I hate to start out yet another Spraakwater article by mentioning Donald Trump, but the slightly dystopian state of the world makes me feel obliged to postpone merrier topics for another occasion. As we are in the midst of a precarious special investigation to the Trump campaign’s alleged ties to Russia, we are once again pushed to consider a question that is likely to have haunted many liberals incessantly since November: how in the world Trump can have won the presidential election against a candidate that seemed objectively better qualified in almost any regard (which, of course, is not necessarily meant to excessively praise Hillary Clinton). One potential answer that has been proposed many times is the ascent of right-wing news stories of dubious journalistic integrity. For many, the problem with this proposal is that it seems lazy. After all, it is rather simplistic, and also a bit condescending, to depict Trump’s support base as systematically deceived by whatever false information was thrown their way. Should we not respect everyone’s capacity to select their own relevant news stories and stop going on about disinformation scandals?
The answer is no. Other structural problems in American society aside, disinformation is one of the most direct threats to the functioning of Western democracies that we face today. But to understand exactly how disinformation campaigns have impacted the democratic process in the US – and also in other countries, most importantly the UK in the run-up to the Brexit referendum, and probably in the recent elections as well – we need to look beyond the patent absurdity of the many anti-Clinton, anti-immigrant, or anti-muslim hoaxes, and see how a powerful new media campaign forged by the New Right (I use this term deliberately vaguely to refer to a cocktail of nationalism, conservatism, xenophobia and neofascism) is seeking to undermine the journalistic openness that is crucial to any democracy.
The New Right Ecosystem
The right-wing misinformation campaign seems to involve three stages. First, of course, there need to be sources that produce news stories that are either clearly fake or, perhaps even more dangerous, partially true but strongly misleading. These sources are mainly online: several studies have shown that there exist a large number of right-leaning websites that regularly post misleading stories, many of which regularly link to each other as to create a ‘right-wing ecosystem’. The most famous and most-visited of these websites is Breitbart, which until recently was led by current Trump aide Steve Bannon, whose political preferences can only be described as panic-inducing, but there are many smaller ones that are less known. The stories that these websites publish may vary from personal attacks on political enemies to claims that climate change can be scientifically disproven to excessive coverage of problems surrounding immigration. A large part is also dedicated to discrediting more bona fide news sources such as traditional newspapers by charging them with the production of fake news – a tactic that, amazingly, still does not seem to have led to worldwide ridicule. Although many of these stories are grounded in some fact or another – for instance some immigrant-related incident in some European country – they usually overgeneralise the scope of this fact without providing any context. As one of the studies mentioned above puts it: ‘The mix of claims and facts, linked through paranoid logic, characterizes much of the most shared content linked to Breitbart. It is a mistake to dismiss these stories as “fake news”; their power stems from a potent mix of verifiable facts, familiar repeated falsehoods, paranoid logic, and consistent political orientation within a mutually-reinforcing network of like-minded sites’.
In the second stage, the misleading news stories are spread out in order to gain as much attention as possible. Key in this process is the intensive linking to-and-fro between many of the websites existing within the Bannonian conservative ecosystem. This creates much digital traffic, which causes the misleading stories to pop up higher within search engine results or Facebook feeds. As a result, politically moderate citizens who would not think of visiting Breitbart themselves may still be confronted with tendentious stories, often spread by unknown websites of which they cannot establish the affiliation. A recent study shows that the average American, not only decisively right-wing, was confronted with multiple right-wing fake news stories during the electoral process. Even more worrying, when popping up often enough, many of these stories also find their way to mainstream media. The public debate surrounding the 2016 US presidential election was dominated by immigration and Clinton’s e-mail scandal – both topics greedily abused by right-wing website to make Trump come out more electable than he actually was.
Right-Wing Psychological Warfare
So far, however, things may still seem mildly unnerving and stop short of being downright terrifying. Even if mainstream media are affected by the right-wing niche’s myopic conception of what counts as newsworthy, at least moderate voters not hanging around on Breitbart in their spare time would be insulated from direct disinformation. It is therefore worrying that the third stage aims at breaching exactly this insulation. In a series of articles that in itself is a demonstration of the importance of independent investigative journalism, Guardian/Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr has displayed a global network of data mining companies connected to both Trump’s victory and the Brexit vote. In the centre of these is a British company called Cambridge Analytica, funded by Robert Mercer, American technology pioneer, billionaire, and friend of chief Brexiteer Nigel Farage. All evidence suggests that Cambridge Analytica and its trans-Atlantic sister company Aggregate IQ were involved both in the 2016 US presidential elections and in the Brexit referendum. This involvement meant that they bought huge amounts of personal data about British or American citizens from Facebook and consumer databases of various companies, and used these data for ‘micro-targeting’ potential voters. Micro-targeting is the tactic of exposing an individual to customised messages that appeal directly to his or her emotional disposition. For instance, a person whose personal data show her to be relatively anxious may be targeted with a photo of gun-wielding IS fighters headed by a caption like ‘these are the people that Clinton/Labour/the EU is letting into our country’. Even more worrisome, during the US election, democratic voters known to be relatively apolitical were targeted with content designed especially to dissuade them from voting.
