The Digital Destruction of Democracy

AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana

Senators Mark Warner and Richard Burr with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg after a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing last September

Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics
By Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, & Hal Roberts
Oxford University Press

This article appears in the Winter 2019 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here

Disinformation and propaganda spread by media have long been a staple of politics. But the 2016 elections raised new questions about the role of new media. What role did the interplay of new and old media play in getting authoritarian demagogues elected? How do new media platforms supercharge the spread of conspiracy theories and false ideas? Is there something different about the way Facebook and Twitter spread hate and lies? How can we stop them from doing so?

Yochai Benkler and his co-authors Robert Faris and Hal Roberts have amassed reams of data tracing how extreme propaganda and disinformation seeped from the edges to the center of U.S. discourse in 2016. Much of this was done via social media platforms, of course, but the authors of Network Propaganda explain how Breitbart and Fox News also played a pivotal role in disseminating extreme ideas to a broad swath of the U.S. population.

A Harvard law professor who is a well-known theorist of the digital age, Benkler and colleagues have produced an authoritative tome that includes multiple taxonomies and literature reviews as well as visualizations of the flow of disinformation. They begin by sorting out the different types of disinformation and the groups that circulate it. These include “clickbait fabricators” with mainly financial motives for circulating false or misleading content; Russian hackers who spread propaganda via Facebook; Cambridge Analytica, which used data from Facebook profiles to micro-target voters with political advertising; and “white supremacist and alt-right trolls” who harnessed the power of the increasingly powerful “right-wing media ecosystem.” The authors include a history of the scholarship on propaganda, reminding the reader that much of the discussion began in the 1930s.

Benkler’s optimistic 2007 book, The Wealth of Networks, predicted that the Internet would bring people together and transform the way information is created and spread. Today, Benkler is far less sanguine and has become one of the foremost researchers of disinformation networks. Using the MITMedia Lab’s Media Cloud software first developed with Ethan Zuckerman, Hal Roberts, and other colleagues, the authors analyzed some two million stories published during the 2016 election campaign and another 1.9 million stories that appeared during the first year of Trump’s presidency. Network Propaganda includes their maps of how propaganda and disinformation spread across the web and entered mainstream conservative media.

A few key findings: The dishonest poison on the web is being spread mainly by the right. Benkler calls out Fox News, BreitbartThe Daily CallerInfoWars, and Zero Hedge as the places where extreme lies and pieces of propaganda are created and then spread around the web and to other right-wing media. There is no equivalent level of disinformation and propaganda on the left or in the Democratic zone of news and information. The few conspiracy theories that exist on the left don’t spread.

The idea of “balance” and “scoops,” intrinsic to the professionalized legacy media’s practice, inadvertently spread the disinformation peddled by the right. Benkler argues that the media’s commitment to balance meant that it gave air time to many of the egregious falsehoods disseminated on BreitbartThe Daily Caller, Zero Hedge, and InfoWars. As a result, mainstream journalists repeat and amplify the falsehoods even as they debunk them.

An email included in the 2016 Wikileaks dump of Podesta emails that said the Clinton Health Access Initiative “would like to request that President Clinton call Sheik Mohammed to thank him for offering his plane to the conference in Ethiopia and expressing regrets that his schedule does not permit him to attend” was reported in The Daily Caller as Bill Clinton accepting a free ride from Moroccan King Mohammed VI, who donated $28 million to the Clinton Foundation.

This lie about the plane ride was then morphed into another unsubstantiated story that in 2011, the Clintons tried “to shut down the U.S. phosphate company Mosaic Fertilizer in exchange for a $15 million donation” from Morocco’s king, “ostensibly to help Morocco’s state-owned phosphate company.” Had these kinds of stories stayed in the right-wing media ecosystem, the damage might not have been great. In fact, Benkler finds that the mainstream media spent much of July, August, and September 2016 reporting on phony allegations of Clinton corruption, while coverage of Trump stayed focused on the issues he raised. “Defining Hillary Clinton in terms of corruption was the central success of the Trump campaign and the right-wing media campaign ecosystem during the 2016 election.”

