This Street Prophets Coffee Hour is brought to you by Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts. Today’s article, Network Propaganda, is part 12 of 15 in a series about figuring out just what is going on in American politics. It will be about how we got to where we are now. And hopefully present a story of where we should be going. Along the way we will take a look at Russia, the U.S. 2016 Presidential election, Memes and Fiction, Network Propaganda, soft warfare, and cyberwarfare.
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Last week in part 11 of this series we covered the Harvard Study on the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. Presented was the Key Takeaways of the study and a few excerpts from the executive summary. This study only covered data up to the election and was limited in its analysis. Reviewing part 11 is recommend before reading today’s article.
Today’s diary is about the recently released book called Network Propaganda. This book was released under a creative commons license so I’m able to quote passages and show images freely from the study. Also, the entire book is available for free to download as a PDF.
Network Propaganda builds on the initial Harvard Study 2016 pre-election data and looks at the post-election data from the year after the election. It gives a far more detailed analysis of the results presented in the key takeaways in part 11.
The authors, Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts assert that the manipulation, disinformation, and radicalization in the political network ecology is entirely due to Conservative ideology not because of new technology or Russian interference.
Russia, the authors report, while extremely active in pursuing their agenda to destabilize the west, had far less effect than is popularly thought or presented by Timothy Snyder’s book: The Road To Unfreedom introduced in part 2 of this series.
The results and conclusions in Network Propaganda are based on 4 million national political stories found on the web during April 2015 through January 2018. Content producer’s websites, Twitter and FaceBook posts and links were analyzed using mixed methods that included network analysis, text analysis, and data-guided qualitative case studies. In addition they did a basic historical political economy study ranging over 40 years. An analysis tool called Media Cloud was used to grind through the 4 million sources to extract the patterns presented in the figures and tables presented in the studies.
I must say the Network Propaganda authors arrived at a conclusion that I did not expect. The major conclusion, that comes from the historical political economy study can be visualized in Figure 10.1 Partisanship in voting patterns in the U.S. House of Representatives, 1949– 2011. Click to Enlarge.
Figure 10.1 shows the evolution of the political polarization by using Media Cloud to generate a network map. It is based on congressional voting records from 1940 to 2011. House representatives are the nodes and shared roll call votes between pairs of representatives are the edges. The take away from the map is the polarization trend was present before the internet emerged.
The study comes to the conclusion that the historical record identifies three “forces” that forms the “axis of evil “ that caused the polarization.
White Identity Politics
Chapter 4 of Network Propaganda explores the history of White Identity Politics and arrives at the conclusion that it is the intentional product of the Southern Strategy. The second member of the axis is Weaponized Religion driven by the backlash against the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the destabilization of the patriarchal family structure by the Women’s Movement. And the last member of the axis is political organized business was driven by deregulation and tax reduction leading to reduced state power.
Both the extensive political science literature on polarization and the rich literature on American media history argue against “the internet did it” narratives. Instead, we suggest that technological, institutional, and political dynamics have been interacting for over 40 years to lead the Republican Party and Republican voters to gradually become more extreme versions of themselves, without operating symmetrically on the Democratic Party and its supporters or on most Independents. The 2016 presidential election was the moment at which these long- term dynamics reached an inflection point in the Republican Party, but not among Democrats. — From: Network Propaganda PDF (292)
The reader should understand that nothing introduced in Network Propaganda contradicts the main ideas by other authors as presented in this series. What this study does is clearly identify the underlying forces shaping the current political ecology. And it allows us to better rank the importance of all the factors covered in this series. With the axis identified above being of primary concern.
For those readers that can stream YouTube here is a video introducing the book. For those the are unable to view the video the some of the highlights of the book will be covered beyond the fold with a number of direct quotes and diagrams from the book.