Do these tactics really work? It is difficult to be sure. But the tactics that Cambridge Analytica uses are based in a strong tradition within the behavioural sciences. It has been known for a long time to psychologists as well as economic theorists that human behaviour can be impacted by many non-conscious factors. Especially when these factors are emotionally triggering, they may lead a person to make a decision that is not rationally supported – or only supported by a rationalisation that was made up after the decision had been made. Crucially, these non-rational factors are not arbitrary: it was shown by Tvsersky and Kahneman, and many psychologists after them, that they are, in important respects, predictable. For instance, humans, especially ones with an anxious disposition, can be relied upon to give much more weight to potential losses than to potential gains. Philosopher Tamsin Shaw explains how the techniques used by Cambridge Analytica derive directly from behavioural insights like this: ‘Whatever the truth of Cambridge Analytica’s claims, the very existence of such companies tells us something important about the weight that unconscious influence, relative to reasoned argument, now plays in political campaigns’. This is especially worrying when a company possesses personal data of the people to be manipulated, like Cambridge Analytica does, and when the manipulation is directed at inducing fear, perhaps the strongest of all human emotions – and also the central emotion in both the Brexit and the Trump-Pence campaigns. It is also not the first time that these insights are used for influencing people’s decisions. As always, both the American and British military have put them to good use in their psychological operation departments. As Cadwalladr shows, it is exactly these military tactics that are now being used by Cambridge Analytica: the company developed from an earlier company, SCL, that worked intensively with the British army, and it contracted multiple ex-military officers possessing detailed knowledge of psychological influencing techniques. Given this fact, it is not overly sensationalist to claim, as Cadwalladr does, that Cambridge Analytica is involved in psychological warfare against the British and the American population. ‘This has to be understood in terms of a military contractor using military strategies on a civilian population,’ she writes.
At least some of the parties are open about this – one of the larger right-wing fake news websites, founded by radio host Alex Jones, is called ‘Infowars’. At least Jones gets the nature of the situation right – sadly, he is less correct about its desirability. The same, it must be feared, goes for Breitbart – its ideological godfather Steve Bannon, now key advisor to Donald Trump, previously functioning as a board member of Cambridge Analytica. The phrase ‘everything is connected’, usually the domain of the conspiracy theorist, seems alarmingly apt to describe the New Right disinformation campaign.
It is hopefully clear now that the propagation of right-wing misleading news involves more than just some bigots mindlessly abusing their keyboards: there are coordinated campaigns at work behind the myriad New Right websites, campaigns that attempt to substitute emotional manipulation for information provision. The problem is that, as a US or UK voter opening your Facebook feed, you do not perceive these campaigns. Whereas traditional news outlets such as newspapers have editorial boards that can be addressed by readers or held accountable by media watchdogs, New Right websites usually have nothing of the sort. But what is more, whereas traditional news outlets offer their news to anyone who is interested, the New Right campaigns force their ‘news’ upon vulnerable individuals. Instead of being directed at aiding citizens in making rational decisions, this news undermines these individuals’ rational decision making without them noticing it. In doing so, it uses scientific results in a radically non-transparent manner.
And this is the core of the issue. If democracy is to be a legitimate form of government, we must expect voters to let their votes rationally conform to their needs. It is necessary, therefore, that voters know how their own decisions are produced. This can only happen when information and opinions are offered within a public debate in which their reliability or validity can be assessed from different angles. What the New Right has done, in both the Brexit referendum and the US elections – and probably in the most recent UK elections as well – is to strategically seclude their voter base from rational public discussion, and isolate them in an emotionally manipulative situation. Victims of right-wing micro-targeting campaigns are already affected emotionally before they even have the opportunity to discuss the so-called information they have received. And given the difficulty of referring back to the products of these campaigns once they have disappeared from someone’s Facebook feed, it becomes even more difficult to discuss them with others. Finally, the enormous complexity of the New Right ecosystem makes it virtually impossible to comprehensively challenge its many claims within a public debate. People are thus left helpless in assessing the distressing stories they receive.
This is why the problem of disinformation cannot be trivialised by claiming that people are autonomous enough to know which information to go by. It is exactly in the nature of disinformation to undermine this very autonomy. And with it, the democracy that is built upon the autonomy of its citizens. If the reader will allow me a slightly over-dramatic sweep, the war on information is also a war on democracy.
So did the New Right disinformation campaign really win Donald Trump the presidency (or Nigel Farage the Brexit)? It is impossible to be certain, of course. We cannot compare what actually happened to a placebo presidential election or a placebo Brexit referendum in which disinformation tactics were absent. But the fact that we do not know is, in itself, worrying enough. The fact that the group of people that believes these tactics to be beneficial to their aims has now reached the White House is more worrying still. Democracy calls for a widespread debate on how to organise global information streams in a more transparent manner. This will be difficult, because many of the misleading news stories take advantage of new technologies that evade the legal scope of most countries. But it is crucial to respond to these challenges in order to sustain democracy for the future.
Written by Joris Graff