What’s the propaganda link between Brexit and the US Presidential race – and what role did Russia play?
By Olivia Gordon
A form of mass propaganda more insidious than anything used in the 20th century is being used to manipulate global politics, according to the latest research. The culprit is social media and the lax regulation that allows voters to be bombarded with politically slanted misinformation — fake news.
‘Ruling elites have often used propaganda to sustain their power, but this latest wave is different,’ says Professor Philip Howard, Director of Research at the Oxford Internet Institute and a Fellow of Balliol College. ‘Targeted messaging over social media is deeply personalised compared to the messaging that “all communists are evil” that used to be distributed by mass films. It’s much more difficult to source who’s generating the content. Users think the messaging may be coming from their family and friends; it’s about particular issues the programmer knows you care about. And it appears to be pretty effective.’
‘Bots’ or ‘cyborgs’ — automated social media accounts which churn out propaganda — were first developed by marketing companies selling products through spam, but are now also used by political groups.
Professor Howard’s analysis of how ‘bots’ helped win a vote for Brexit and the election of US President Donald Trump made news in 2016. Brexit and Trump supporters seemingly had bots tweeting in much higher volume than campaigners for Remain or Hilary Clinton.
Now, says the Montreal-raised researcher, with Brexit in motion and Trump in place, these same propaganda accounts are posting about the Italian referendum.
Professor Howard (above) and his team have found it difficult to link such ‘bot’ accounts directly to politicians, but they have drawn lines to campaign managers as well as ‘ordinary’ citizens who call themselves ‘patriotic programmers’ — political spammers who pre-write propaganda and release it through thousands of automated tweets, day and night, or every six seconds for an hour. Fake news doesn’t get far without being ‘pushed around’ by these bots, Professor Howard observes. For example, if spammers want to persuade you that Hilary Clinton is corrupt and should go to jail, they write accusations with links to fake news stories — claims that have not been fact-checked — and get bots to spread the message.
Many bots appear to originate in Russia. ‘We know that the Russians have spent money on propaganda efforts to improve Trump’s profile over Twitter,’ says Howard, ‘and that seems to have included creating bots that follow Trump and re-tweet a lot of what he says, as well as news from Russia. They often tweet stories about Democrats, western elites and corruption.’ There are links between propagandists for Brexit and for Trump, he adds. ‘My speculation would be that Russia would like to see the EU smaller and further from consensus. There’s a handful of accounts that were passionate about getting the UK to leave Europe and then they suddenly became interested in American politics.’
This form of political marketing is increasingly sophisticated. A few years ago, if you wanted to make yourself look very popular on social media, you would buy followers: £200–300 would buy you between a thousand and two thousand followers from a company in Singapore. If you had a bit more money you could pay for bots, automated accounts, to say things for you — you’d type the content yourself and over time the bots would release your messages. But these days, Howard says, you can rent hundreds or even thousands of ‘shadow profiles’.
These are fake Facebook or Twitter accounts which appear to be genuine because the user has been posting for five or six years, including, for example, pictures of their children (in reality these are taken from image banks such as Flickr). The profiles’ apparent legitimacy is also boosted by the way they are attached to Gmail addresses and mobile phone sim cards. The rented dummy profiles will post or tweet propaganda messages which supports any cause, for a fee. The only real person involved is the mastermind at the political consultancy firm, which ‘grooms’ (creates) tens of thousands of these fake personalities over an extended period.
‘If you look at these profiles, they seem like coherent people,’ says Howard. ‘Then they’ll suddenly start tweeting about a certain medicine because a pharmaceutical firm has hired them.’ Fake accounts used to be easily detectable with names like ‘marco249z’ , but now people are easily duped to befriend or follow a far more genuine-seeming construct — say, Marco Zillick, online since 2012, who loves his kids, plays soccer, and drives a BMW.
Take a closer look at your Twitter followers, says Professor Howard — some of them are possibly bots. Howard explains that ‘people in the public eye, and journalists, tend to attract more bots — and bots are especially targeting feminists, female journalists, and female politicians.’ The bots hope you will follow them back and suck up their messages, and he adds: ‘If you were to write something the bot owner didn’t like, the bot might start spamming you, trying to goad you into an argument.’
Facebook does not share its data — unlike Twitter — and we don’t understand the algorithms Facebook uses to determine what we see on our newsfeeds. Nor do we see everything our network posts, but rather a selection of it — for example, Howard speculates, posts from ‘people who’ve got news about something Facebook knows you watched on YouTube’. Facebook ‘has much greater reach’ than Twitter, he says, and posts on Facebook are more likely to win trust because its networks are made of family and friends. Bots are increasingly using it to spread fake news there.
The dangers of misinformation are compounded by the fact we are increasingly living in self-imposed ‘bubbles’ — Clinton and Trump supporters, and Brexiteers and Remainers, are unfriending one another and losing access to news from outside each bubble.
This segregation means that ‘for elections going forward, the bubbles will be more bubbly’, Howard warns. Trump’s current criticism of the media as biased is a smart strategy along these lines, Professor Howard says, because ‘he gets his followers to stop following credible media organisations’. He has even turned the term ‘fake news’ against them.
Why are political conservatives winning the propaganda war? The Oxford Internet Institute team’s research has found that the conservative bots campaigned ‘more negatively’, for example by using messages about immigrants taking jobs. ‘Negative campaigning goes much further with computational propaganda,’ says Howard — in other words, on social media negative messages grab people more effectively than positive ones. Meanwhile, he believes, ‘Conservative groups tend to be more aggressive and creative in applying new technologies to target voters, and more willing to violate privacy norms to get messaging across.’ They are, in other words, more likely to play dirty with spam emails and calls, direct mail campaigns, push polling (where the question pushes the voter towards a given response) and, now, social media messaging.
The solution must lie in preventing the spread of misinformation during elections, Professor Howard thinks. Outrageous lies could one day be punishable in court. The German government is proposing a €500,000 fine for Facebook for every time is fails to take down junk news. ‘That would make Facebook move fairly quickly to stop it,’ says Howard.
But in the first instance, Professor Howard says, we need governments to organise juries of randomly sampled citizens representing the diversity of society to meet with experts, thoroughly evaluate both sides of an argument and then produce a public document outlining the facts. ‘Voters can still ignore or disagree with the document, but this would be one of the few ways of improving referendum outcomes.’
But how can we distinguish between freedom of speech and freedom to spread fake news? Professor Howard admits that this is a difficult question, but says it boils down to distinguishing between comment and checked facts. Perhaps Facebook will one day create a reliable ‘news’ feed separate from a ‘commentary’ feed for opinion essays, he muses. For now, though, he believes we are losing sight of truth in an era of fake news.
Portrait courtesy of Philip Howard. Social media image by nopporn, Donald Trump by Andrew Cline, Brexit protest by Ms Jane Campbell, all via Shutterstock.