Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics By Yochai Benkler, Robert Faros, and Hal Roberts • Oxford University Press • 2018 • 472 pages • $27.95
Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President By Kathleen Hall Jamieson • Oxford University Press • 2018 • 314 pages • $24.95
The 2016 election was so anomalous in so many ways that it has generated a kind of nightmarish worry-haze. It’s easy to get lost in the headlines—the latest indictment, hacking scandal, or tweetstorm.
Two recent books refreshingly lift the fog. Both accept the wealth of publicly available sources confirming the active role of Russian cyberwarfare in the election (before and after Election Day 2016). Both accept the role of social media in political communication (also before and after). Then they differ.
Network Propaganda offers a political-economy perspective on the election, tempered by wisdom from science, technology, and society studies, which explores the social construction and social implications of technology. It’s fueled by an impressive amount of original research. Authors Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts, at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, see a political America defined by two distinct media ecosystems. The one on the right consists of a tightly enclosed feedback loop between propagandists (including, but by no means limited to, Russians), billionaire money (especially Steve Bannon benefactor Robert Mercer), and a media ecology in which Fox News is central but outlets like Breitbart can also be highly influential.
The Republican Party, with its Southern Strategy-derived white identity constituency and its support from evangelical Christians, benefits more from fact-free, belief-driven passion, especially on social identity issues, than the Democratic Party. Republican strategies, reflecting ever-greater ideological purity, are unsurprisingly integrated within this feedback loop. It was through this ecosystem, for example, that the myths of the “deep state,” the “DNC murder” of Seth Rich, and the bogus corruption scandal concerning Uranium One—each a case study in the book—that right-wing media strategically used to cast doubt on law enforcement, just as the Mueller investigation heated up. These examples rightly exemplify the network propaganda of the authors’ title.
Media outside this right-wing bubble, by contrast, are structured differently. This media ecosystem responds to journalistic standards of objectivity, accuracy, and fact-finding. The left, liberal, center, and center-right aspects all share those values. In this ecology, conspiracy, rumor, and innuendo are generally kept in check by journalistic norms. Furthermore, disinformation and misinformation do not necessarily reward the Democratic Party, which is organized more around interest-group coalition politics. (The authors draw on Grossman and Hopkins’ Asymmetric Politics to portray Democratic voters as less driven by social identity and more willing to accept “half a loaf” without feeling betrayed.)
The good news is that more than two-thirds of the country occupies the fact-grounded zone. The bad news is that the forces creating the fact-free zone and network propaganda will continue to have undue and growing sway, unless checked.
The evidence the authors of Network Propaganda present stems mostly from analyzing who links with whom on the Internet, and by an analysis of “shares” on Facebook and Twitter. They expand their analysis with literature review, case studies, and historical data. These links and shares are taken as a proxy of who and what the American public regards as important, of which sites have authority and credibility in terms of providing information. To carry out this analysis, the authors use an open-source tool, Media Cloud, to see who references and shares different sites. The resulting data is displayed in lists, charts, and maps. Unfortunately, the print version of the book reproduces the color graphics poorly (and they are not easy to read in the first place), so even if you buy the book, you might return to the free online version to study them.
The authors find that the biggest culprits in generating network propaganda are not Russia, Cambridge Analytica, or commercial clickbaiters—not that they’re irrelevant. (Bots, by the way, do seem to be pretty irrelevant, to the extent we can divine them.) The biggest offenders are radical right sites, Fox, and the weaknesses of mainstream journalism. Radical right sites, especially Breitbart but also Free Republic, Gateway Pundit, Zero Hedge, and others, make it their goal to exert overall influence over other parts of the right-wing media network. (Interestingly, white supremacist sites don’t get as much actual pickup in terms of links as you might think; they depend on Breitbart to create a bridge between them and the broader right-wing media.) The authors demonstrate quite convincingly how Breitbart, along with Trump, was able to push Fox to focus more on immigration, for example. Immigration was not the Republican establishment’s issue of choice in 2016. But Breitbart, working with Mercer’s money, assiduously followed Trump’s lead, pushing immigration coverage whenever Trump mentioned it. Immigration, Trump’s “battering ram against the walls of the Republican Party establishment,” found a primary aid in Breitbart. Already tightly interwoven with Fox, which was pro-Trump and then shifted to immigration themes and terrorist frames, it was also affiliated with “think tanks” like the anti-immigrant Center for Immigrant Studies, among others.
