Tag: Fake news

Shifting realities: The art of propaganda

“Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.”
– Noam Chomsky

Edward Bernays, who some call the ‘father of propaganda’, had an approach to PR that was ground-breaking in his time. He didn’t just try to push the features of a product or an idea, as so many ad-men were doing in those days. Instead, Bernays created campaigns that attempted to shift society’s configuration of reality, to create fertile conditions and a perceived ‘need’ for the product or idea he’d been tasked to peddle.

For example, when Bernays was marketing bacon to the American public, via the ad vehicle of a ‘hearty breakfast’, he assembled a panel of doctors and persuaded them to give bacon their seal of approval. With expert approval of the product, a shift could now begin in the population’s perceptions of reality, eventually reaching the point where it would see bacon as the perfect breakfast item.

The foundations had been laid; now the selling could happen with ease. Bacon started to fly off the shelves, and perceptions of it soon became embedded in the American psyche as the perfect, filling breakfast. It’s still considered as such today, despite much evidence to the contrary. Bernays’ aim was long-term; not to persuade the buyer that they needed the product right now, but to ‘transform the buyer’s very world’ so that the product appeared to be utterly desirable.

From products to politics

Bernays also applied this technique, far more dangerously, to political campaigning. In 1953 he used it on behalf of the United Fruit Company, to orchestrate a campaign that brought down the government of Guatemala and turned it into a fascist dictatorship – all to create more suitable conditions for United Fruit to make more profits. The campaign began by creating and spreading the myth that Guatemala was at risk of communist subversion.

Once this myth became widely believed, the United Fruit Company was able to persuade the Eisenhower administration, via the CIA, to overthrow the democratically elected government of Guatemala. What was in it for United Fruit? An uninterrupted source of bananas and pineapples, picked cheaply by local labour and sold for big profits in the United States.

Reconfiguring reality

If propagation of such a myth could cause regime change in the 50s, a pre-digital age, what could similar campaigns achieve today, with so many more tools at the disposal of propagandists? Bernay’s calculating antics with United Fruit offer parallels with today’s alarming rise of the so-called ‘alt-right’ movement – white supremacists and extremists.

This extremist movement seemed to emerge from nowhere, but fast became influential enough to propel Donald Trump into the White House on a swell of populist fear, hatred, and bigotry.

Trump voters responded to a constant tide of media messages detailing horror stories of terrorist attacks and ISIS atrocities. The link between those stories and Muslims, refugees (mainly Muslims) and foreigners in general was cleverly and cynically drawn.

Once the seeds of hysteria took root, it became easy to stoke it high enough to shift the public’s perceptions of reality. In short, to create fertile conditions for the ‘alt-right’ to go mainstream and elect their presidential candidate. Or, on the other side of the Atlantic, for the public to vote against their interests and decide on Brexit.

Both outcomes were so extreme that many didn’t expect them. But, just as Bernays did all those years ago, with products as mundane as bacon and pianos, so these campaigns were once more executed to a tee. The conditions were created, and the ‘product’ quickly sold itself.

Emotion over reason

Critics of Bernays contend that the public is not one big mass that can be easily manipulated, with opinions drip-fed into their passively waiting brains. This critique is especially relevant in these days of independent media, where alternative opinions can be sought at the expense of a simple Google search.

It’s valid, to an extent, but on the other hand the power of emotion, especially fear, is such that it can override the logical parts of the human brain. When this happens, the resulting fight or flight response can make even the most logical human being abandon reason for emotion.

The pervasive power of media messages is hastened along even further by the enormous reach of social media, distilled into a concentrated force by people’s own digital echo chambers, until it finally seeps out to unveil a grand result – a fearful population that no longer knows what’s true and what’s not. In this milieu, fear of the ‘other’ seems to make perfect sense.

And who better to save us than a self-styled strong leader, an apparent straight-talker who refuses to be bound by political correctness, who makes lofty promises for change that would seem to quell our nastiest fears?

Perhaps it’s really just a big propaganda campaign and populations on both sides of the Atlantic have fallen for it. The question remains now – who stands to benefit? And who is really running the show?

Retrospective on loss

“What’s past is prologue.”

 – William Shakespeare, The Tempest

It was a strangely warm winter’s day while reflecting on the cold, dismal year just past. In a year bookended by this city, the enjoyment of being here can’t quite blot out memories of what happened in the middle.

Loss has defined 2016; loss of people, of peace, and of collective sanity. Perching on the brink of the approaching new year brings a sense of trepidation. From my own vantage point (ever-changing as it is), I’ve observed much news of loss. It hasn’t been pretty.

Celebrity deaths have come in a steady stream this year. The most recent, Star Wars legend, writer and activist Carrie Fisher, marks a resounding end to a terrible run that took with it some of the world’s most iconic figures, including Bowie, Cohen and Prince.

There have been other losses too, less famous but equally resonant, like the murder of the principled politician Jo Cox. And we mustn’t forget the lives lost this year in terrorist attacks that now seem frighteningly frequent, from Brussels to Berlin and all over the Middle East.

Along with human loss of all stripes we also witnessed political loss. In June, Britons voted away their privileges of living, working and travelling freely across 28 European nations. Our pound and our passports lost their heft as the people lashed out in one spiteful kick against perceived notions of Brussels and refugees. I cried when I heard news of Brexit.

Soon after, Istanbul was lost; and everything that came with it. But things were much worse for embattled Turkey, which lost peace, calm and its sense of security on that fateful July day of the failed coup. The country may never be the same again.

