Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Readings on cognitive warfare at the societal level — #11: Molly McKew on “How Twitter Bots and Trump Fans Made #ReleaseTheMemo Go Viral” (Feb 2018)

This is the fifth article by Molly McKew I’ve included in this series. Her article’s sub-title sums it up: “Russian bots and their American allies gamed social media to put a flawed intelligence document atop the political agenda. That should alarm us.”

The article focuses on “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.” That gripping term “computational propaganda” refers to “the use of information and communication technologies to manipulate perceptions, affect cognition, and influence behavior”. Or, as an interviewee put it, “Computational propaganda serves to distort the political process and amplify fringe views in ways that no previous communication technology could.”

The article documents, in surprising detail, how the hashtag campaign #ReleaseTheMemo started small on Twitter, gained momentum, and became huge — increasingly amplified by automated bots and semi-automated cyborgs as well as by real people, including targeted pro-Trump lawmakers and media commentators. McKew discerns from her data that “The frenzy of activity spurred lawmakers and the White House to release the Nunes memo” — which, I’d add, is evidently what they aimed to do all along.

Posing the question “What does it all mean?”, McKew answers as follows:
“A year after it should have become an indisputable fact that Russia launched a sophisticated, lucky, daring, aggressive campaign against the American public, we’re as exposed and vulnerable as we ever were—if not more so, because now so many tools we might have sharpened to aid us in this fight seem blunted and discarded by the very people who should be honing their edge. There is no leadership. No one is building awareness of how these automated influence campaigns are being used against us. …
“A recent analysis from DFRLab mapped out how modern Russian propaganda is highly effective because so many diverse messaging elements are so highly integrated. Far-right elements in the United States have learned to emulate this strategy, and have used it effectively with their own computational propaganda tactics — as demonstrated by the “Twitter rooms” and documented alt-right bot-nets pushing a pro-Trump narrative. …
“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.”
Yikes! As I’ve noted before, back in the Cold War decades and before, we had to be wary of Soviets trying to be “in cahoots” with elements of the American Left — and vice-versa. Now it’s the reverse: we must be wary of Russians acting “in cahoots” with elements of the American Right — and vice-versa.

To read in full, go here:


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