How important are user-generated sites like Reddit and 4chan? They can help in changing discourse, but mostly they matter when the rest of the big right-wing media actors find those sites’ tropes strategically useful. Cambridge Analytica actually appears to have done a terrible job overall, making bogus claims about its work before claiming it never used psychographic data—information that targets individuals for messages—in the campaign (and then folding soon after). There’s also evidence that psychographic targeting is barely more effective than the standard marketing that has been supercharged by Facebook’s data for some time. Commercial fake-news clickbaiters can generate heat on social media, but without bigger media to back them up these memes don’t make it into the larger media ecology, so alone they don’t occupy much of the public’s attention.
Now, how about the Russians? They “mostly jumped on a bandwagon already hurtling down whatever path it was taking rather than giving that bandwagon the shove that got it going,” the authors write. The networks
reinforcing the Russians’ messages didn’t really depend on them to develop: The Russian propaganda outlet RT became important mostly because of Infowars, the popular Alex Jones conspiracy site. It’s right-wing Reddit groups and alt-righters who picked up Pizzagate. Trump didn’t wait for the Russians to plant the “voter fraud” meme; they followed his and right-wing media’s lead. The Russians’ biggest goal appears to have been propaganda aimed at “disorientation”—polluting the information environment to sow broad distrust in information sources. But disorientation has been a central game of right-wing media since Rush Limbaugh hit the airwaves with his “four corners of deceit” mantra (which includes, apparently, government, academia, science, and the media).
After the book’s publication, two new studies of hitherto unavailable social media data were released to the Senate. They provided more data, but nothing that challenged the arguments of this book. One of them showed that Russian propaganda devoted substantial resources to voter suppression among African Americans, especially through Instagram. But because the social media platforms withheld crucial parts of the data, the study could not track effects. According to Benkler, Faris, and Roberts, black voters don’t seem (according to election results) to have chosen, say, libertarian candidates because of the Russian Instagram drumbeat designed to discourage them from voting for Clinton. Meanwhile, the Trump campaign openly admitted, via Bannon, to several voter suppression strategies using Facebook that appear to have been much more consequential.
What to do, then? On the media side, the authors of Network Propaganda think that getting a grip on platform governance is crucial. In company with noted scholars such as Zeynep Tufekci and Siva Vaidhyanathan, they believe Facebook’s ad-based business model has generated a true monster in targeted advertising, creating a new and potent distribution mechanism for anyone looking for influence. They want more transparency in political ads online, like the Honest Ads Act would require, and data access policies to rein in datamining. They want to protect and support the fact-grounded media sphere, including embattled center-right media. Fighting far right-wing media means better public health for the rest of the media ecology.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s Cyberwar also looks at the question: Did Russian hacking and trolling affect the election? Jamieson, for her part, answers her central question crisply: Yes. First, she asks her readers to stop calling Russian hacking and trolling “meddling.” This, she says, is cyberwarfare. Stop being shocked—it’s not unprecedented, and the United States conducts it too. Also, she pleads: Stop acting like this is a one-time event. It’s an ongoing strategy, and readers should depend on it continuing and evolving. “The forms of Russian intrigue at play in the 2016 election would have been just as problematic if directed against a Republican or third-party nominee. In future years, they may be.”
Yet, remarkably, despite Network Propaganda’s minimizing of the Russian role, the two books still share many areas of agreement. For example, in the end, Jamieson, too, thinks the central problems lie at home. A notable staple of the political communications landscape who’s done extensive analysis of every presidential election in recent memory, Jamieson concludes that Russian messages could have swung undecided voters and suppressed votes. But they could only do it because we helped.
