Est. 1995

Tag: Propaganda

Disinformation is one of the world’s biggest risks ahead of elections, reports say. But it doesn’t have to be.

Disinformation is one of the world’s biggest risks ahead of elections, reports say. But it doesn't have to be.

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As we hurtle toward one of the most consequential election years of our lifetimes, major groups are warning of a huge risk on the horizon: mis- and disinformation.

That’s according to both the World Economic Forum and the Eurasia Group, which published separate but eerily similar reports on the biggest risks the world faces as we head into 2024.

With disinformation fueling division, the Eurasia Group warned that the upcoming US election will be “testing American democracy to a degree the nation hasn’t experienced in 150 years and undermining US credibility on the global stage.”

But that disinformation isn’t coming out of nowhere. There’s a business model that fuels it — the global ad tech market, which is expected to be worth $2.9 trillion by 2031, according to Forbes.

Thanks to an almost total lack of transparency in this industry, disinformation is profitable. But that doesn’t have to be the case.

Here’s what’s at stake, according to some of the biggest thinkers out there.

What do these reports actually say?

The biggest challenge of 2024, the Eurasia Group wrote, is “the United States vs itself.”

The political risk consultancy warned in its report that “public trust in core institutions—such as Congress, the judiciary, and the media—is at historic lows; polarization and partisanship are at historic highs.

“Add algorithmically amplified disinformation to the mix, and Americans no longer believe in a common set of settled facts about the nation and the world.”

That’s a scary thought ahead of an incredibly important election — and the Eurasia Group isn’t alone in that concern.

The WEF’s Global Risks Report 2024 — which surveyed 1,500 experts around the world — painted a picture of a treacherous road ahead with “optimism” in “short supply.”

The biggest short-term risk the experts outlined was “the spread of mis- and disinformation around the globe.”

This “could result in civil unrest, but could also drive government-driven censorship, domestic propaganda and controls on the free flow of information,” the WEF website summarized.

It could have a serious impact on elections around the world in 2024, which are set to take place in several countries, including Bangladesh, Mexico, India, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

“The widespread use of misinformation and disinformation, and tools to disseminate it, may undermine the legitimacy of newly elected governments,” the WEF warned. “Resulting unrest could range from violent protests and hate crimes to civil confrontation and terrorism.”

What do ads have to do with this?

While the takeaways are terrifying, we can tackle disinformation targeting voters. Because disinformation is a business, and its revenue source is ads.

Programmatic advertising — the automation of buying and selling ads — has let companies introduce so many middlemen and layers to the ad-buying process that brands often have no idea what their ad spend is funding.

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When you consider that the global ad tech industry is worth hundreds of billions of dollars right now — and that as much as 3 percent of programmatic ad buys go toward an “unknown” — that’s a lot of money disappearing into the ether.

We’ve caught disinformation grifters sticking their hands into this cookie jar, swiping ad dollars from brands that want nothing to do with their websites.

Consider Breitbart, a site full of racism and disinformation that brands including BMW have publicly said they don’t want to advertise on. How was it still serving BMW retailer ads in December?

Because bad actors know how this incredibly technical process works and use its complexity to profit. One way they game the system is by pooling together their inventory and hiding their icky websites behind brand-safe fronts.

Google and other ad exchanges are accomplices in the disinformation-for-profit business. Google controls most of the automated ad-buying-and-selling processes. It requires next-to-no transparency from the websites it works with, and regularly fails to enforce its own policies. We even caught Google profiting from scammers selling fake Shark Tank diet pills.

We don’t know if Google’s failures are because it doesn’t care or because it has lost control of its near-monopoly on the advertising ecosystem. But it doesn’t matter because the effect is the same: It makes disinformation profitable.

And that disinformation is threatening elections around the world.

But by holding ad exchanges accountable and empowering advertisers by pushing for greater transparency, we can close off the paths that make disinformation profitable.

And just maybe save democracy in the process.

Gish Gallop and Glittering Generalities

 

The concept of propaganda has a great deal of power to fascinate. So does the very word propaganda, which to most of us today sounds faintly exotic as if it referred mainly to phenomena from distant places and times. But in truth, can any one of us here in the twenty-first century go a day without being subjected to the thing itself? Watch the video above, in which The Paint Explainer lays out 51 different propaganda techniques in 11 minutes, and you’ll more than likely recognize many of the insidiously effective rhetorical tricks labeled therein from your recent everyday life.

You won’t be surprised to hear that these manifest most clearly in the media, both offline and on. The list begins with “agenda setting,” the “ability of the news to influence the importance placed on certain topics by public opinion, just by covering them frequently and prominently.”

Agenda setting means the “ability [of the news media] to influence the importance placed on the topics of the public agenda”.[16] If a news item is covered frequently and prominently, the audience will regard the issue as more important.

Scattered throughout the news, or your social-media feed, advertisements bring out the “beautiful people,” which “suggests that if people buy a product or follow a certain ideology, they, too will be happy or successful” – or, in its basest forms, operates through “classical conditioning,” in which “a natural stimulus is associated with a neutral stimulus enough times to create the same response by using just the neutral one.”

 

“The Conquest or Arrival of Hernán Cortés in Veracruz”, 1951, National Palace, Mexico City. Diego Rivera’s political murals depict a modern interpretation of the Black Legend.

In the even more shameless realm of politics, the common “plain folk” strategy “attempts to convince the audience that the propagandist’s positions reflect the common sense of the people.” When “an individual uses mass media to create an idealized and heroic public image, often through unquestioning flattery and praise,” a powerful “cult of personality” can arise. And in propaganda for everything from presidential candidates to fast-food chains, you’ll hear and read no end of “glittering generalities,” or “emotionally appealing words that are applied to a product idea, but present no concrete argument or analysis.” You can find many of these strategies explained in Wikipedia’s list of propaganda techniques, or this list from the University of Virginia of “propaganda techniques to recognize” — and not just when the “other side” uses them.

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