Thursday, February 13, 2020

Our Alternate Information Ecosystem

Illustration Credit: After Paris - sorting truth from fiction, Toby Manhire & Toby Morris,
I’ve spent most of my life studying, observing and working within the “process of communication, understanding and misunderstanding”. For me that process revolved around helping clients communicate with the mainstream media, employees and customers.

I can honestly say that I never wrote or distributed inaccurate, misleading or false information. I never was asked to do so by my clients and I never thought of doing so on their behalf.

Sadly, I’ve now come to believe that honesty, reliability, integrity and facts have become passé.

While propaganda, distortion and falsification have always been with us, the people who practiced those “techniques”, since WWII and up to 2016, were not respected and to a large extent repudiated.

Things are different today. We live in the era of “alternative facts” and institutional-level deceit.

Outright lying has become the norm. We have descended into an abyss so deep that not even the brightest, laser light of truth cannot penetrate the darkness surrounding us.

We no longer know how to distinguish truthfulness from deceitfulness nor fact from fiction.

And, the saddest part of all is... we all want to hear “our” lies, “our’ fiction.

McKay Coppins’ recent article, The Billion-Dollar Disinformation Campaign to Reelect the President, published in The Atlantic, explains how deeply we have fallen into "an alternate information ecosystem" and how the Trump people are using it to their advantage.

Here are a few quotes:

"What I was seeing was a strategy that has been deployed by illiberal* political leaders around the world. Rather than shutting down dissenting voices, these leaders have learned to harness the democratizing power of social media for their own purposes—jamming the signals, sowing confusion. They no longer need to silence the dissident shouting in the streets; they can use a megaphone to drown him out. Scholars have a name for this: censorship through noise."

"After the 2016 election, much was made of the threats posed to American democracy by foreign disinformation. Stories of Russian troll farms and Macedonian fake-news mills loomed in the national imagination. But while these shadowy outside forces preoccupied politicians and journalists, Trump and his domestic allies were beginning to adopt the same tactics of information warfare that have kept the world’s demagogues and strongmen in power."

"Parscale didn’t invent this practice—Barack Obama’s campaign famously used it in 2012, and Clinton’s followed suit. But Trump’s effort in 2016 was unprecedented, in both its scale and its brazenness. In the final days of the 2016 race, for example, Trump’s team tried to suppress turnout among black voters in Florida by slipping ads into their News Feeds that read, “Hillary Thinks African-Americans Are Super Predators.” An unnamed campaign official boasted to Bloomberg Businessweek that it was one of “three major voter suppression operations underway.” (The other two targeted young women and white liberals.)"

"After the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, Facebook was excoriated for its mishandling of user data and complicity in the viral spread of fake news. Mark Zuckerberg promised to do better, and rolled out a flurry of reforms. But then, last fall, he handed a major victory to lying politicians: Candidates, he said, would be allowed to continue running false ads on Facebook. (Commercial advertisers, by contrast, are subject to fact-checking.) In a speech at Georgetown University, the CEO argued that his company shouldn’t be responsible for arbitrating political speech, and that because political ads already receive so much scrutiny, candidates who choose to lie will be held accountable by journalists and watchdogs."

"Both parties will rely on micro-targeted ads this year, but the president is likely to have a distinct advantage. The Republican National Committee and the Trump campaign have reportedly compiled an average of 3,000 data points on every voter in America. They have spent years experimenting with ways to tweak their messages based not just on gender and geography, but on whether the recipient owns a gun or watches the Golf Channel."

"While these ads can be used to try to win over undecided voters, they’re most often deployed for fundraising and for firing up the faithful—and Trump’s advisers believe this election will be decided by mobilization, not persuasion. To turn out the base, the campaign has signaled that it will return to familiar themes: the threat of “illegal aliens”—a term Parscale has reportedly encouraged Trump to use—and the corruption of the “swamp.”

"Beyond Facebook, the campaign is also investing in a texting platform that could allow it to send anonymous messages directly to millions of voters’ phones without their permission. Until recently, people had to opt in before a campaign could include them in a mass text. But with new “peer to peer” texting apps—including one developed by Gary Coby, a senior Trump adviser—a single volunteer can send hundreds of messages an hour, skirting federal regulations by clicking “Send” one message at a time. Notably, these messages aren’t required to disclose who’s behind them, thanks to a 2002 ruling by the Federal Election Commission that cited the limited number of characters available in a text."

Please go here for the whole story:

The Billion-Dollar Disinformation Campaign to Reelect the President, McKay Coppins, The Atlantic, 10 Feb 2020.

*An illiberal democracy, also called a partial democracy, low intensity democracy, empty democracy, hybrid regime or guided democracy, is a governing system in which although elections take place, citizens are cut off from knowledge about the activities of those who exercise real power because of the lack of civil  liberties; thus it is not an "open society". There are many countries "that are categorized as neither 'free' nor 'not free', but as 'probably free', falling somewhere between democratic and nondemocratic regimes".[2] This may be because a constitution limiting government powers exists, but those in power ignore its liberties, or because an adequate legal constitutional framework of liberties does not exist.[3]

Fleetwood Mac - Little Lies - 1987

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