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Increasingly, government agencies, political parties, corporate media, right-wing extremists, dodgy online platforms, and others spread unintentional misinformation but some are also circulating deliberately created disinformation. In recent years, this phenomenon has become so severe that Oxford’s Internet Institute has started to talk about industrialized disinformation. In the best understanding of propaganda – later reframed as public relations – the aim of industrialized disinformation is to manipulate public opinion using online platforms. Ultimately, industrialized disinformation constitutes a very serious threat to democracy.
While capitalism has always been interested in creating legitimacy for its pathological system via corporate mass media, industrialized disinformation means moving standard propaganda (old) and public relations (new) to a much more sophisticated level. Today, plenty of private firms provide manipulative campaigns targeting at what German philosopher Jürgen Habermas once called the public sphere. Decades before Habermas, another German philosopher – Edmund Husserl – called it something quite similar: Lebenswelt or lifeworld.
For Habermas much of what capitalism, neoliberalism, modern media, tabloid-TV, etc. does constitutes an unwarranted infiltration into the lifeworld. He called it the Colonization of the Lifeworld. In one reading, this might be understood as converting non-commercial elements of society into commercial elements. Neoliberalism, for example, demands the privatization of everything. For many, water was free until it became a commodity. After privatization, it became commercialized. This is an example of the colonization of the lifeworld.
Yet the lifeworld can also include the public sphere designed for the free exchange of ideas – an Enlightenment ideal. Under capitalism, such a public sphere can become colonized when sections of the public sphere become commercialized or misappropriated for alien activities like manipulation. Industrialized disinformation attempts exactly that. It seeks to colonize the lifeworld by introducing system-alien elements such as industrialized disinformation. The free exchange of ideas is manipulated.
Today’s industrialized disinformation is linked to computational propaganda that uses, for example, political bots to amplify hate speech,. In recent years, we have seen that government, right-wing political parties, right-wing populists and others have used online platforms to disrupt democratic processes, circumvent elections, suppress voting and even attack human rights.
In some countries, government agencies have even set up digital ministries and use the military and the police for the purpose of creating an industrialized disinformation campaign. In other cases the task is assigned to state-owned media. Behind much of this often lurks a right-wing political party that “buys in” the tools and techniques need for a planned industrialized disinformation campaign. Political parties hardly run these campaigns themselves ̶ they pay a business to do it for them.
Once set up, these businesses run online platforms that are set up to spread disinformation and suppress political participation. Since the USA’s Republican Party finds it increasingly harder and harder to win the popular vote in presidential elections, voter suppression might well become a future instrument to assure favorable election outcomes. This, of course, does not exclude the use of online platforms to undermine oppositional parties and run industrialized disinformation campaigns.
Industrialized disinformation is almost never directly administered by right-wing political parties. More often than not, political parties buy these manipulative services from the private sector. The case of Cambridge Analytica is a case in point. For such companies, industrialized disinformation is a highly lucrative enterprise – money flows and even dark money. Companies like Israel’s Archimedes Group or Spain’s Eliminalia are two of the top names in the business. They see themselves as engaging in “reputation management”. Perhaps a better term might be political manipulation management.
Beyond that, industrialized disinformation also uses strategic influencers. It also transforms organizations into willing and at times even unwilling carriers of disinformation. Industrialized disinformation can use civil society organization (NGOs), internet sub-cultures, youth groups, hacker collectives, fringe movements, social media influencers but also simply volunteers who support a specific cause out of ideological motivation ̶ right-wing populism for example. To create an industrialized disinformation campaign, political manipulation companies tend to rely on three types of online accounts:
- Automated Accounts:
These are also known as political bots. Such bots are also called internet bots, web robots, robots or simply bots. They are pieces of software that run an automated tasks or automated scripts over the Internet. Typically, political bots perform tasks that are simple and repetitive. Their advantage is that they do this faster than a person could do it. Some estimate that more than half of all web traffic is generated by bots. Their goal is to influence the course of discussion and to manipulate the opinion of readers. Automated Tweets, for example, often distribute simple and prefabricated messages. These messages are created by people but distributed automatically.
- People Curated Accounts:
Increasingly more common is the use of people curated accounts. In the USA for example, teenagers were enlisted by a Donald Trump youth group called the Turning Point Action. It spread pro-Trump narratives as well as disinformation directed against the Democratic Party. It also used industrialized disinformation on topics such as mail-in ballots. It also created falsehoods about the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic.
