Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 10 October 2021

 It’s Not Misinformation. It’s Amplified Propaganda.

You don’t need fake accounts to spread ampliganda online. Real people will happily do it.

Illustration of a megaphone with a spiral inside.

Getty; The Atlantic

About the author: Renée DiResta is the technical research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory.

One Sunday morning in July of last year, a message from an anonymous account appeared on “Bernie or Vest,” a Discord chat server for fans of Senator Bernie Sanders. It contained an image of Shahid Buttar, the San Francisco activist challenging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the 2020 congressional runoff, and offered explicit instructions for how to elevate the hashtag #PelosiMustGo to the nationwide Trending list on Twitter. “Shahid Says…,” read the large print, “Draft some tweets with #PelosiMustGo—don’t forget to capitalize #EachWord. Don’t use more than two hashtags—otherwise you’ll be marked as spam.” The call to action urged people to start posting at noon Pacific time, attach their favorite graphics, and like and retweet other Buttar supporters’ contributions.

I was living in San Francisco then and had been following Buttar’s efforts to get attention, as traditional outlets largely ignored the democratic socialist’s underdog campaign. The day before, incensed at Pelosi’s refusal to debate him, he had sparred with an unoccupied chair outdoors on a public street. But on Twitter that Sunday morning, the challenger had a more promising strategy: If the ploy worked, his slogan would show up on millions of screens across the entire country without costing him a dime. Team Buttar’s message was sent at 10:30 a.m. I wondered whether the online armies would turn out for him. “Did you see this?” I asked a colleague at the Stanford Internet Observatory over Slack, dropping the anonymous call to action into the channel. Then I made a pot of coffee and waited to see whether Buttar’s supporters could pull it off.

Through my work at the Internet Observatory, I’d witnessed many attempts to push messages by gaming the algorithms that Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms use to identify popular content and surface it to users. Confronted with campaigns to make certain ideas seem more widespread than they really are, many researchers and media commentators have taken to using labels such as “misinformation” and “disinformation.” But those terms have fallen victim to scope creep. They imply that a narrative or claim has deviated from a stable or canonical truth; whether Pelosi should go is simply a matter of opinion.

In fact, we have a very old word for persuasive communication with an agenda: propaganda. That term, however, comes with historical baggage. It presumes that governments, authority figures, institutions, and mass media are forcing ideas on regular people from the top down. But more and more, the opposite is happening. Far from being merely a target, the public has become an active participant in creating and selectively amplifying narratives that shape realities. Perhaps the best word for this emergent bottom-up dynamic is one that doesn’t exist quite yet: ampliganda, the shaping of perception through amplification. It can originate from an online nobody or an onscreen celebrity. No single person or organization bears responsibility for its transmission. And it is having a profound effect on democracy and society.

Buttar’s #PelosiMustGo was both typical and unusual. Hashtag campaigns occur all the time, but I happened to catch this one right at the start. First, it was a blip in a corner of the internet, but the hashtag soon lit up the modern propaganda system. This amplification chain is incredibly powerful; it surfaces civil-rights violations, protest movements, and breaking events, whether traditional media choose to cover those events or not. But it’s also how quack medical claims and a daily parade of conspiracy theories are made to trend—#Ivermectin, #SaveTheChildren, #StopTheSteal.

Buttar had two key prerequisites for creating a viral moment: an Extremely Online supporter base experienced in Twitter conflict, and a hashtag slogan expressing righteous indignation. At 11:57 a.m., a Twitter user who went by @Pondipper and had a modest 1,700 followers, jumped the gun: #PelosiMustGo. Tweet No. 1. Buttar himself posted promptly at noon: “Why do you think #PelosiMustGo?” he asked his 113,000 followers. The tweet inspired several hundred replies and retweets, some encouraging him, others questioning him, others mocking him. But anyone who engaged with Buttar’s post—whether to applaud it or scorn it—was telling Twitter algorithms to elevate it. My coffee cooled as the hashtag moved up Twitter’s rankings and began elbowing aside trends about AR-15s, golf, Donald Trump’s pardons, and then–Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

In the previous few years, taking advantage of features like trending lists had become more challenging as social-media companies had gotten wise to the manipulation. By 2018, Twitter had already begun to discount postings from bot and sock-puppet accounts when determining which subjects were becoming popular. Facebook had kicked an infamous Russian troll factory off the platform, and then established integrity teams to look for “coordinated inauthentic behavior”—that is, suspicious activity by networks of accounts that, in many cases, consisted of fake personas. For tech platforms, cracking down on fake accounts, bot networks, and institutional trolls was easy to justify; the general public didn’t much care about the free-speech rights of fake people. But the rewards for successfully capturing public attention were still huge enough to keep authentic actors looking for creative ways to propel their message to the top of Twitter’s popularity charts. More and more, I noticed, ordinary people had been stepping up to spread messages that, in the past, might have been amplified by bots.

