying effect on the post and unconsciously draw human users to support a popular message, even though it can be artificially generated and inflated through bots. The complexity of a bot’s capabilities can range from spamming political talking points across various platforms, to promoting certain views by using hundreds or thousands of bots to promote a particular message. Polarizing messages have ranges from criticism of a political candidate or a call to support military intervention abroad. Although platforms such as Facebook and Twitter attempt to root out botnets and the users who manage them, propagandists are becoming more adept at incorporating a human touch to political manipulation to avoid detection.

Modern propaganda does not solely entail disseminating hyper-political messages on social media. Research demonstrates that, as in real life, people aim to avoid political controversy online if they can help it. So if people avoid viewpoints to which they are ideologically opposed how do propagandists solve this selectivity? Most likely, they simply take advantage of it. Bots can have telltale signs of being nonhuman, such as poor spelling or suspicious wording in their posts or the use of human operators managing fake online personalities, known as sock puppets. They can have a more nuanced strategy to influence public opinion where political views can be more entrenched and harder to weaponize. Instead of incessantly spouting political propaganda on social media, sock puppets gradually influence other users of social media by moderating the political content they post with more innocuous content, whether it be viral videos, “memes”, or fictitious posts about their personal lives. Operators of sock puppets, such as the employees of the now infamous Russian “troll-farm”, carefully manage their fake online personas to appear as detailed and legitimate as possible to effect a better deception. Using these techniques, targets of propagandists can gradually follow a user or page posting cat videos and celebrity gossip to receiving tailored political propaganda as a means to sway public opinion and mobilize action.

This, compounded with the perceived hyper-partisan state of politics in today’s world, gives both states and other politically interested groups a wide range of potential targets to undermine opposition figures. But, whereas propaganda was once mostly aimed at undermining political regimes or governments themselves, online propagandists have put traditional media in its crosshairs. Attacking the credibility of traditional media and branding it as “fake news” shifts public interest into diversifying their news source to alternative forms of journalism. Such alternatives are prone to influence from propagandists as clearly partisan alternative news sources such as Infowars, Russia Today (RT), and NowThis can pursue a journalistic vein without any of the ethical or legal frameworks of traditional news media. Almost every alternative news source maintains a healthy presence on social media sites and is highly visible to social media users—creating opportunities for propagandists to exploit these sites for political ends.

Strategizing online propaganda is easy, cost effective, and low maintenance. The direct effect of political propaganda can be difficult to measure, as research still has a long way to establish causality between bots, sock puppets, trolls, and its offline political consequences. But, as events like the Arab Spring, Russia’s ongoing involvement in Ukraine, and the American Presidential election have demonstrated, social media’s impact in politics is a force to be reckoned with and merits serious consideration from heads of state to the individual consumer.