Influence ops: the devil is in the irony

by Chris Zappone

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.

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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.

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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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