As #PelosiMustGo reached No. 7 on the Trending list, the former GOP congressional candidate DeAnna Lorraine Tesoriero discovered Buttar’s hashtag and tweeted it to her own 330,000 followers. She and Buttar disagreed on nearly everything—except that #PelosiMustGo. Within three minutes, the hashtag began rippling through the conservative Twitterverse, where regular people utterly unaware of the coordinated effort on the left began tweeting alongside Tesoriero. A second faction had entered the campaign! The conspiracy brokers of QAnon quickly got in the game, appending #PelosiMustGo to posts about the addled theory they happened to be pushing that morning (that the online furniture retailer Wayfair was trafficking children). Pelosi’s own fans followed closely behind, trying to reframe the hashtag: #PelosiMustGo “straight to the White House and take over the presidency!” But by contributing, they only amplified the messages of ideological enemies on the House speaker’s right and left.

If Buttar were a Russian troll, the #PelosiMustGo triumph might have earned him a promotion: Americans were yet again feuding on social media. But Buttar is very much an American, and so were the overwhelming majority of the online activists whom he exhorted to join his campaign. Although it is tempting to believe that foreign bogeymen are sowing discord, the reality is far simpler and more tragic: Outrage generates engagement, which algorithmically begets more engagement, and even those who don’t want to shred the fabric of American society are nonetheless encouraged to play by these rules in their effort to call attention to their cause. When I asked Buttar about the hashtag campaign recently, he told me that he’d chosen #PelosiMustGo because it had the potential to attract attention from a variety of communities. “Foundationally, the challenge is that I talk about all kinds of things—most of what I talk about are solutions to problems—but those posts don’t go viral,” Buttar said. His campaign had built direct-messaging groups of supporters “who were enthusiastic about coordinating across the broader movement,” he recalled, “and I thought of that network and its messaging and capacity as a sort of counterpropaganda, a way to help break through to the public because so many stories never get covered.”

Some ampliganda takes off because an influential user gets an ideologically aligned crowd of followers to spread it; in other cases, an idea spontaneously emerges from somewhere in the online crowd, fellow travelers give it an initial boost, and the influencer sees the emergent action and amplifies it, precipitating a cascade of action from adjacent factions. Most Twitter users never knew that #PelosiMustGo began because someone gave marching orders in a private Discord channel. They saw only the hashtag. They likely assumed that somewhere, some sizable portion of Americans were spontaneously tweeting against the speaker of the House. And they were right—sort of.

In 1622, the same year that Galileo was reiterating his defense of the heliocentric model of the solar system, Pope Gregory XV created the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith—known in Latin as the Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, or the Propaganda Fide for short—a body tasked with coordinating and expanding the missionary activity of the Catholic Church.

The Church was in crisis. The Protestant Reformation, kicked off just more than a century earlier, had divided the European continent into competing factions. The English and Dutch were spreading Protestantism to far-flung colonies in Asia and the Americas, while the printing press and rising literacy rates had shattered the Church’s monopoly on the divine word. The Propaganda Fide was intended to stem the losses, to draw waverers back to the one true faith.

The word propaganda is a form of a Latin verb, one that Gregory likely chose “to add to the sense of a religious Crusade,” Maria Teresa Prendergast and Thomas Prendergast write in the Oxford Handbook of Propaganda Studies. The term referred less to what Church representatives said than what they did; propaganda described their fervid mission to disseminate the Church’s view far and wide.

Over the subsequent centuries, propaganda gradually acquired a secular meaning—information with an agenda, deliberately created to shape the audience’s perception of reality. The term also took on an antidemocratic connotation: Propaganda’s intent was to circumvent a citizen’s reason, to propel him via deceit or chicanery toward belief in a particular cause. Historically, many Americans have been loath to admit either spreading or falling for such material. During the two world wars, propaganda was what the Germans did; in the Cold War era, conservatives in the United States feared Communist domination of the media.

Yet the notion that the powerful could manipulate the masses from the top down took hold on the left as well. At the zenith of mass media, television networks and radio stations communicated unidirectionally to the public. The linguist, philosopher, and social critic Noam Chomsky argued in a 1988 book that the U.S. government was “manufacturing consent” for its policies with the help of complicit news outlets, whose economic incentives and ties to elites led them to abdicate their responsibility to inform the public. This line of reasoning gradually took on a conspiratorial undertone among its most sympathetic audiences: They are trying to control us.

Since then, social media has ended the monopoly of mass-media propaganda. But it has also ushered in a new competitor: ampliganda—the result of a system in which trust has been reallocated from authority figures and legacy media to charismatic individuals adept at appealing to the aspects of personal or ideological identity that their audiences hold most dear.

Of all the changes wrought by social networks, this ability of online crowds to influence one another is among the most important and underappreciated. In a postmortem analysis of the 2016 election, MIT’s Yochai Benkler described a “propaganda pipeline” whereby marginal actors on such social-media sites as Reddit and 4chan pass stories to online influencers, who in turn draw the attention of traditional media. Another scholar, Alicia Wanless, applied the term participatory propaganda, and Jennifer Mercieca, a rhetoric professor at Texas A&M, recently insisted, “We are all propagandists now.” The old top-down propaganda model has begun to erode, but the bottom-up version may be even more destructive.

