Conspiracy Theories in the Information Age, Part 1
In the past, heightened rhetoric and propaganda were the tools of choice for those looking to convince an electorate to vote them into office, and conspiracy theories were their bane. This election season has seen the rise of a new form of persuasion, one that’s unique to the Information Age.
For months, WikiLeaks creator Julian Assange had promised to rain bombshells on the narrowing field of presidential candidates, and he indicated that Hillary Clinton would be the target of the release. Rumors had swirled around the secrets the former secretary of state might have wanted to protect when she deleted more than 30,000 emails from a private server.
As the U.S. celebrated Independence Day, WikiLeaks released the first batch of emails, and the fireworks began. Nothing in the emails proved particularly damaging for Clinton’s presidential aspirations, though.
WikiLeaks had released troves of sensitive information in the past, so at first glance its actions represented nothing new. However, that particular series of leaks was about to introduce much of the world to a new form of propaganda.
The Tainted Well
During the Cold War, authoritarian regimes had their own mouthpieces, along with enough control over the populace to stomp out dissenting voices, noted Mark Fenster, a professor at the University of Florida and author of Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture.
“They were organs of the state, and they spoke about whatever it was the government wanted to speak about,” he told TechNewsWorld. “Those were obviously perfect means of distributing propaganda — particularly if the government was also able to suppress any other voices from making it to the public.”
With the rise of the Internet, it became difficult to drown out competing voices. From the delivery of “paquetes” of digitized American culture in Cuba to hacktivism in China, the Internet has provided tools that make it next to impossible for any government to silence its critics completely, or to screen outside ideas from their view.
“We’ve got an interesting experiment going on right now,” Fenster said in an interview conducted prior to last week’s election, “if the allegations are true that Russian hackers, ordered by the Russian government, got hold of email documents from [Clinton campaign manager] John Podesta, the DNC and the Clinton campaign, and are releasing them collectively to in order to manipulate the election for their preferred candidate: Donald Trump.”
The cache of Clinton campaign documents might not have been as devastating as Assange initially indicated, but it undoubtedly added a new dimension to this election season and introduced the public to what might be called the “tainted well.”
“This isn’t propaganda in the classic since,” Fenster said, “but it is a way of trying to shape government opinion.”
Because of the positive adjectives Pressident-Elect Donald Trump used to describe Russian leader Vladimir Putin during the campaign, speculation grew that the leaked emails were intended specifically to damage Clinton’s chances.
However, it is still not clear that Russia — even if it did commission the hacks — aimed to sway the election toward Trump. Russia might have been trying to prevent either candidate from having a mandate upon taking office, suggested Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, in a conversation prior to the election.
I think “Russia isn’t trying to promote either candidate at the moment, it is operating to ensure that neither of them will be able to actually govern if elected, operating under a broad strategy of discrediting the government and effectively fermenting revolt,” he told TechNewsWorld.
Please Sir, More Propaganda
Whatever the true motives of the leaks and their possible sponsors might have been, it’s indisputable that the Internet has created a world that’s ripe for and receptive to propaganda in many forms — from ads many try to avoid, to stories that gain attention through votes cast by mouse clicks and screen taps.
“Even if unintentional, online news services currently track interests and serve up news based on those interests,” noted Enderle.
During the latest election cycle, for instance, liberal and conservative voters received very different news streams, he pointed out, so their perceptions of the world were very different. It helped to massively polarize the two views.
Just as social media metrics have advanced to help marketers serve up relevant ads at the moment consumers are primed to purchase goods or services, those same tools can be used to dish out fake or heavily biased news, according to Enderle.
“Confirmation bias already teaches we are very vulnerable to this type of manipulation, and this same methodology is largely used for telephone and Internet scams,” he observed.
While there are few governments that grip as tightly as North Korea does these days, states still use propaganda for good and bad, according to University of Florida’s Fenster.
Governments use propaganda all of the time, he said.
“They do so by publishing information on their websites or releasing information to the press and NGOs to report on,” Fenster noted. “Oftentimes, governments have their own public relations offices that might not be named as such but work the same.”
There are times when governments turn to conspiracy theories as a form of propaganda, suggested Richard W. Lachmann, a professor of comparative/historical sociology and political sociology at the University of Albany.
“Whenever a country is losing a war, there always are conspiracy theories to explain the loss,” he told TechNewsWorld.
When it comes to propagating propaganda about war, it’s common for governments to spin webs about traitors, he added.
Most famously, there was “the ‘stab in the back’ conspiracy theory in Germany at the end of World War I, when many Germans came to believe that their defeat was due to Jewish traitors in Germany rather than to the manpower and weapons edge of the Allies,” Lachmann said.
In the Information Age, there’s a new way to tell war stories that favor one side over the other. Dip from a tainted well and offer a drink to a world that’s thirsty for information.