Pressing Issues

How to Navigate the Age of Disinformation


We appear to be living in the upside-down, where people are bots, facts are fiction, and our reality is governed by algorithms.



A funny thing happened the other day. I had just finished the last book in the Silence of the Lambs series. I complained about it online and had a brief discussion—as one does—then scanned down my timeline.

That’s when things got a little weird: I saw three posts pop up close (but not too close) together on my timeline that made reference to the series or their characters. For a brief, insane moment I thought that the universe was trying to tell me something, but what?

Then I realized it was just algorithms quietly rearranging my online reality to create a different world, one in which a larger than average number of people also wanted to talk to me about a book I had randomly picked up for a little escapism.

That’s all acceptable, or at least it’s not new, if we’re talking about books, or clothing, or food. We’re all used to advertising taking over our daily lives. In fact, I think many have become inured to the traditional ways, which is why social media upped the ante by gathering and selling our data.

But what if this is all used not just to sell us things, but to control our behavior as well by manipulating what we see?

And what if I told you that this was the goal of the advertising industry as we know it all along—but made far more muscular by social media and its algorithms?

It all rests on a bedrock of disinformation. A definition is in order here: What is called misinformation might be the result of an honest mistake or misremembering; disinformation exists only as a method of controlling human behavior.

It also doesn’t need to be strictly false, which is why “fake news” is a misnomer. It can be as simple as an article used to cast doubt on or confuse an election years later, as when Donald Trump Jr. pushed a 2012 story about voter fraud in November 2018 that had been roundly discredited well before the midterms.

It can be corrosive fantasies about “civil wars” or “nuclear events” that are pushed on a population to frighten people or force them into reacting in some way, such as wild rumors about November 4, 2017 and November 3, 2019 spread by bots, trolls, and their disingenuous or simply gullible enablers.

And advertising techniques and disinformation have gone together like peanut butter and jelly for political purposes for the last century. It was always political from birth.

“Advertising has become a great business,” declared United States President Calvin Coolidge to the American Association of Advertising Agencies in 1926. “It is the most potent influence in adopting and changing the habits and modes of life, affecting what we eat, what we wear, and the work and play of the whole Nation.”

Coolidge used advertising to great effect throughout his political career; he was re-elected in 1924 with the help of a new image developed by advertisers and marketers, among them public relations “father” Edward Bernays.

Bernays’s techniques, which sought to create image and visual spectacles to influence public opinion—detailed in Bernays’s books, Propaganda and Crystallizing Public Opinion—worked. They worked really well, so well that his famous uncle Sigmund Freud (with whom he regularly corresponded) complimented it; a few years after that, Bernays discovered that the latter book had made its way directly to the Third Reich, where Hitler’s Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels used those same ideas as a blueprint to build the infamous “Führer cult.

“They were using my books as the basis for a destructive campaign against the Jews of Germany,” he wrote in his 1965 autobiography. “This shocked me, but I knew any human activity can be used for social purposes or misused for antisocial ones.” But social control was always his actual goal, to use these techniques to calm the roiling masses, or at least distract them from their roils. True democracy, he said, would never work; humans need some means of direction, of control.

The ideas of Bernays were such a large part of the last century that he shaped not just events we remember, but how we remember them. He’s the reason bacon is considered part of the American breakfast. He made smoking socially acceptable for women at the behest of Lucky Strike, going so far as to alter women’s fashions so as not to clash with its filters. (He later campaigned against smoking.)

And Bernays worked with the United Fruit Company to destabilize the democratically elected Guatemalan government in 1954, to help the company improve its image and keep its land there. When the U.S.-backed coup was launched that June, United Fruit provided reporters with updates.

Guatemala was plunged into a 36-year-long civil war from which it has not yet recovered. The violence its legacy left directly contributes to today’s influx of families seeking asylum at the southern United States border, for which their children are being taken from them as a deterrent against others fleeing their home country’s violence. Bernays also helped develop the Señorita Chiquita Banana cartoon character to boost the company’s profile.

That’s the power of disinformation and advertising turned to political purposes. This brings us to now, the time of “fake news” and “memetic warfare,” as cities once only known for environmentalism and beer become battlegrounds, as racialized mass shootings are hideously normalized and punctuated by smears and death threats against traumatized victims, to more new local and global tensions daily.

It is crucial that the public understand how apps and platforms have spent years quietly pilfering huge amounts of data on its users, even using that data to build “shadow profiles” on people who have never had any social media presence.

Advertising has quietly and inexorably shaped our worldviews for decades, but now it’s hypertargeted and adjusted according to that data about you and everybody you know. It is much more than demographics and tastes. It’s loves, hates, motivations, fears. It is your habits, your sex life, your buying patterns, your bodily functions, your most private concerns, your most shameful compulsions and fears.

Now it’s being used to push isolated, vulnerable people further into violent paranoia using violent images and ideas via algorithmic nips and tucks to timelines to subtly push people into specific behaviors and directions.

It may not be perfect, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s good enough to be used by various entities all over the world to push isolated and unstable people into stochastic patterns of violence in order to bring about specific political outcomes. It is easy and lucrative to sell hate, violence, and nihilistic self-subsumation to the hopeless, the fearful, and the follower. Look at Guatemala. Look at Myanmar. Look at the United States.

To put it a different way, this technique might not work on you, but it might certainly work on a lonely, aggressive, aggrieved person with a growing sense of resentment toward the world and nothing left to lose—but the perceived adulation of an online community, however toxic, to win.

Social media has now been used to “disrupt” elections and democracies all over the world, picking scabs away from barely healed historical wounds and ripping apart fragile peace agreements. Myanmar’s Facebook-fueled genocide is a worst-case scenario still playing out, one that many debunkers saw coming but were utterly helpless to prevent even as much of the rest of the world was still roiling at the mercy of social-media-fed propaganda.

Tech knows this power. Would Silicon Valley go to such lengths to hide the extent of the personal psychographic data it has pilfered from us otherwise? Would data be so very valuable if it were not the oil that lubricates the dusty joints of late-stage capitalism?

These platforms must give the data to journalists and researchers who request it without delay, so that we can understand what has been used against us all, and act accordingly.

It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.

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