Russia and digital disinformation

As noted earlier, media systems used to parallel national borders closely, a point underlined by Siebert et al. and more recent studies of the way in which media systems reflect national political systems (Hallin and Mancini 2004). While there were extensive attempts at foreign propaganda throughout the twentieth century, they were of limited reach and success due to the ability of national systems to control their key information outlets. The online sphere offers a way for governments to produce and distribute foreign propaganda far more effectively. The twin forces of populism and misinformation, delivered through a US system made vulnerable to populist propaganda through the 2016 elections, give an unprecedented opportunity for foreign media manipulation.

Russia has received a great deal of attention for its propaganda campaign in the 2016 US elections, particularly after congressional investigations and hearings revealed the nature and extent of the campaigns. Although the campaign was initially dismissed as relatively small, later evidence suggested that the Russians had succeeded in disseminating a fairly wide range of content in the 2016 election (Jamieson 2018). The material created and disseminated on social media by the Internet Research Agency in Russia was designed to look like it was produced by Americans. The goal of the content was to spark political action, in particular to organise rallies and protests. This was met with very limited success (Jamieson 2018), although the Russians identified and worked to motivate groups on both sides of the political spectrum through wedge issues such as immigration, gay rights, et cetera.

As Jamieson acknowledges in her detailed study of the 2016 Russian disinformation campaign, it is impossible to establish with any precision the effect of the messaging. In part, this is due to the fact that the Russian content aimed at the right was difficult to disentangle from Trump’s campaign messages. It is never possible to gauge the effect of a particular ad, although Jamieson and others have noted that Trump’s higher spending on late television ads, his more tactical approach to social media deployment, and his efforts in swing states were important.

What is significant about Russian propaganda in the 2016 US elections is that it demonstrated the realm of possibilities for manipulation for authoritarian states in democratic media systems. This gives an asymmetric advantage to non-free states in terms of propaganda and misinformation. As social media companies continued to (slowly) wrestle with the problem, the extension of the libertarian principles into the online sphere — freedom of speech as paramount, virtually no regulation of content — has left open a clear channel for propaganda from foreign states. At the same time, democracies have a much harder time penetrating the more closed online or traditional media systems in non-free states.

Rewired propaganda

These two case studies of Trumps election and the Russian interference in 2016 lead to a consideration of‘rewired’ propaganda. Propaganda has been a part of society and media systems for a long time. Yet propaganda has been bounded in US elections by the history and tradition of political campaigning. As the two political parties control the nomination system, candidates are expected to generate ideologies and policies that resonate with the core party constituencies. The Republican Party has experienced significant changes in the past decade, in particular as moderates and conservatives have pulled further apart. Trump could be considered the fruition of a long shift away from policy-based or even ideological argument to populism in the United States, which is a departure from the form and calculus of party politics. At the same time, as Benkler et al. point out, the US media system has become notably more polarised, with a separate right-wing echo system that preferences propaganda over information.

Thus, the political system in the United States has demonstrated that populism can win the biggest election of them all, albeit in a contest with a surprisingly untraditional contender. However, it should be noted that Trump had an enormous, unprecedented media advantage. His constant stream of misinformation and populist messages led to more, rather than less, uncritical coverage than was given to his more traditional opponent (Patterson 2016). Nor were the traditional media connected with all of the American electorate. The media sphere itself was ‘rewired’ into two separate sectors (Benkler et al. 2018): Clinton supporters consumed a range of more fact-based media while many Trump supporters preferred content that leaned more towards propaganda than news. This was then reinforced by social media patterns of consuming information. In this sense, the media system itself is ‘rewired’ in that the traditional bastions of political influence — the parties and the mass media — are essentially sidelined for many in the digital world.

In earlier work, 1 defined rewired propaganda in Russia as “a commitment to disinformation and manipulation, when coupled with the affordances of the new digital age, give particular advantages to a repressive regime that can proactively shape the media narrative” (Oates 2016, p. 399). In other words, we needed to move beyond the ‘Soviet Communist’ (Siebert et al. 1956) concept of censorship and heavy-handed state manipulation to understand that an attractive narrative that resonated with citizens was a far more effective means of persuasion in the contemporary media sphere. Often — indeed, almost inevitably — one will need misinformation or even disinformation to maintain a plausible propaganda narrative. An additional important element of the notion of ‘rewired’ propaganda, beyond a discussion of the transition from Soviet to Russian propaganda, is that the media system has shifted globally. It has moved from a top-down model in which information was controlled and preferenced by key media outlets to a far more audience-driven and algorithmic model in which stories circulate among networks.

The concept of ‘rewired propaganda’ is suggested as way of understanding a communicative method that leverages misinformation, campaign tactics, and the way both traditional and social media functioned in the 2016 US elections. When populism replaces party-based politics rooted in ideology and articulated policies, rewired propaganda becomes as powerful in democracies as it has been in non-free states such as Russia.

At the same time that there are comparisons of systems in Russia and the United States in 2016 in terms of populist propaganda, there is the specific issue of Russian propaganda in the 2016 US elections. Historically, effective propaganda has tended to be bonded within state systems and certainly within national media systems. While there were many well-documented attempts at foreign influence, the opportunity for international mass propaganda was limited by several factors. Notably, although foreign actors could either run open propaganda outlets or attempt to subvert existing media outlets or journalists, it remained a complex and cumbersome task. For example, in one well-documented case of classic propaganda, the Soviet Union planted a story in an Indian newspaper that AIDS had been developed in an American laboratory (Boghardt 2009). By then using that story as a source, the Soviet media repeated and amplified the claim. However, it took an immense effort and years to give the story any traction at all.

In 2016, foreign interference rode a populist wave in a media environment that was ripe for manipulation. Especially when isolated from competing information in the ring-wing information sphere in the United States, populist messages flourished, given that citizens have little trust in sources that do not resonate with their worldview. This raises many complex questions about media audiences: namely, is the system design or the individual citizen ultimately responsible for consuming populist misinformation rather than democratic knowledge? Much of the popularity of Trump stems from his ability to identify unmet grievances of American citizens, resentments that are often based in grim economic realities. Yet how long will citizens continue to blame Democrats, rather than deeper and broader economic forces, for their particular challenges? To what extent are a significant segment of Americans accepting of the racism and sexism as voiced by their president? A populist president is new in the United States and currently dealing with one of the most significant global challenges to health and the economy to date. This will provide a significant challenge to a populist ruler as citizens are much more demanding of effective action in a crisis.

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