The best-selling book Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich, about foreign donors to the Clinton Foundation, was written by Breitbart news editor-at-large Peter Schweizer, funded by the Mercers (published by HarperCollins), and became a New York Times bestseller in 2015. The book, filled with inaccuracies and misinformation, became one of Breit-bart’s most shared stories on Facebook in 2015 and gained legitimacy by being reported in The New York Times in early 2015. The book was made into a spurious documentary called Clinton Cash, which was launched in July 2016 by Steve Bannon and aimed at splitting Bernie Sanders’s supporters away from Clinton. The link to the film on YouTube then became the second-most shared story on Facebook about the Clinton Foundation in fall of 2016, and the most widely tweeted video throughout the election. Using network analysis and looking at patterns of how links are shared, the authors note that the film “straddled the line between core Trump supporters (based on its location in the network) and Bernie supporters (based on the community detection algorithms, which places it clearly within the Bernie community).”

In keeping with much of the scholarship on media persuasion, Benkler and colleagues are cautious about blaming Facebook for the 2016 election results. There is no clear line, they argue, between Russian propaganda, Breitbart lies, and the Trump victory. They add that Fox News is probably more influential than Facebook. On this front, the evidence is in: Research published in one of the top economics journals in the fall of 2017 shows that the presence of Fox News in the United States causes an increase in votes for Republican candidates and in polarization.

Facebook has information as to who was microtargeted with political advertising and disinformation in 2016, and this could be crossed with election data to detect the trends in voting patterns; but Facebook won’t release the information on which Facebook users were targeted. Facebook’s focus on profits above everything else means that, like YouTube and Twitter, it is the place where rumors, lies, and hate speech spread globally as well as in the United States. Once it became clear that the social media platforms were spreading lies, Russian disinformation, and hate speech, Facebook stonewalled when faced with government requests for information, not just in the United States but in the United Kingdom and at the European Commission. As a result of investigative reporting in The New York Times in November 2018, we know that after George Soros gave a speech in January 2018 calling for regulation of the social media platforms, Facebook hired a Republican opposition research firm to shovel dirt at George Soros. The firm, Definers Public Affairs, also spread rumors that groups supporting regulation of social media platforms were anti-Semites.

It’s no surprise that social media platforms are just as greedy and unscrupulous as any other big business. The problem is what to do about companies whose business model is based on generating engagement—which includes systematic disinformation—and selling targeted advertising. Around the world, governments, businesses, foundations, journalists, and academics are trying a range of piecemeal fixes that may not work. The European Union has not yet tried to regulate disinformation (although they do have codes of practice for the platforms), instead focusing on taxation, competition regulation, and protection of privacy. But Germany has strengthened its regulations regarding online hate speech, including the liability of the social media platforms. Under German law, opinions are protected but false facts are not. It may be that the European Union will clamp down in the future, but the United States won’t because most speech here is protected by the First Amendment. Further, many of the Internet governance groups in the United States, which oppose European-type laws, receive some funding from Facebook.

So Benkler, Faris, and Roberts are forced to fall back on low-hanging fruit such as disclosure of the sources of online political advertising. This common-sense approach has been espoused by former FEC Commissioner Ann Ravel and others and is included in a bipartisan proposal, the Honest Ads Act, introduced in October 2017 by Senators Mark Warner and Amy Klobuchar. It’s a bit toothless because, just as with offshore bank accounts, it may be possible to register which U.S. entity is paying for online political advertising, but it’s impossible to know whether that entity is getting its funds from overseas. Even the Honest Ads bill was too much for Facebook to take. As The New York Times reported in November, Facebook hired the Republican opposition research firm Defenders and went into full attack mode, enlisting Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to strongarm opponents. The anger against Zuckerberg and Sandberg has been tremendous, similar to the outrage seen after the Cambridge Analytica revelations, but it’s not clear how this will translate into reforms.

We’re left with a world of competing fixes that may not work and fragmented media systems whose audiences live in parallel worlds and believe different things. The authors of Network Propaganda note that by doing more surveillance, social media platforms may be able to minimize the amount of foreign propaganda entering public debate. They also call for regulation or self-regulation of the platforms and argue for laws supporting transparency of political advertising. But that won’t solve the problem of Rupert Murdoch and Steve Bannon.

The book concludes, “[T]here is little that technocratic solutions can do consistent with a commitment to free expression.” Reading this prodigious piece of research, we are left with deeper understanding of how information networks circulate lies—and deeper frustration about possible remedies.  

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