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Wanted: Polygraph — An extract from ‘Going Dark: The Secret Social Lives of Extremists’ by Julia Ebner

In a vicious circle, the erosion of trust in the media and democratic institutions is playing into the hands of far-right campaigners and conspiracy theorists, who fan deception, leading to further abrasion of confidence. An extract from Julia Ebner’s new book, ‘Going Dark: The Secret Social Lives of Extremists’

Donara [Barojan] is what some call a ‘Digital Sherlock’. Her team at the Digital Forensic Research (DFR) Lab at the NATO StratCom Center of Excellence in Latvia exposes the tactics and narratives used to spread disinformation and follows influence campaigns in real time.

‘There are four tactics to spread disinformation,’ Donara explains to me ‘Dismiss the opponent, distort the facts, distract from the central issue and dismay the audience.’ This ‘4D approach’ is used both by state actors, such as the Russian and the Chinese governments and by non-state actors such as alt-right trolls. The Kremlin’s tactic of flooding the media space with so much content that it becomes impossible to distinguish between right and wrong pieces of information has increasingly been copied by non-state trolling networks. Many of today’s far-right operations are, however, amplified by state-backed bots and media networks. For example, the Russian news outlets Sputnik and Russia Today (RT) frequently help far-right campaigners to spread their messages by amplifying their themes and hashtags.

Some accounts pushing disinformation campaigns operate like cyborgs — semi-automated, human-operated accounts. For

Wanted: Polygraph — An extract from ‘Going Dark: The Secret Social Lives of Extremists’ by Julia Ebner

example, a Twitter account that operates under the handle @thebradfordfile tweets over 300 times per day, has a network of more than 100,000 followers and a core group of hundreds of amplifiers. Its messages, which reach from far-right propaganda to conspiracy theories, have been retweeted by Donald Trump and quoted by major US media outlets to illustrate the alt-right’s social media successes.

There are too many elections for the few people at the DFR Lab to monitor. ‘An estimated 100,000 websites spread disinformation,’ Donara tells me, ‘but there are only a few dozen fact-checker websites.’ In other words, we are constantly outnumbered. The Oxford Internet Institute found evidence of formally organised social media manipulation campaigns in forty-eight countries in 2017. Since 2010, over half a billion dollars have been spent on psychological operations and public opinion influence campaigns over social media. Tactics ranged from the use of automated accounts and commentary teams to targeted online advertisement campaigns. Most campaigns involved the circulation of misinformation in the run-up to critical junctions such as elections, referendums and crises.

The disappearance of trust in independent information sources is a slow poison that threatens to undermine the fundamental pillars of our democracies. The erosion of civil discourse, political paralysis, alienation and uncertainty are among the most severe consequences of the ‘Truth Decay’, as researchers of the RAND Corporation have called it. Trust doesn’t vanish overnight, but over the past few years we have watched its gradual erosion on different levels.

First came the distrust in the political and financial establishment. The 2008 global financial crisis and its various connected scandals fuelled fears that national and international political and economic bodies were not acting in the public’s interest and had secret agendas that might at any point afflict the average man’s bank account. Many suffering from real losses or fear of losses in its aftermath felt betrayed by those who they thought had sold them a whitewashed idea of globalisation. This frustration was funnelled into growing distrust in the most powerful and suspicion towards the weakest. A 2013 survey by Public Policy Polling showed that almost three in ten US voters thought that a ‘secretive power elite with a globalist agenda is conspiring to eventually rule the world through an authoritarian world government, or New World Order’. Republicans were more than twice as likely as Democrats to believe in this conspiracy theory.

