Area of Concern

Digital Intelligence

Political campaigns have always relied on values, visions, narratives, and ideologies to win votes. Whether virtuous or cynical, this effort comes down to propaganda: the leverage of social and psychological biases to promote a particular point of view.

Since Woodrow Wilson hired Walter Lippman to create the Creel Commission and win public support for our participation in World War I, social philosophers of all stripes have been debating the merits of manipulating people for political agendas. Lippman called for a “council of experts” to decide what would benefit the public, and an army of public relations specialists to convince them of what was in their own best interests. His protégé, Edward Bernays, took an even more cynical stance, arguing that the public was just too stupid to make informed choices. Elites should figure everything out, and treat the masses like Pavlov treated his dogs.

Which is the most effective approach to restoring the integrity of public discourse in an age of weaponized memetics: better technological protections, or a more resistant social psyche?

French legal scholar and social philosopher, Jacques Ellul, understood that propaganda was more than mere psychology. It depended not just on the emotional makeup of the individual, but the social context in which individuals live. In Ellul’s words, “Propaganda is a set of methods employed by an organized group that wants to bring about the active or passive participation in its actions of a mass of individuals, psychologically unified through psychological manipulations and incorporated in an organization.” Propaganda is meant to change the mindset of the public, so that they not only think but act differently.

Until recently, speeches, TV commercials, talk radio, flyers, and bumper stickers were the primary media through which propaganda could be disseminated. Sometimes, these traditional media campaigns rose to the level of psyops. America’s invasion of Guatemala in the 1950’s on behalf of United Fruit Company was falsely represented by Ed Bernays’ television producers as a liberation of its people, and fake stories of babies being pulled from incubators—the invention of Hill & Knowlton public relations specialists—won public support for America’s invasion of Iraq.

Regulation, competition, and a free press are all meant to protect the public from such manipulation, and these safeguards do work to varying extents. But a new breed of high-tech tools for political persuasion have emerged that challenge traditional approaches to public informational health. Politicians, activists, and state actors have attempted to harness media viruses, bots, and computational propaganda to manipulate minds and sway public opinion, often in secrecy, and on a scale unimaginable to previous media watchdogs.

IFTF Biology of Disinformation SR 2002 cover thumb