In 2014, the World Economic Forum listed “the spread of misinformation online” as one of the top 10 trends facing the world. By 2016, Reporters Without Borders declared that we “have reached the age of post-truth, propaganda, and suppression of freedoms – especially in democracies.”

Unfortunately, general understanding of the changes brought by the internet and related technologies is still rather weak. Simply put, thinking has not caught up to our current reality. The digital space – or the “infosphere” as Oxford professor Luciano Floridi describes it – is rapidly becoming far more integral to our daily lives than something we log on and off of at will. As Floridi explains, we are living “onlife”. In other words, what happens online doesn’t just stay online, it is interwoven into our daily experience, and we will become increasingly dependent on ICTs as we move into a new era of, what Floridi has outlined as, “hyperhistory”.

The problem is, we aren’t really prepared for this always-on life. For example, in Canada, the U.K., and U.S., where internet penetration is 84% or higher, nearly half of those populations finished high school before the web was even invented.  Unless someone works with online algorithms, social networks, or behavioural psychology, what could the average person possibly understand about how being plugged in constantly can affect their perception?

Americans are at the vanguard of these changes – and as such are among the most vulnerable populations to information warfare, be it in the form of participatory propaganda, social engineering or cyber-attacks.

Americans have long been heavy consumers of mass media. By 1940 most households had a radio and listened to it on average between four to five hours each day. Television enjoyed similar rates of adoption, with the average viewer tuning in five hours per day in 1960, and a little more than six hours daily by 1975.

The internet has only increased American consumption of media. As of 2015, 21% of American survey respondents indicated they were online “almost constantly”. By the end of the first quarter in 2016, the average American was consuming 10:39 hours of media across devices each day. These rates are only expected to soar. The situation in most other nations with high internet-penetration rates is either similar already or will become so in the very near future.

Unlike radio and television before it, the internet has people constantly connected to information. And if people are choosing what they want to consume, not based on fact or reality, it makes them highly susceptible to manipulation.

Participatory Propaganda from Within

We are often warned of the threat that is external enemy propaganda: how Daesh is using it to recruit; or how Russians are influencing popular opinions via disinformation – to name a few. Yet, propaganda targeting an audience abroad is the most challenging form of systemic persuasion. Given cognitive biases and entrenched beliefs, to name just a few impediments, swaying the minds of opponents is extremely difficult. The more likely chance of being mislead or swayed by propaganda is at home – in the relaxed environment of your own backyard where the worldviews you adopt or shape seem natural, familiar and, thus, less threatening. Never is this misconception more dangerous than in highly politicised environments when these viewpoints diverge into extreme partisanship, breaking society down into groups, which can no longer understand one another. Such divisions make a society a much easier mark where enemy propaganda is concerned.

Indeed, in its recent report on information operations, Facebook noted:

“We have observed many actions by fake account operators that could only be performed by people with language skills and a basic knowledge of the political situation in the target countries, suggesting a higher level of coordination and forethought.”

And while the example used to illustrate the model of Participatory Propaganda stems from an arguably far-right campaign, this does not preclude its adoption on the left. Granted, populist views, which can occur on both the left and right side of the political spectrum, are likely to be the best suited to this format – but it will not stop others from trying.

There is a major caveat that needs to be considered before implementing participatory propaganda, however. If the campaign using these techniques claims a moral high ground over the opposition, then any proof that might be revealed about audience manipulation can easily be used to discredit the campaign. For example, any documentation that shows they used botnets, fake news, or astroturfing, can all be used to attack the legitimacy of the campaign. So, if you stand on the side of liberty, and transparency, these sorts of “dark arts tricks” put that messaging and work at risk – which is one of the reasons why Clinton was so easy to attack.

Coping with Participatory Propaganda

As participatory propaganda can threaten the stability of liberal democracies something must be done to counter its effects. As noted above, simply applying the participatory propaganda model is not likely to work if the aim of the campaign is to uphold an established order that is liberal democracy. Moreover, efforts from several segments of society will be required to effectively address the challenges posed by the use of participatory propaganda.  Below are some suggestions broken out by sector:

Governments

Governments concerned about participatory propaganda must invest in protecting citizens. This includes funding education on digital literacy, not just at the lower school levels, but for adults too. Adults and youth alike are simply not prepared to cope with the onslaught of persuasive information enabled in a Digital Age. Such education will also contribute a great deal to raising an overall understanding of cyberspace, with its benefits and perils, and prepare the population for the advent of the Internet of Things, participation in the digital economy and new opportunities associated with the 4th Industrial Revolution.

