To understand the effects of technology in the realm of social and political manoeuvring, the Center for ICT for Development at IMPRI, organised IMPRI #WebPolicyTalk as part of the series ‘The Role of Emerging Technology in Social and Political Maneuvering: Challenges and Solutions’ under ‘The State of Education – #EducationDialogue’ on April 20, 2021. The speaker for the session was Dr Samuel Woolley, Assistant Professor, School of Journalism and Media; and Program Director and Knight Faculty Fellow, Center for Media Engagement, Moody College of Communication, the University of Texas at Austin.
The session began with opening remarks from the moderator of the session Dr Simi Mehta, CEO and Editorial Director, IMPRI, who stated that the role of technology and technological revolutions has pervaded all aspects of our life in the digital age. Hence, it is natural for technology to play an integral role in various spheres of society, politics and the entire humanity. Moving forward, Dr Simi introduced and welcomed Dr Wooley.
Dr Woolley began by introducing computational propaganda. It is the way in which political parties take into use today’s social media platforms to alter the information that is being led into the public domain. This practice is taken up by political parties to propagate their agendas onto the citizens and also to cut out the opposing views.
According to Dr Woolley, his new book The Reality Game is very much solution-oriented. The goal of the book, as mentioned by the author, is to discover the frontiers of propaganda and political manoeuvring, and discuss the possibilities in which the societies can overcome these manipulations. The inspiration for the book, said Dr Wooley, comes from another book called Public Opinion by Walter Lippmann.
One of the fundamentals of social sciences is propaganda research. Propaganda is a sociological force, which is facilitated by modern technology. Propaganda occurs in modern times at the intersection of technology and society since communication-oriented tools can be used to manipulate public opinion for the gains of those in power or those who have access to the tools. Social media has definitely changed the way propaganda takes place today.
Computational propaganda, the primary subject of inquiry, is explained as the ways in which automation and algorithms that underlie the social media systems are used to control society and its political conversations.
Dr Wooley gave an overview of propaganda research and explained how propaganda takes place. He said:
The first way is determining the ways in which content is created — for instance, the use of hashtags — and who is generating such content. The next step is the reception of the created content. Which groups and communities are at the receiving end of the campaign? In most cases, the targeted groups are marginalised communities. In the United States, for example, that would be Latin Americans or the LGBTQ+ community.
The study of ‘Intent’ comes next. This looks into the ‘why this content is being made’ and ‘who is creating the propagandist content’. Various governments across the globe have developed their own governing bodies that look after the creation and propagation of such content. Understanding ‘intent’ helps researchers mitigate the ill effects of the creation of propagandist content. It also gives insight into the hunger for such deceitful content.
Demand for Deceit-How the way we think Drives Disinformation, a research paper written by Dr Woolley, explores the field of the demand for propagandist content. It says:
Encrypted-Propaganda Project is a project case study introduced by Dr Woolley that undertakes social media messaging platforms such as WhatsApp, Telegram and Signal into consideration. Governments in the United State of America, India and Brazil are coming up with intricate ways to spread propaganda through these social media messaging platforms. Since these take place in an encrypted setup, it is not within an academic’s reach of study. These closed platforms have also been used to develop propagandist campaigns, which then had been planned to be taken to more open-mainstream platforms.
Relational Organising, as told by Dr Woolley, is inherent in these platforms. It means that the kind of groups that platforms such as WhatsApp are able to hold is not very large. These relatively smaller groups thus give people a sense of acquaintance and familiarity with their fellow members. This feature facilitates the spreading of manipulative content.
Nano influencers and micro demographics are also targeted. These units, due to their small size, could easily spread the particular kind of information that is difficult to spread otherwise. The Cambridge Analytica scam of 2016 and Geolocation data leakage were also discussed at the panel.
Certain common traits of the social media platforms were mentioned by Dr Woolley. These included how these platforms are primarily built around the bait of engagement time and advertisement revenue. These platforms are aimed at circulating high-quality information. The platforms are flawed informational environments, according to Dr Woolley, that are built in a manner that only facilitates the trends that have been running, using an algorithm, and suggesting the content that should be viewed by a user. Since these pre-existing platforms aren’t built to inhabit human rights and democracy, the idea of building a platform that does cater to humanistic and democratic values is lucrative. Woolley concluded:
There is a need for public interest technologists.
In the remarks by Dr Simi, India’s situation with the WhatsApp army was also brought into mention. The conventional mass media was also put into question if it will be able to catch up with the pacing newer platforms. The access, however, to these social media platforms has given the opportunity to anyone and everyone to become a journalist and propagandist. Therefore, according to Dr Woolley, it’s essential to preserve the informational environment.
After this, some very insightful questions were taken up by Dr Woolley from researchers at IMPRI. In the age of unmoderated content and deep fakes, it was said that there is a lack of understanding and foresight within the authoritative bodies and communities as to how they can be guided to identify unauthentic information. There is also a need to make people understand the current situation and possibilities of digital propaganda.
The education of critical thinking stands essential in the process.
Acknowledgement: Ramya Kathal is a Research Intern at IMPRI.
Youtube Video: Role of Technology in Social and Political Maneuvering
Contributions by: Simi Mehta, Ritika Gupta, Swati Solanki