I believe one thing that continues to tear this country apart is the digital divide. The digital divide is no longer just about who has access to the Internet and technology. More and more people are online and have a social media profile. According to Pew Research, 69% of US Adults use at least one social media site.
Today the digital divide is different. How many of those adults understand how social media works, and more importantly how it can be gamed to create a false narrative?
Based on my experience, decidedly few.
I have worked in the tech industry for a couple of decades and more specifically digital marketing for over 10 years. During all that time I lived in a bubble where all of my peers and most of my friends understood how tech was evolving and was paying attention to how it impacts our lives. It was only when I stepped out of that bubble and expanded my network of friends that realized most people’s understanding of tech and social media was limited to how they use it to connect with friends, family, neighbors, or for work. Most people do not give much thought to how much more can be done with the technology that we have grown to depend on.
So when news comes out that Russia has invaded the US with bots, targeted ads, and viral campaigns to have a direct impact on our election, I wonder how many people understand what that means and how that works. How can people understand how big of a threat these actions were and are if they don’t understand what is possible?
I recently saw people online using the word “bots” to describe public figures that they disagree with. There are obviously some misunderstandings.
What are Bots?
Bots are programmed to “communicate” with humans. This is not something new for us. Let’s take it offline for a minute. For decades we have been subjected to phone trees. We call a company and get an automated message asking us to push a button that coincides with what we want. Once we push the button the computer knows what it needs to do and say next. Today we don’t have to push buttons every time. Now we can say what we want, machines understand our intent and respond with an automated message.
Now let’s bring it back online. Many companies have launched bots for business pages. If you send a message to a business page the bot will identify keywords in your message and will reply with the right pre-programmed message. The technology has become sophisticated enough that it is often difficult to tell if you are communicating with a human or not.
This same technology has been used by many in social media to increase their engagement levels. There are several tools available where you can tell the software what social updates to look for and how to comment on such posts. For example, I can program a tool to look for all pictures of dogs on Instagram and post a comment on each picture about how cute that dog is.
What Russia did was set up numerous accounts, scheduled content to be posted on them and then programmed them to “engage” with targeted accounts and within specific conversations.
Bots were able to plant ideas, doubt, and misinformation in the minds of a large number of voters.
It is wrong to think that those who engaged with bots must have been idiots, clueless, or naive. We all engage with bots on a daily basis without thinking much of it. Bots are integrated into our daily lives and work. This is why Russia’s use of them was so seamless.
Were You a Target?
Perhaps you do not engage in conversations with strangers online and therefore think you were not a target. I recently watched a news anchor approach an older woman who ran a pro-Trump Facebook group to ask her if she knew she has spread Russian propaganda. Of course, she did not do so intentionally and the way that news anchor approached her was insulting and caused her to immediately put up her defenses. She insisted that everyone in her group was friends or neighbors and that she had nothing to do with Russians. She felt that the fact that she was being accused of such nonsense solidified her belief that mainstream media was “fake news.”
She may not have been a target of an engaging bot but was most likely a victim of a targeted ad.
Even though Russian operatives spent far less on advertising dollars, with the right targeting and emotional triggers, their content had the opportunity to spread far and wide. What this woman did was share articles in her group that she saw on Facebook which happened to have been written and promoted by Russian operatives.
Unlike traditional advertisements that can only be consumed, Facebook ads are engaged with, shared, and oftentimes do not look like ads at all, but simply a post from a page. However, because it is an ad, the post will show up in people’s newsfeed whether or not they follow that page. Also, as people “like” or comment on the post, that post then shows up in the newsfeed of their friends. If the content resonates with opinions or biases that content is then shared, not just on the newsfeed but within groups throughout the web. This is how that woman ended up sharing Russian content.
Russian operatives did not need to spend a lot of money to be effective, they just needed to promote divisive content and misinformation to influential targets that were already consuming similar types of information and then watch it spread like wildfire.
Why Propaganda Goes Viral
Edward Bernays is the father of propaganda. He was the nephew of Sigmund Freud and studied Freud’s work of the human mind and the need to feed our ego. From that knowledge, Bernays pioneered the field of public relations and propaganda. His main technique was to show his audience a personality or lifestyle that they strived for. The genius of his campaigns was that they were never blatantly obvious. For example one of his first campaigns was to get women to want to smoke cigarettes, a habit that was considered un-ladylike. He did not try to create campaigns about the attributes of a cigarette, instead, he ran a campaign that aligned with the emerging trend of women’s liberation. The Torches of Freedom campaign showed strong, independent women smoking. It was a rejection of the old fashion ideas of what it meant to be ladylike. When a woman lit up a cigarette, she was making a social and political statement.
Although Edward Bernays turned propaganda into a successful, high paying, industry, the practice has been around since the beginning of the first successful sales pitch. People will believe information that confirms their biases. They will share information that proves to others that what they believe is right. We are all programmed this way, no matter our political affiliation. This is why it is more important than ever to understand and acknowledge that today simple computer programs written by foreign operatives can effectively and efficiently use our natural human tendencies against us.