At the same time, a review of policies and laws around the use of persuasive communications in campaigning should be conducted and updated for this changing reality.

Militaries

In a Digital Age, war is no longer confined by time and space. Through information warfare, and techniques such as participatory propaganda, adversaries can constantly attack – not just opposing militaries, but the hearts and minds of citizens, at home and abroad. The use of persuasive communications is thus used to dissuade people from supporting things such as armed intervention abroad, membership in broader collectives such as NATO, or even militaries, in general. More must be done to understand the changing nature of warfare as a result. In particular, a shift in perception must occur from one of viewing cyber or information operations as separate, less important aspects of conflict, to one that understands that societies dependent on ICTs are particularly and constantly vulnerable to a new threat of information warfare. To that end, militaries should:

  • Ensure their doctrines, manuals and operational orders address issues related to information security, warfare and behaviour, whether in times of peace or open conflict, regarding domestic and foreign audiences.
  • Engage in high-level information sessions aimed at bringing the upper echelons of leadership up to speed on the changing nature of this threat;
  • Adapt basic training to include fostering a deeper understanding for how information warfare is changing the nature of conflict, and how every service member’s actions can and will be used against them in a Digital Age; and
  • Run exercises aimed at developing effective counter participatory propaganda models.

Media

As noted above, traditional media plays an important role in liberal democracies and the participatory propaganda model, as a result. The business of “news” has changed considerably in a Digital Age. The need to be first to break a story or increase circulation via online views has made traditional media much more vulnerable to becoming a channel for laundering fake news and clickbait. Given the speed with which information now spreads thanks to the internet, it might be time to re-imagine what reliable media is – and that might very well not be “news” at all, but deeper, more insightful, and trustworthy content. Indeed, the Digital Age might demand a sort of credit score ranking media outlets on credibility.

Political Parties

As it is expected that the pursuit of power will be more important to politicians than the dangers to society of using a participatory propaganda model in a campaign, I offer but this warning: participatory propaganda actively engages people. While your following might be easily persuaded, they are not slaves. If at any point they find that you are not continuing to address their needs, they can just as easily turn on you. As organised online communities, the effect of such a turn should not be underestimated. Like it or not, participatory propaganda also has a way of democratizing persuasive communications.

Organizations and Businesses

As integral units of every modern society, non-profits, charities and businesses of any size, employ many people, and likely affect through their actions even greater numbers. In all organizations, without exceptions, staff or personnel constitute the most valuable asset due to their skills and corporate knowledge. As a result, it is in the direct benefit to these organizations to consider information security not only from the point of view of the physical network or IT security but also from the point of view of the psychological and cognitive well-being of their personnel. From this point of view, especially in critical industries, such organizations would do well to elevate the understanding of senior leadership on issues related to participatory propaganda and related topics, such as social engineering. Regular penetration tests and staff exercises can help build resiliency to these types of information attacks.


Thank You… and Propagandise About This Topic

Yes, that was a long read. Thank you for staying with it. My research on the subject of participatory propaganda is at its early stages. If you believe this is a topic that needs deeper understanding and broader awareness among voters, please like, share, and comment on this post. Yes, I am asking you to be a propagandist in my own participatory model – but that support will convince a publisher that this topic is worthy of the time and effort for turning it into a book. I am also interested in the constructive feedback loop – feel free to reach out.

This research is also available in a full-length talk format – please reach out if you are interested in including it in your conference or event.

About Author

Alicia Wanless

La Generalista is the online identity of Alicia Wanless – a researcher and practitioner of strategic communications for social change in a Digital Age. Alicia researches how we shape — and are shaped — by a changing information space. As the Director of Strategic Communications at The SecDev Foundation, Alicia develops campaigns and strategies for engaging beneficiaries in outreach and behavioural change. Her work includes developing a training program that deals with verifying information and the spread of content online, and has supported projects in the Middle East, Vietnam and the post-Soviet space.

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