In his new book “Lie Machines: How to Save Democracy from Troll Armies, Deceitful Robots, Junk News Operations, and Political Operatives” Philip N. Howard suggests that according to his research at Oxford University, there was a one to one ration of junk news to professional news on Twitter during the 2016 presidential election. I say “suggests” because Howard is doing research and one thing researchers know for sure is that it leads to more work. I’m willing to venture the ratio has only gotten worse.
Howard writes: “for each link to a story produced by a professional news organization, there was another link to content that was extremist, sensationalist, or conspiratorial or to other forms of junk news.”
Bots, algorithms, trolls, and organized cyber disinformation campaigns have strengthened over the past four years and accordingly we don’t know what the ratios may be right now.
The effect of so much disinformation is to turn people off from believing in the very things social democracies stand for: justice, equality, truth in the practice of law and medicine, the free expression of ideas and the dignity of citizenship. Instead you’re to embrace the idea that the system is out to destroy you, cheat you, undermine the good life as you imagine it. The “Lie Machine” is built from fascist ingredients: sinister minorities or foreigners are stealing your life force.
The social effects of this are now everywhere. As a university professor I’m watching many of my colleagues assert that the administration is trying to kill students and staff by reopening the campus–this despite tremendous safeguards and protocols to keep people safe. It remains to be seen if my university, Syracuse, can stay open, but I know full well that the leadership is not sinister or malign. Yet there’s a one to one ratio of vetted accurate information to falsehood in digital spaces and public exhaustion and conspiratorial thinking is the direct result.
Howard writes: “Public life is being torn apart. Lie machines sow distrust and infect political conversations with anger, moral outrage, and invective in ways that forestall consensus building. It is not simply that social media may have side effects, making us dependent on our screens for news and information, or that our mobile phones may be isolating us from our neighbors. Troll armies, bot networks, and fake news operations are formal structures of misinformation, purposefully built.”
“Many outrageous political stories, rumors, and accusations spread rapidly over social media, and there are businesses that profit by marketing, amplifying, and advertising political lies. In 2016, bots were successful in spreading a crazy story, often called #pizzagate, that supposedly linked Hillary Clinton with a pedophilia ring based out of a pizza parlor in Washington, DC. In 2020, it was automation on TikTok and Twitter that tried to convince local activists and the world at large to dismiss Hong Kong’s democracy advocates as violent radicals. Every country now has similar kinds of politically potent lies—stories that remain believed long after they have been disproven. Who takes a potent piece of misinformation that serves the interests of political elites or some ideological agenda, does the market analysis, and unleashes a marketing campaign over social media? Who are the political operatives who buy and sell our data, make or break politicians, and distribute political lies over the internet?”
Of the “who” there are many. The arrest of Steve Bannon for his role in crowd sourcing fraud is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg as we say.
“There are multiple challenges before us if we want to live in functional democracies: A politician who doesn’t like how a question is phrased dismisses the questioner as “alt-right” or “alt-left.” A political leader who doesn’t like how a news story is framed labels it “fake news.” A political consultant who doesn’t like the evidence comes up with “alternative facts.” Growing numbers of citizens believe junk science about climate change and public health. Traditional pollsters can’t call an election, and the surprising outcomes of elections seem to have their roots in manipulative leaders in other countries.”
This is a very timely and important book. As he says:
“By closely examining lie machines, we can understand how to take them apart. I offer basic policy recommendations on how we can protect political speech while demolishing the mechanisms for producing, distributing, and marketing misinformation. I provide civic defense tips that should help us proactively protect ourselves in the years ahead. Yet the best way to solve collective problems is with collective action, so I also identify ways that our public agencies can protect us with policies that make it tough for these big lie machines to operate in our democracies. It is possible to block the production, dissemination, and marketing of big political lies, but we’ll have to act together to do this effectively.”