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Network Propaganda Highlights
The consistent pattern that emerges from our data is that, both during the highly divisive election campaign and even more so during the first year of the Trump presidency, there is no left- right division, but rather a division between the right and the rest of the media ecosystem. The right wing of the media ecosystem behaves precisely as the echo- chamber models predict— exhibiting high insularity, susceptibility to information cascades, rumor and conspiracy theory, and drift toward more extreme versions of itself. The rest of the media ecosystem, however, operates as an interconnected network anchored by organizations, both for profit and nonprofit, that adhere to professional journalistic norms. — From: Network Propaganda PDF (72-73)
The members of that integrated ecosystem range from traditionally conservative publications like the Wall Street Journal or Forbes to historically left publications like Mother Jones or liberal and progressive activist sites like Daily Kos. This architecture changes the dynamics of information propagation and correction. It imposes higher reputational costs on sites and authors who propagate rumor and provides avenues for relatively rapid fact checking, criticism of false claims, and rapid dissemination of and coalescence around corrected narratives. — From: Network Propaganda PDF (73)
The insular right wing of the media ecosystem creates positive feedbacks for bias- confirming statements as a central feature of its normal operation. The rest of the media ecosystem comprises sites diverse enough in their political orientation, organizational culture, business model, and reputational needs to create impedance in the network. This system resists and corrects falsehood as its normal operation, even though, like all systems, it also occasionally fails, sometimes spectacularly. — From: Network Propaganda PDF (73)
Imagine a media ecosystem in what we call a “reality- check dynamic” (Figure 3.1). Here, media outlets more or less follow institutionalized truthseeking norms, and aim for more- or- less centrist or neutral perspectives to reduce— to the extent possible— the discomfort that their audience experiences when truth- seeking news is disconfirming. Outlets compete on the truth and freshness of their news, and the search for scoops and sensationalism is in tension with the internal norms and the fact that other outlets will try to build their own credibility and audience in part by policing them if they get it wrong. They deliver both confirming and disconfirming news to their readers/ viewers, and separate news from opinion. — From: Network Propaganda PDF (77-78)
Politicians need media outlets to communicate to voters and must navigate this media ecosystem and are constrained in what they can get away with. They try to deliver identity- confirming statements to their voters, but have to keep reasonably close to the truth, at least as reported in media their voters consume, to avoid the reputational harm of being portrayed as dishonest. The media, in turn, report on these politicians in neutral terms and police them for the truth- value of their statements as they police each other. In this dynamic members of the public will receive a mix of truth along with both bias confirmation and disconfirmation. Centrist members of the public are the happiest while media criticism flourishes on the wings— neither of which is getting exactly the trade- off that it wants between partisan confirmation and truth. Levels of trust in any given medium are moderate, because each has occasionally been found in error by its competitors, and each has delivered their audience some disconfirming news. — From: Network Propaganda PDF (77-78)
- The propaganda feedback loop
Now, a new media outlet is launched that adopts a different strategy by emphasizing partisan- confirming news over truth and helping segments of the public to reduce their discomfort by telling them that the outlets providing disconfirming news are not trustworthy. Members of the public who tend to seek confirmation more than truth reward this outlet with attention. Some politicians seek out those outlets and those members. Members of the public now have media outlets and elites confirming their prior beliefs, contrary to what they hear on other media, and are also told by these outlets and elites that other media that contradict what they say are themselves biased and hence untrustworthy. The public that buys into this adjust their levels of trust in other media downward. This reduces the psychological cost of tuning in only to the bias- confirming outlets, as they are now more confident that the partisan good news they hear is true and conflicting news from other outlets is false. Politicians who thrive in this media ecosystem will have done so by aligning their positions and narratives with like-minded publics and supportive media sources or by shifting the narrative in a direction that the public and media are willing to follow. Ideological positions, interpretations of real-world events, and partisan talking points are jointly negotiated by elites, partisan media, pundits, and political activists. News media reject the separation of news and opinion, and compete by policing each other for deviance from identity confirmation, not truth. They similarly align their coverage of politicians to offer favorable coverage to identity- confirming politicians and attacks on opponents, and when they police deviance from politicians, it is identity
