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How Networked Propaganda Unraveled US Politics

January 27, 2017 - 07:41 -- Admin

A simple to change to how propaganda is developed and distributed has fundamentally altered US politics. 

For our purposes, propaganda is the systematic use of...

  • biased,
  • false, and/or
  • misleading

...information to influence the decision making of a target audience.  

What makes propaganda different than getting conned by a used car salesman is that propaganda is systematic -- i.g. it uses the media to influence groups of people.  Even though we don't want to admit it, propaganda is the essence of political (as well as economic) competition, from the local election to superpower conflict during the cold war.  Propaganda (from commercial brands to political ideologies) is everywhere and we soak in it every day.  

Until recently, propaganda has been limited to governments (and corporations in the commercial realm) because it was expensive and difficult to do, particularly at a scale that influenced national political discourse.  As of this last election, it's clear that era is over.

The social networking I helped get going back in 2001 now makes it possible for nearly anyone to conduct a propaganda campaign, and that change is blowing up our political system (to good or ill), fast...  

Here's what changed.  Political propaganda is shaped by the medium of media it is dependent on.  Up until recently, that medium has been broadcast media.  This created the following dynamic:

  • The high cost of broadcast media (raise the most money and you usually win)
  • reduces the number of participants (two major parties with tens of thousands working in their hierarchies) 
  • repeating fewer messages ("It's the economy stupid").

On the positive side, the broadcast dynamic forces broad coalitions and consensus.  On the negative, it produces stasis and stagnation.  We had both until this election.  In this last political season, broadcast propaganda was rapidly replaced by socially networked propaganda.  A replacement that was accelerated by a presidential candidate who by natural inclination was drawn to it.  Socially networked propaganda has a radically different dynamic:

  • Lower costs (nearly zero)
  • makes it possible for a huge number of participants (millions, in sprawling networks)
  • producing, adding to, and sharing a huge variety of political messages (supporting and attacking from every angle).

As you can see, the negative side of this dynamic is that it splinters and fragments consensus by enabling lots of different narratives.   The positive side is that it is extremely responsive and innovative.  

So what does the shift from broadcast to socially networked propaganda mean?  How will it change our politics?  It suggests that traditional political discourse is over since reasoned political debate and decision making is now impossible in this environment.  It also means that until we find a way to harness this new medium, a new political dynamic will dominate.  A dynamic characterised by cacophony:

  • All political discourse is at risk of becoming a cacophony of networked propaganda (see my article on the Russell Conjugation to see how facts are turned into propaganda).
  • Some political leaders learn how to create a cacophony on demand (Trump) by enticing the production of networked propaganda.  
  • Over time, non-cooperative networked groups/tribes produce so much propaganda, the cacophony becomes perpetual.

Sincerely,

John Robb

PS:  The Washington Post picked up my article on Trump's inversion of US foreign policy.  Worth a read.  PPS:  China isn't going to benefit from the US withdrawal from TPP.  Why?  It's an aggressive exporter and most of the other nations in TPP are (or want to be) too.