As for what their effects were, Jamieson relies on a combination of existing evidence and the 75-year history of communications research. This is largely a logical exercise informed by publicly reported polls and news. In a primer that every journalist and undergraduate student should read, she walks us through what we can be confident we know about how communication works. Fear, for instance, is a really good way to persuade. Media effects include priming (making you more likely to think about something), agenda-setting (telling you what to think about), and framing (telling you how to think about it). Media messages often become part of our belief systems indirectly, when others confirm them for us (two-step flow, or contagion). This knowledge has fed the strategic thinking and toolkits of marketers and advertisers for many decades. And the Russians knew of these tools too; their publicly reported targeting shows pro-Trump messaging, as well as specific targeting of veterans, white Christians, African Americans, and Bernie Sanders supporters. The Russians also didn’t have to go far to figure out who to target or how, as the horse race-addicted mainstream media pushed political punditry analyzing electoral strategies. And then, of course, the Russians got voting data out of hacking the DNC and state election systems (Illinois’s for sure).
Did it work? Jamieson argues that effectiveness would depend on whether the trolling was extensive, Trump-aligned, focused on constituencies relevant to the vote, persuasive, and well-targeted. She finds that in 2016, all these characteristics checked out. So to conclude that the trolling didn’t work would defy every principle of communications that has been verified over decades.
But it worked, with our help. She points, for instance, to the importance of the DNC hack data in FBI Director James Comey’s decision to reopen the investigation about Clinton’s emails. She also points to how debate moderators drew on hacked material to introduce accusations against Clinton and the “open borders” trade issue. With Russian prompting, the mainstream press shifted the framework of discussions in ways that benefited Russian goals. But as Network Propaganda also points out, domestic forces were at least as interested in this shifting of framework as the Russians, and had greater capacity. Platforms, particularly Facebook, looked resolutely the other way even when the evidence of tampering was clear.
Jamieson has had a longstanding message for the mainstream press: Get away from the horse race. She reiterates it in this book. She blames the political parties for short-sighted behavior. And she puts her faith in more transparency.
To that end, she also endorses reforms on platform management, some of which are already part of the Honest Ads Act. She calls for blocking and notification, disclosure, verifying identity, banning foreign nationals from political advertising, and reducing ad strategies that allow for poisonous targeted advertising (e.g. white supremacists). The scale of the problem, and potential for platforms’ deception, is demonstrated by recent revelations about the vast extent of Facebook’s partner access for data on its users. Facebook’s policies have left every Facebook user effectively naked to the world (or at least to their phone company, Netflix, Spotify, and Microsoft, among others)—if not through their own actions, then through those of friends and friends of friends in the Facebook “community.”
Jamieson bluntly addresses one alarming question—that of foreign interference—providing clarity about cyberwarfare, and ammunition for governmental response. Benkler et al. methodically, and with original research, look more intensely at the domestic media ecosystem, providing insights for the future of both journalism and organizing. Jamieson is more optimistic about the basic health of the political system than are Benkler et al. But they’re all pretty worried about where we go from here.
“We need to find the wherewithal to translate forewarned into forearmed,” Jamieson explains. Where will that wherewithal come from? That huge question is beyond the scope of either book. But it’s dark money that fuels right-wing media and politics, and that pipeline is enabled by campaign finance regulations, and by financial regulation more generally. Voter suppression, which also sways elections greatly, is enabled by shameful and racist laws and policies. Facebook’s lack of respect for our privacy is rivalled by our own government’s. Those are all specifically political problems.
To get to remedies—passing the Honest Ads Act, which was first introduced 20 years ago, much less getting to serious platform regulation, or effective competition policy, or to fixing campaign finance—will take social movements putting real pressure on the existing political apparatus. People looking to build such common strength can draw from these books the good news that the public is still less polarized than our political processes, that resistance to foreign trolling is basic to modern defense, and that we still have a media ecosystem that functions to support, to some degree, the democratic process. At a moment when democracy is in peril because it has been deliberately sabotaged from within, it matters that we still have an information ecology grounded in fact. No wonder Trump has been so unrelenting in his “fake news” barrage. Facts still matter.