Computational Propaganda

by Shelia Kennedy - February 5, 2018

I am now officially befuddled. Out of my depth. And very worried.

Politico has published the results of an investigation that the magazine conducted into the popularity (in social-media jargon, the “viral-ness”) of the hashtag “release the memo.” It found that the committee vote

marked the culmination of a targeted, 11-day information operation that was amplified by computational propaganda techniques and aimed to change both public perceptions and the behavior of American lawmakers….Computational propaganda—defined as “the use of information and communication technologies to manipulate perceptions, affect cognition, and influence behavior”—has been used, successfully, to manipulate the perceptions of the American public and the actions of elected officials.

I’ve been struggling just to understand what “bots” are. The New York Times recent lengthy look at these artificial “followers”–you can evidently buy followers to pump up your perceived popularity–helped to an extent, but left me thinking that these “fake” followers were mostly a form of dishonest puffery by celebrities and would-be celebrities.

Politico disabused me.

The publication’s analysis showed how the #releasethememo campaign had been fueled by  computational propaganda. As the introduction says, ” It is critical that we understand how this was done and what it means for the future of American democracy.”

I really encourage readers to click through and read the article in its entirety. If you are like me, the technical aspects require slow and careful reading. Here, however, are a few of the findings that particularly worry me–and should worry us all.

Whether it is Republican or Russian or “Macedonian teenagers”—it doesn’t really matter. It is computational propaganda—meaning artificially amplified and targeted for a specific purpose—and it dominated political discussions in the United States for days. The #releasethememo campaign came out of nowhere. Its movement from social media to fringe/far-right media to mainstream media so swift that both the speed and the story itself became impossible to ignore. The frenzy of activity spurred lawmakers and the White House to release the Nunes memo, which critics say is a purposeful misrepresentation of classified intelligence meant to discredit the Russia probe and protect the president.

And this, ultimately, is what everyone has been missing in the past 14 months about the use of social media to spread disinformation. Information and psychological operations being conducted on social media—often mischaracterized by the dismissive label “fake news”—are not just about information, but about changing behavior. And they can be surprisingly effective.

An original tweet from a right-wing conspiracy buff with few followers was amplified by an account named KARYN.

The KARYN account is an interesting example of how bots lay a groundwork of information architecture within social media. It was registered in 2012, tweeting only a handful of times between July 2012 and November 2013 (mostly against President Barack Obama and in favor of the GOP). Then the account goes dormant until June 2016—the period that was identified by former FBI Director James Comey as the beginning of the most intense phase of Russian operations to interfere in the U.S. elections. The frequency of tweets builds from a few a week to a few a day. By October 11, there are dozens of posts a day, including YouTube videos, tweets to political officials and influencers and media personalities, and lots of replies to posts by the Trump team and related journalists. The content is almost entirely political, occasionally mentioning Florida, another battleground state, and sometimes posting what appear to be personal photos (which, if checked, come from many different phones and sources and appear “borrowed”). In October 2016, KARYN is tweeting a lot about Muslims/radical Islam attacking democracy and America; how Bill Clinton had lots of affairs; alleged financial wrongdoing on Clinton’s part; and, of course, WikiLeaks.

There’s much more evidence that KARYN is a bot—a bot that follows a random Republican guy in Michigan with 70-some followers. Why?

It would be fair to say that if you were setting up accounts to track views representative of a Trump-supporter, @underthemoraine would be a pulse to keep a finger on—the virtual Michigan “man in the diner” or “taxi driver” that journalists are forever citing as proof of conversations with real, nonpolitical humans in swing states. KARYN follows hundreds of such accounts, plus conservative media, and a lot of other bots.

KARYN triggers other bots and political operatives, and they combine to create a “tweet storm” or viral message. Many of these accounts are “organizers and amplifiers”—accounts with “human conductors” that are partly automated and linked to networks that automatically amplify content.

The article is very long, and very detailed–and I hope many of you will read it in its entirety. For now, I will leave you with the concluding paragraphs:

So what are the lessons of #releasethememo? Regardless of how much of the campaign was American and how much was Russian, it’s clear there was a massive effort to game social media and put the Nunes memo squarely on the national agenda—and it worked to an astonishing degree. The bottom line is that the goals of the two overlapped, so the origin—human, machine or otherwise—doesn’t actually matter. What matters is that someone is trying to manipulate us, tech companies are proving hopelessly unable or unwilling to police the bad actors manipulating their platforms, and politicians are either clueless about what to do about computational propaganda or—in the case of #releasethememo—are using it to achieve their goals. Americans are on their own.

And, yes, that also reinforces the narrative the Russians have been pushing since 2015: You’re on your own; be angry, and burn things down. Would that a leader would step into this breech, and challenge the advancing victory of the bots and the cynical people behind them.