Today there is simply a rhetorical war of all against all: a maelstrom of viral hashtags competing for attention, hopping from community to community, amplified by crowds of true believers for whom sharing and retweeting is akin to a religious calling—even if the narrative they’re propagating is a ludicrous conspiracy theory about stolen ballots or Wayfair-trafficked children. Ampliganda engenders a constellation of mutually reinforcing arguments targeted at, and internalized by, niche communities, rather than a single, monolithic narrative fed to the full citizenry. It has facilitated a fragmentation of reality with profound implications. Each individual act of clicking or resharing may not feel like a propagandistic act, but in the aggregate, those acts shape conversations, beliefs, realities.

Although we are all partly responsible, we are not all equally responsible. On my computer screen, the spiderlike network graph of Buttar’s hashtag began thickening its web among a new set of users, a disproportionate number of whom had American-flag emoji in their bios and MAGA hats in their profile photos. Jack Posobiec had tweeted about #PelosiMustGo.

Frequently seen sporting a close-cropped beard and a sharply pressed blazer, Posobiec is a former U.S. military-intelligence analyst. His work today is altogether more difficult to categorize. In 2017, Posobiec described it to The New York Times as “part investigative, part activist, part commentary.” Posobiec is notorious for peddling Pizzagate and other groundless, inflammatory conspiracy theories to his 1.3 million Twitter followers. He is an influencer—someone who is famous on social media mostly for being famous on social media. The influencer is an authentic figure in a chaotic online world, opining about topics as disparate as armed conflicts and laundry detergents. Whereas expertise is conferred by the academy and celebrity is conferred from the outside by recognized media outlets, influencers can rise without the validation of gatekeepers—a selling point in an era of anti-elite sensibilities. Conservative influencers promote themselves as ordinary people who defy conniving liberals and the lying mainstream media. Most of these personalities generate attention and, yes, advertising revenue from their adulatory audiences. This is their business; on the left, a separate group of hyperpartisan influencers are running their own grift.

The crowd, meanwhile, is motivated by ideology, but also the camaraderie of participation and the potential for recognition; in their Twitter bios, many of the most committed online factionalists list influencer luminaries who have retweeted them. Once disparagingly called “slacktivism,” clicks and shares in service to a cause have evolved into a source of meaning for many, and what happens online doesn’t stay online.

Jack Posobiec’s tweet about #PelosiMustGo, posted 45 minutes after Buttar’s, was a banal observation: “#PelosiMustGo is now #6 trending,” was all he said. But it was enough; his followers knew their cues. They liked the message 16,000 times and replied or retweeted thousands more, propelling the hashtag fully into the national political conversation. Shortly after, on my screen, the trend hit No. 1.

Five hours after the campaign began, as the sun dipped lower over the San Francisco hills, more than 100,000 tweets had been posted. An ad hoc coalition of socialists, conservatives, influencers, liberals, QAnon supporters, and others had gathered together on the internet for an afternoon of fragmentary and cacophonous micro-discussions about whether #PelosiMustGo. The public’s attention would soon shift elsewhere. The ultimate victory, of course, would be Pelosi’s; she remains the speaker of the House. But for the moment, a politician and a little more than 100 blue-check Twitter accounts had moved in concert with tens of thousands of other users to call the public’s attention to California’s Twelfth District, where Shahid Buttar—socialist, activist, and intersectional feminist—was campaigning to unseat Nancy Pelosi, then the most powerful Democrat in America.

In my conversation with Buttar, he sounded struck not only by the power of the various networks to break through and capture public attention, but also by the unpredictability of how #PelosiMustGo spread. “We didn’t have any control over it,” he said several times, referring to the hashtag once it was unleashed as much as to the behavior of the digital crowds themselves. “We built a pretty big wave, and I was glad to surf it for a while,” he said, until others “with a bigger board pushed me off the wave.” He added, “I remembered thinking as it was happening, Wow, our supporters can build waves like this?! But it wasn’t just our supporters; it was a bunch of other waves in confluence, building on each other.”

America’s political and civic norms have not adjusted to these conditions. We are surrounded at all times by urgency, by demands to take action. We may not be entirely sure why something popped up in our feed, but that doesn’t obviate the nagging feeling that we should pay attention. Understanding the incentives of influencers, recognizing the very common rhetorical techniques that precipitate outrage, developing an awareness of how online crowds now participate in crystallizing public opinion—that is an education that Americans need. Regulators and members of Congress are attempting to sort out which guardrails our communication infrastructure might require, and the platforms that designed the architecture incessantly amend their policies in response to the latest media exposé of unintended consequences. In the short term, each of us becomes more aware of what we choose to amplify, and how we choose to participate. To adapt to the new propaganda, the public must first learn to recognize it.

I closed my laptop as #PelosiMustGo began to fall off the Twitter leaderboards. The next day, there would be new hashtags to track. Whether organic or contrived, they would be amplified by factions, curated and pushed out to the public by algorithms that reward engagement with yet more engagement. A giant web of interconnected users, each with an agenda, shouting at one another to pay attention. It’s not disinformation. Our politics is awash in ampliganda, the propaganda of the modern age.

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