The second stage brought an escalation of distrust in the establishment media and academic institutions. In Europe, the establishment media’s reporting around the migration crisis, terrorist attacks and rape scandals gradually chipped away its undisputed credibility: the media’s late response to the rape crisis in Cologne on New Year’s Eve in 2015 was a watershed moment that prompted many on the far right to resurrect the historically tainted term Lügenpresse in Germany. Originally coined a hundred years earlier by the German author Reinhold Anton, the term was first used to denounce enemy propaganda during World War I. But it is better remembered for its extensive use by the Nazis in their campaigns against Jewish and communist media. In the UK, the media’s failure to report on grooming-gang scandals in Rotherham, Rochdale, Telford and Oxford was exploited by figures like Tommy Robinson to decry the ‘mainstream media’ as complicit with the rapists.

In the US, polarising events such as 9/11, Obama’s presidency and Trump’s election victory were critical junctions in heating up the nationwide information battle. The investigative journalist David Neiwert powerfully explained in his book Alt-America how the aftermath of 9/11, the racist backlash against the first black US president and the growing popularity of far-right media figures has led to the emergence of a ‘mental space beyond fact or logic, where rules of evidence are replaced by paranoia’. Far-right and conservative social media influencers were quick in promoting the idea that the media’s coverage of Trump was biased, one-sided and unfair. In tandem with Trump himself, these emerging alternative news figureheads helped to popularise the terms ‘lying press’ and ‘fake news’.

A 2017 Pew Research Center survey found that two in three Americans get their news from social media. In the competitive, fast-paced 24-hour news ecosystem, traditional media outlets are struggling to strike the balance between speed and accuracy of reporting. This difficult reporting environment is exacerbated by malicious attempts to trick and manipulate the media. Trolls sometimes plant misleading or inaccurate information into credible sources, such as think tanks or local media, which are then frequently quoted by journalists. For example, less than an hour after the Parkland high-school shooting occurred in February 2018, far-right trolls made plans to hijack the public narrative. ‘Start looking for [Jewish] numerology and crisis actors,’ one wrote on the image board 8chan. This disinformation and obfuscation technique is called ‘source hacking’.

In December 2018, Der Spiegel revealed that one of their award-winning journalists, Claas Relotius, had freely invented major parts of his stories, including quotes, places, scenes, even entire characters. This scandal gave far-right actors such as Martin Sellner across Europe ammunition to paint all journalists as dishonest and unprofessional. One month later, in January 2019, members of Generation Identity launched a nationwide campaign against journalists, attaching posters on the façades of media outlets across the country and attacking a journalist of the newspaper TAZ in Berlin. A similar wave of scepticism towards scientific studies took root when three scholars published a series of hoax papers called ‘Grievance Studies’ with the aim of exposing flaws in the academic review processes of journals in 2017 and 2018. Even though the Relotius scandal and the ‘Grievance Studies’ affair are isolated cases, far-right influencers such as Martin Sellner have used them as the ultimate proof that we cannot trust any news articles and scientific studies.

As a result, trust in the democratic system itself is dwindling at high speed. In 2018, German far-right activists spread panic over rigged election processes, calling on their followers to become election observers in the German 2018 state elections in Bavaria and Hesse. At the same time, Swedish alt-right figures propagated allegations that the national election was fraudulent and designed to disenfranchise the far-right parties in the national election. The German American Harvard University scholar Yascha Mounk showed in his book The People vs. Democracy that people living in Western democracies are not just increasingly suspicious of their political representatives and institutions. With stagnating living standards, fear of multiethnic democracy and the rise of social media, their belief in the system of liberal democracy itself is gradually fading as well.

This democracy trust crisis has led to an atmosphere in which anti-democratic movements thrive, as their calls for radical change become louder and their public protests more widespread. The Tommy Robinsons of this world are getting louder, and their fan boys are multiplying. Had Robinson come to my office ten years earlier, the media stunt likely would not have worked. Not just because Quilliam didn’t exist then, Robinson still attended BNP events and Twitter counted only around 5,000 tweets per day (as compared to 6,000 per second today), but because there wasn’t a big enough audience that wanted to see news outlets dismantled and journalists disgraced.

Extracted from the chapter, ‘Info Wars: Confronted by Tommy Robinson’s New Media Empire’ of the book published by Bloomsbury.

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Printable version | Mar 30, 2020 1:19:53 PM |

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