Defending democratic discussion in the time of information overload

Ft Ligonier, Photo: Michelle A. Leppert

A recent paper I worked on proposes a novel method for defending the discussion of an open democracy in the time of weaponised narrative. Rather than trying to refute or block propaganda, democracies should cordon off areas that are to remain free of distortion and defend them specifically. In this case, I propose defending political speech in Australia’s parliament from weaponised narratives.

Here are some key points:

  • Information overload has permanently changed the news environment for the public, challenging democracies as a result.
  • The human need to find patterns of meaning in events, combined with increasing information availability, exposes Australians to the risk of accepting false or damaging stories.
  • Nation-states can weaponise these narratives to further increase their spread, destructiveness, and focus toward an intended population, especially online.As seen in the US and UK, the use of these narratives can disrupt and degrade the normal functioning of democracy.

The paper  – full version here and download here – centres on a key notion: that in a time of endless globalised information flows, open democracies must assert their right to sensible political discussion.

The co-author on this paper was ANU NSC academic director Matthew Sussex.

Here is a short piece for The Age on the subject, also co-authored with Sussex.

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Donald Trump’s advantage in 2020

What does Donald Trump’s online advantage look like in 2020? Maybe a bit like this data breakdown, based on 160 million online images posted on various platforms between July 2016 and July 2017.

The data doesn’t take into account the effect of a manipulated Facebook posts, either – although some of these memes would have landed there, too.


Surely, the dynamic has changed somewhat since 2016 towards Trump ‘s advantage.  For now.  ttump.JPGTrump was in a dominant position on the world of memes. Elections, by definition, are driven by the perceptions of crowds. In a democracy, those perceptions should be formed on facts. Memes, however, allow you to bypass the thought process and go right for the feelings. So people could support Donald Trump ironically, without supporting him genuinely.  Nevertheless, internet indexing and ranking tools doesn’t distinguish between irony and honesty. Index just measures content flows and volumes.

Trump is helped by the fact that online campaigns tend to focus on single tangible figure (Trump, Harambe or Pepe the Frog), rather than the abstract notions central to democracy: equality, justice, etc. Lone figures gain support more easily in era of networked tribalism on social media rather than during the old days of traditional media.

The above chart comes from the paper: “On the Origins of Memes by Means of Fringe Web Communities” by Savvas Zannettou, Gianluca Stringhini, et al.

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Influence ops: the devil is in the irony

Effective online influence campaigns work when an audience is nudged to accept and promote certain ideas, feelings and themes. In a lot of cases, opinion-shapers can latch on to crowds with existing views and slowly, slowly begin to guide the mass in a particular direction.

The paradox doesn’t need resolved.

The internet offers a new post-modern aspect to this sort of event.

Rather than simply being motivated by different opinions of the shared event, today people can have an entire perception of the experience contemporaneously different from others also participating.

Research on memes suggests the same memes seen on different platforms may serve different purposes to their audiences.

The filter-bubbles people live in online mean that participants may never see aspects to the event that don’t sit with their own pre-existing views. For example, posts that may appear as overtly political may be seen as benign fun by the people reposting and annotating them. The same activity can be – depending on your entry point – political to some and a mass trolling for fun by others. The contradiction doesn’t have to be resolved on social media platforms personalized for the individual.

Russia had the real-world goal of turning the electorate against Hillary Clinton. In practice, however, many of the people being drawn into the online activity saw it as a running joke about Clinton’s health, her background, her wildly exaggerated ties to nefarious global leaders’ groups.

As Brad Allenby and Joel Garreau explained: “Russia, whose own political culture is deeply post-factual and indeed post-modern, is now ably constructing ironic, highly cynical, weaponized narratives…”

This is a point echoed by author Angela Nagle in discussing the irony of the alt-right, in which it’s difficult to tell what is humor and what’s serious.

This is, I believe, a unique quality to influence campaigns online.

Is this supposed to be fun?

During the Cold War, different peoples have diverse motives for embracing ideology.  Yet, even if different peoples with diverse histories had their own motivation for supporting or opposing it, they came to the ideology.

Now, instead, there are situations in which those motivated by influence may be more or less ignorant of the real-world consequences. That, I suspect, is why there are such differing popular understandings of events like the 2016 election, Brexit, and even Gamergate.

What feels like a mass, gamified experienced online can be divorced – in participants’ minds – from real world outcomes.

Moreover, activity relying on humor or irony online functions just the same as activity triggered by a genuine upswell of support. To use the Clinton example again, a surge of LOL traffic on Clinton’s supposedly failing health would be indistinguishable to machines from genuine negative activism online.

But the momentum around the stories about the subject – ironic or genuine – would still find their way onto real news websites.

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