confirmation, not truth, that they police. All these are intended to help sustain a steady flow of identity- confirming news to audiences who tune in to get precisely that from their media. — From: Network Propaganda PDF (78-79)
Subsequent politicians who now enter the arena will find it harder to rely on the mainstream media to challenge assertions made by politicians focused on bias- confirming statements. The public that occupies the partisan media ecosystem no longer believes the external lying media. Challengers within the party are forced to use the same partisan media, subject to the same trade- offs between truth and bias confirmation as the incumbent. Incumbents and challengers consume the partisan media more, because they need to understand what their public believes, what they must confirm, and what parameters shape the way in which they can challenge incumbents. We call this dynamic the “propaganda feedback loop,” because once it is set in motion the media, elites, and public are all participants in a self- reinforcing feedback loop that disciplines those who try to step off it with lower attention or votes, and gradually over time increases the costs to everyone of introducing news that is not identity confirming, or challenges the partisan narratives and frames (Figure 3.2). Audiences in this loop will exhibit high trust in identity- confirming media, and low trust in external media. Politicians are not constrained by media policing truth when they deliver identity- confirming news to outlets, but rather by media policing the consistency of their statements with party identity. — From: Network Propaganda PDF (78-79)
- Fox News singled out as the prime driver of the propaganda feedback loop
Over one forth of pages in Network Propaganda are devoted to case studies that trace how Fox News was the central player in feeding disinformation and outright lies to the American public. In a number of case studies, supported by data, the dominate player in the network ecology was Fox News. The book give a richly detailed explanation of the origins of the Clinton pedophilia story, the Deep State story, Seth Rich story, and the uranium one story.
Fox News is propagandist, not journalistic, enterprise!
In Chapters 3 and 5 we saw that the same Fox News reporters and shows repeatedly played central roles in the various disinformation campaigns. Malia Zimmerman wrote the initial pieces in both the “Lolita Express” Clinton pedophilia story and the Seth Rich story. Hannity, the network’s biggest star, was central to those two as well as Uranium One. Lou Dobbs pushed the “deep state” framing and Uranium One. Fox and Friends was central in propagating the Seth Rich conspiracy theory. Bret Baier was central on the Lolita Express. The reporters who played prominent roles in propagating these false stories paid no professional price, because the network they work for is a propagandist, not journalistic, enterprise. — From: Network Propaganda PDF (214-215)
Over the next few installment of this series I will be reporting more on the wealth of information contained in Network Propaganda. But, I hope what I shared today will motivate you to download the PDF or buy the hard copy and read it. This series returns on March 4, 2019 with part 13 on Soft Warfare Theory. Examples from the case studies in Network Propaganda will be used to illustrate how soft warfare works in practice.
List Of References Used In This Series
- ‘Wolves of the Russian Spring’: An Examination of the Night Wolves as a Proxy for the Russian Government (PDF)
- Polarization, Partisanship and Junk News Consumption on Social Media During the 2018 US Midterm Elections (PDF Memo) (PDF — Supplement)
- The Tactics & Tropes of the Internet Research Agency (PDF)
- Troops, Trolls and Troublemakers: A Global Inventory of Organized Social Media Manipulation (PDF)
- The IRA, Social Media and Political Polarization in the United States, 2012-2018 (PDF)
- “Little Green Men”: A Primer On Modern Russian Unconventional Warfare, Ukraine 2013-2014 (PDF)
- PARTISANSHIP, PROPAGANDA, & DISINFORMATION Online Media & the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election (PDF)
- Network Propaganda Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics (PDF)
- Bias in Cable News: Persuasion and Polarization (PDF)
- Russian Government Cyber Activity Targeting Energy and Other Critical Infrastructure Sectors Alert (TA18-074A) (LINK)
- Soft Warfare Theory (PDF)
- MILITARY INTELLIGENCE: Memetic Warfare: The Future of War (PDF)
- Background to “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections”: The Analytic Process and Cyber Incident Attribution (PDF)
- Russian Social Media Influence: Understanding Russian Propaganda in Western Europe (PDF)
- Discrete Model of Opinion Changes Using Knowledge and Emotions as Control Variables (PDF)
- Psychological Operations: Fight the War of Ideas (PDF)