- Hacked and Stolen Accounts:
Finally, there is the use of real accounts held by human beings. These are hacked, stolen or misused for impersonation purposes. While these are a small proportion of the accounts used in industrialized disinformation campaign, there are still occurrences of faked Instagram profiles.
Whatever is used for an industrialized disinformation campaign – a) automated accounts; b) people curated accounts; or c) hacked and stolen accounts – four forms of messaging have emerged. These are:
- Government: messages dedicated to support a government (the government of Hungary, for example) and a political party (pro-Trump, etc.);
- Dirt Campaign: communications that are designed to attack the opposition or mounting a smear or dirt campaign;
- Democracy: messages that are directed towards suppressing democratic participation. This is done through harassment or trolling. An Internet troll is someone who starts something akin to an Internet war. They might also intentionally upset people on online platforms. This is typically done by posting inflammatory, inessential or off-topic messages in an online community such as, for example a newsgroup, forum, chat room, or blog. It is done with the intent of provoking readers. Its goal is to hype up emotions, polarize people and even to direct them to right-wing platforms;
- Polarization: finally, (4) right-wing populist parties increasingly use specific online narratives to engineer polarization, drive divisions and set people against one another.
Beyond all this, industrialized disinformation also creates fake news websites, uses doctored buzzwords and concepts, creates false images and videos and invents other forms of deceptive and manipulative online content. So far, political industrialized disinformation has not used what is know as deepfakes. In a deepfake a person in an existing image or video is replaced with someone else’s likeness. While the act of faking content is not new, a deepfake uses powerful techniques such as machine learning and artificial intelligence to manipulate or generate visual and audio content with a high potential to deceive.
What is more common than deepfakes, doctored images and falsified videos are misleading claims. In the 2019 general election in the UK, for example, a whopping 90% of all Conservative Party Facebook advertisements were misleading. It paid off handsomely.
The day after the election, the BBC said: Election results 2019: Boris Johnson returns to power with big majority. Misleading, misinformation, disinformation and lying gets you the job. The compulsive liar BOJO lied about Italian condoms, he lied on the Brexit Bus and he lied to the Queen. Yet Boris Johnson might not have lied when he said, Let the bodies pile up high. BOJO denies having said it – of course. Meanwhile under his leadership the bodies did pile up high. By early May 2021, his country registered 127,000 deaths – the 5th highest on a global list of 222 countries and territories.
While Britain’s BOJO has been running a successful disinformation campaign for decades, industrialized disinformation also works with trolling, doxing (the compiling and releasing of a dossier of personal information on someone; it also includes the revealing and publicizing the records of an individual which were previously private and difficult to obtain) as well as online harassment (cyber-stalking, online impersonation, cat-fishing, swatting and even revenge porn).
To create all this on a mechanized scale, industrialized disinformation works with so-called disinformation teams. These are military style crews. Each member of a ten-person crew manages, for example, twenty-three online accounts. They can be part of a squad of ten people who are part of a company of fifty people. These are part of a battalion of one-hundred people, and they are part of a brigade of five hundred people. Together, they can operate as many as 11,500 online Internet accounts. Success in disinformation is often rewarded with coupons for food and other goods. This process turns simple disinformation into industrialized disinformation.
Industrialized disinformation that creates computational propaganda is big business. The business of industrialized disinformation involves not just large number of people but also sizable budgets. Some are willing to spend big money on psychological operations and information warfare also known as psyops. These three groups have emerged:
- high-psyop troops with large budgets and manpower for industrialized disinformation;
- medium-psyop troops comprising multiple actors often operating in an experimental stage but using a variety of disinformation tools and strategies; and
- low-level-psyop troops based on small teams that operate domestically in countries such as, for example, Germany, the Netherlands, Moldavia, Spain, Sudan, Sweden, Zimbabwe, etc.
In the end, what has emerged during the last few years is an increased professionalization of industrialized disinformation. The predominant issues of industrialized disinformation are political polarization that is seeking to divide a society by setting different groups against each other; sowing distrust in political, legal, economic and democratic institutions and engineering an overall decline in the support for democracy.
In recent electoral campaigns, industrialized disinformation appears to have become mainstream. This might include the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning. The merger of industrialized disinformation with artificial intelligence may well reshape the future of politics and electoral campaigning. In any case, the use of online platforms in politics in general and in democratic elections in particular will only increase. With it also increases the ability to run industrialized disinformation especially when provisioned with dark money. The election of Donald Trump and Brexit are two examples of what the future has in store for us.