Simi Mehta, Ritika Gupta, Swati Solanki

To understand the effects of technology in the realm of social and political manoeuvring, the Center for ICT for Development at IMPRI, organized IMPRI #WebPolicyTalk as part of the series The State of Education – #EducationDialogue on The Role of Emerging Technology in Social and Political Maneuvering: Challenges and Solutions, on April 20′ 2021. The Speaker for the session was Dr Samuel Woolley, Assistant Professor, School of Journalism & Media; Program Director & Knight Faculty Fellow, Center for Media Engagement, Moody College of Communication, The University of Texas at Austin.

The session began with the opening remarks from the moderator of the session Dr Simi Mehta, CEO & Editorial Director, IMPRI, Who stated that the role of technology and technological revolutions have been pervaded in all aspects of life living in the digital age and 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 welcome Dr Wooley.

Politics in the Age of Computational Propaganda

Dr Wooley began by introducing computational propaganda. Computational propaganda is the way in which political parties take into use today’s social media platform, to alter the information that is being led into the public domain. This practice is taken by the political parties to propagate their agendas into the nation, and also to cut out the opposing views. According to Dr Wooley, his new book, The Reality Game, is very much solution-oriented. The goal of the book as by the author is to discover the frontiers of propaganda and political manoeuvring and to discuss the possibilities, in which the societies can overcome these manipulations.

The inspiration for the book, as by Dr Wooley comes from the book called the Public Opinion, by Walter Lippmann. One of the fundamentals of social sciences is propaganda research, stated the author. Propaganda is a sociological force, which is facilitated by modern technology. Propaganda happens to occur in modern times at the intersection of technology and society. As there is the use of communication-oriented tools to try 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 took place in earlier times.

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.

Overview of Propaganda Research

Dr Wooley gave an overview of propaganda research and explained how propaganda takes place.

The three ways of understanding propaganda generation are content, reception, and intent.

The ways in which content is created, such as hashtags, and who is generating such content. The next step is the reception of the created content. ‘Who are the groups and communities who are at the receiving end of the campaign. In most cases, the targeted groups are the marginalized communities, in the United States, that are the Latin Americans, or the LGBTQ community.

The study of the Intent comes next. This looks into the ‘why is this content being made, and also ‘who are the people who create the propagandist content. Various governments across the globe, by the study, have developed their own bodies that look after the creation and propagation of such content. Understanding ‘intent’ helps the researchers mitigate the ill effects of the creation of propagandist content. It also gives insight into the hunger for such deceitful content.

Social media’s contribution to political misperceptions

Demand for Deceit-How the way we think Drives Disinformation, a research paper written by Dr. Wooley, explores the field of the demand for propagandist content.

Cognitive Drivers of Consumption, Acceptance, and Sharing of Disinformation are the factors that lead to the propagation of such content.

Encrypted-Propaganda Project is a project case study, introduced by Dr. Wooley that undertakes the social media messaging platforms, such as WhatsApp, Telegram, and Signal into consideration. The governments in the United State of America, India, and Brazil are coming up with intricate ways of spreading propaganda through these social media messaging platforms. Since these happenings take place in an encrypted setup, it is not within the academic’s reach to study. It has also been that these closed platforms have been used to develop the propagandist campaign which then had been planned to be taken to more open-mainstream platforms.

The power of relational organizing

Relational Organizing, as told by Dr. Wooley is inherent to these platforms. It means that the kind of groups that platforms like WhatsApp are able to hold is not very large. These relatively small 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 were also targeted. These units due to their small size could easily spread the needed particular kind of information, which otherwise would not possibly be spread. The Cambridge Analytica Scam of 2016 was also discussed. The Geolocation data leakage was also discussed in detail.

Dangerous Art of Social Media Manipulation

Certain traits of the social media platforms were mentioned by Dr. Wooley, as in how these platforms are primarily built around the bait of engagement time and advertisement revenue. These are not the platforms for high-quality information to be in circulation. The platforms are flawed informational environments, according to Dr. Wooley, they are built in a manner that only facilitates the trends that have been running, using the algorithm, and suggesting the content that should be viewed by the person. 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.

There is a need for Public Interest Technologists.

Pertinent Questions and Concluding Remarks

In the remarks from 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 a propagandist. Therefore according to Dr. Wooley, it’s essential to preserve the informational environment.

After this, some very insightful questions were taken up by Dr. Wooley 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 the communities, as to how they can be guided forwards to unauthentic information. There is a need to make people understand the possibilities and also the current situations.

The education of Critical thinking stands essential in the process.

Acknowledgment: Ramya Kathal is a Research Intern at IMPRI

Youtube Video : Role of Technology in Social and Political Maneuvering

Picture courtesy: Transcosmos