Globally, we lost the ability to make sense of world events. The toxic fog of ‘fake news’ descended upon us and took over our incoming news channels. This effect had been building up for months, culminating on the day the earth stood still – when Donald Trump took the White House.

The resulting furore rages on. Those of us whose job it is to seek truth feel compromised, hindered and weighed down by grey propaganda at every turn. Bot armies and paid Macedonian trolls are vying to control our perceptions. They are tools of those who wish to shape the future of nations for the worse.

No-one knows what truth looks like anymore. Each new story attracts cycle after cycle of ‘debunking’, until fact and fiction become smeared together in one unholy mass, until all is in doubt and nothing feels right anymore.

No-one knows what the new year will bring. All we can do as individuals is buttress ourselves against the coming storm, building a safe haven of the self. Because the world isn’t fair, and if we can’t rely on ourselves, who can we rely on?

Trust no-one, question everything, and don’t lose yourself.

Fake armies: A field guide to astroturfing

“There are invisible rulers who control the destinies of millions.”

― Edward L. Bernays

It sounds so Orwellian; the world’s opinions shaped by vast armies of bots, or by paid groups of teenagers in Macedonia. But far from being a 1984 nightmare come to life, this scenario has become reality; and not just in authoritarian states. Technology is now used to drown out the voices of real people, creating an alternate reality where fake opinions rule and the zeitgeist is based on myths.

What exactly is astroturfing?

Astroturfing is where paid groups or automated technologies (‘bots’) fool the public into believing that certain opinions are more popular or widespread than in reality. It’s used in many arenas, from political campaigning to Amazon reviews. With the increasing influence of social media it’s difficult to tell fake from fact. Astroturfing is especially likely to happen whenever the interests of big business come into conflict with those of the public, for example climate change and big oil, or lung cancer and tobacco companies. To challenge scientifically proven fact should be an impossible endeavour, as surely nothing is more sacred than fact? But in a world led by fake news and paid opinion, the word of experts has been cheapened. In fact, many people no longer trust experts at all. This was demonstrated to devastating effect this year during the EU referendum in the UK, and the presidential elections in the United States.

When did astroturfing begin?

Astroturfing is not a phenomenon of the digital age. It’s been going on since before social media began. Back in the days of print newspapers, so-called ‘concerned residents’ would send a barrage of letters to the editor, especially around election times, to protest against certain policies or candidates. Now that newspapers have gone online the armies of astroturfers have headed to the nearest obvious outlet: the comment sections. From there, it’s an easy step to create multiple identities and start posting comments. Forums are another prime target for astroturfers, along with blogs and of course, social media. Have you ever felt a sense of despair when reading the comments under a newspaper article posted on Facebook? They seem to bring out the worst of human nature, but some of them could be astroturfers. In our low moments, when we feel the world is doomed to a constant cycle of bigotry, xenophobia and fear, perhaps we’d do well to remind ourselves that the rabid anti-Muslim or anti-foreigner comments online could simply be the work of some bot army.

What’s the role of technology?

As technology advances further, astroturfing gets more sophisticated. Russia has a particular talent for harnessing the power of fake opinion on a massive scale, using something called ‘persona management software’. This software creates bot armies that use fake IP addresses to hide their location, along with generating authentic-looking ‘aged’ profiles. There’s almost no way to tell bot from human – and that’s where the real danger lies. Fake opinion en masse can have alarming results; shifting the social and political mood and whipping people up into hysteria over issues minor or even non-existent.

Thanks to the online echo chambers that we live in these days, fake opinion can spread with ease once sown. It becomes further reinforced and legitimised by ongoing social sharing and discussion. Most social media users get their news from within a bubble, as algorithms do their utmost to show only the updates that the user is most likely to engage with. This means there’s less chance of people being shown opinions that challenge their existing worldview. That’s a recipe for disaster – and it’s one that we’ve only just begun to understand the significance of.

What are the implications?

Politics in 2016 is fishy business. In particular, the Trump election campaign is extremely suspicious. There have been claims that Russia used its cyber warfare prowess to interfere in the US elections; in the end putting Trump in command of the country. Notably, Russia has been accused of using its hackers to access Wikileaks to produce a leak of thousands of incriminating emails supposedly sent by Hillary Clinton. This move eroded public trust in Clinton and narrowed the gap between candidates by double digits. Again, like astroturfing, this technique is not new. Orchestrating the right conditions to encourage people to act in a certain way has been used for decades. The father of propaganda, Edward Bernays, used it to great effect in the early 20th century, to sell pianos and bacon, and cause regime change in Guatemala.

Having Trump in power is very much in Russia’s interests. Trump is inexperienced in politics, especially foreign policy, making him very much open to manipulation from afar. He has a reputation for being greedy, meaning he can be easily bought. He has already said publicly that he favours anon-interventionist military policy abroad. For the Kremlin, a Trump presidency is Russia’s very own puppet in the White House. It’s the Cold War revisited, with Russia scoring a massive coup against the US. Only this time Russia has technology on its side, propelling its influence all the way into the corridors of American power. The Soviets couldn’t have hoped for anything like it.

Controlling the zeitgeist via propaganda and astroturfing has reached new heights in this fundamentally connected age where the concept of ‘post-truth’ is rapidly gaining currency. That’s a serious concern; it makes a mockery of democracy and free speech, destroying the validity of the internet as a forum for useful online debate. Soon we won’t know what’s bot and what’s not. In this post-truth, Trump-tainted era, one could well argue that is already the case.