In contemporary society, many thought that propaganda was easily detectable, thanks to its heavy-handed semantics and far-from-subtle choice of imagery. That was, of course, until the dawn of social media, which has delivered propaganda to the consumer in a more penetrative and stealthy way than ever before. With seemingly daily revelations coming to light about organisations such as Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, public anxiety surrounding the practice of ‘data mining’ is rising.
It is alleged that the data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica sustained its existence by unethical means, with rumours of the company stirring electoral interference in countries across the world. When journalists such as Carole Cadwalladr began investigating the organisation after noticing a pattern linking the Trump and Leave.EU campaigns with alleged white supremacists such as Steve Bannon and Robert Mercer, all clues led towards the little-known Cambridge Analytica.
Cadwalladr’s suspicion can only have grown further after the Leave.EU campaign released an edited video depicting the journalist being assaulted, in what was largely perceived as a potential warning to other curious reporters considering a report on the mysterious grouping. Further down the line, Facebook attempted to obstruct the journalist’s interview with whistle-blower Christopher Wylie, based upon the knowledge that the outcome of such an interview could be immensely damaging to both parties.
Since the initial media fallout, numerous testimonies have emerged which suggest that Wylie was far from alone. When it comes to the most toxic and divisive political campaigns of the digital age, Cambridge Analytica have often played their part. When Donald Trump won the U.S. presidency, the world was stunned – and when Britain voted to leave the European Union, the world was stunned again. Such shocking results of democracy have prompted the world to question just how integral social media is to the success of political campaigns. Indeed, it appears that much of the answer can be attributed to Trump’s favourite catchphrase: ‘fake news’.
Misinformation can easily be spread through the channels of social media. All it takes is a curious Facebook user and a website which passes as half-way legitimate. Sources are everything in global news, and news without a source stinks of unreliability. When it comes to trusting news and journalism, it appears that packaging has taken the place of factual credibility.
There are so-called ‘troll farms’ set up as a means of spreading such mass misinformation. The United States has alleged that one Mikhail Burchik is one of thirteen individuals responsible with interfering in the 2016 Presidential Election. The indictment released by the US government claims that he was an executive director of an operation using hundreds of fake identities online to spread propaganda in support of Trump. Burchik denies the allegations.
Another aspect which must be considered is the power of personal networks on social media. The problem of web users constructing their online ‘bubbles’ around a particular ideology was termed “Cyberbalkanization” by MIT researchers Marshall Van Alstyne and Erik Brynjolfsson in 1996.
People will willfully ignore material that doesn’t align with the political views they already have, forming “virtual cliques [and] insulating themselves from opposing points of view, and [therefore] reinforcing their biases.” These cliques are effectively ideological echo-chambers. Such chambers present a danger to society, as people are becoming less likely to allow decisions to be made by those whose values differ from their own. This is, of course, especially dangerous on the electoral battlefield.
Echo chambers are philosophically restrictive and offer themselves as a fertile ground to publish propaganda. The question remains: how can we develop informed opinions when we are trapped within an opaque bubble of political bias?