Rewired propaganda in the digital age
One of the most powerful ways in which the online sphere differs from traditional media systems is in its global reach. Within countries, traditional media outlets had enormous power to set the agenda and disseminate information (considered to be news in democracies and propaganda in non-free states). The internet initially challenged this information hegemony through the creation of alternative information sources: namely, digital native media, blogs, and forums. With the creation and explosive growth of social media, the distribution channel for news and information metamorphosed into a different system, one that Benkler et al. assert fostered ‘network propaganda’.
Wardle and Derakhshan (2017) write that ‘the emergence of the internet and social technology have brought about fundamental changes to the way information is produced, communicated and distributed’ (p. 11). These characteristics include ‘widely accessible, cheap and sophisticated’ publishing technology that makes is possible for virtually anyone to create and distribute content; making private consumption patterns visible and public; the speed at which information is disseminated; and the fact that information is now passed in ‘real time between trusted peers, and any piece of information is less likely to be challenged’ (11—12). They cite Frederic Filloux in highlighting how Moores law has fostered the spread of misinformation as the exponential growth of available technology drastically lowers the cost of creating, disseminating, and acquiring information.
Technology itself, however, cannot account for the rise of propaganda and populism. Technology is value neutral, and the features outlined by Wardle and Derakhshan are available to essentially all sides in political debates. Indeed, most of the original conception of how the internet would reshape the global communication space suggested that the internet would level information hierarchies, tell truth to power, and create more freedom of speech. While scholars and analysts had become increasingly more cynical after the failure of the Arab Spring to bring enduring democratic change to most of the Middle East, it was the election of Donald Trump in 2016 that caused a significant switch in the debate from ‘cyberoptimism’ to ‘cyberpessimism’.
Certainly, the internet, especially social media, brought great changes to the consumption, production, and distribution of information. Yet an often-overlooked aspect of the digital sphere is the way in which it challenges national information hegemony. While there are still powerful media outlets and information sources within countries, information boundaries are increasingly porous and opaque. This allows foreign actors who wish to try to influence domestic audiences in other countries new and more promising opportunities, such as those shown by Russian actors in the 2016 US presidential election. For example, Russia has an extensive network of foreign-language websites, such as RT (formerly Russia Today), that blend news and misinformation to promote particular strategic narratives for the Russian state. It should be noted that Russia is not alone in these tactics, but democracies are more limited in how they can promote information to authoritarian states. One could also argue that Russians have been more proactive and creative in their information warfare strategies than their Western counterparts.
If we consider the misinformation and propaganda opportunities surrounding the COV1D-19 pandemic, it is easy to see the opportunities afforded by the contemporary media system combined with misinformation creating an environment in which propaganda can thrive. US media consumers have experienced a large amount of misinformation and even disinformation emerging from the White House, which has highlighted the difficulty of informed policymaking and citizen action in a national crisis. It is interesting to note that while Trump was skilled at populist messages during the 2016 election, by late April 2020, he was still struggling to find a populist rhetoric to address the pandemic. The structure of the US traditional and social media system itself, divided and divisive, not only created a challenge to crafting a national response but also left a void into which both domestic and foreign misinformation could push propaganda narratives. A comparison of the painstaking planting of the AIDS virus story by Russians in the 1980s and the ease with which foreign propaganda can accuse the Americans of having created COVID-19 in a lab as a bioweapon showcases the power of rewired propaganda.