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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#China influence afoot? Secure your hashtags, Australia

Given the surge of news and developments around the China influence story, it’s worthwhile to consider what Australians would do if they found the hashtag #Chinainfluence blocked in their own social media conversations.

More likely, the term could be drowned out. Or rendered unusable.


So imagine if trolls or bots or other coordinated teams of humans undertook a campaign to suppress the productive use of hashtags like #auspol, or #dastayari or #UFWD or #SouthChinaSea or one as broad as #China itself in Australian social media conversation.

Trolls could be located overseas even as they influenced or squelched domestic Australian discussion.

It’s not as if China doesn’t already do this domestically as a way to shape and derail public conversation.

The ability to micro-blog relevant news on the subject of influence campaigns on social media platforms such as Twitter has become the norm for the nation’s class of  academics, researchers, policymakers and self-selected members of the informed public.

In a crisis, would important news about Australian national security be accessible on this platform?

Think about how reliant communications regarding Australian national security are on a foreign-based platform with an incredibly uneven record of countering abuse and misuse.

The social media companies are staffed with people who confuse the concept of “free speech” with the action of coordinated trolling campaigns, often driven by nation states.

That means, when authoritarian nations are exploiting social media platforms to undermine democracies, don’t expect timely or effective help from the company.

As Australia begins addressing influence operations conducted on its own shores by foreign powers, it’s important to consider the enormous vulnerability of social media that many in Australia’s political class and civil society have embraced as normal, and even desirable.

What kind of backup plans and redundancies does the nation has in place to prevent discussion on social media from being stymied, manipulated and disrupted?

It’s just a thought.

But one worth thinking about now – before a crisis hits.

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In cyberspace there is no center, we’re always off to the side


“In space there’s no center, we’re always off to the side.”

So sings David Berman of the Silver Jews in the song ‘Ballad Of Reverend War Character’ on the iconic album Natural Bridge. If you take the words from that narcotic piece of musical Americana and apply them to cyberspace, they reveal an important element of the medium: there is no natural center on the internet. By extension, there is no longer a center for liberal democracies, as they transition from a world of print papers and the commanding heights of TV, to the new reality of the internet.

This is a huge challenge.

After all, there once was a scarcity of words in the time of print production. Back then words on pages were stable. Paragraphs, chapters in books and magazines stood in self-contained formats, fixed for the readers’ eye.

Online, it’s all different. All texts online are linked to other texts. They are almost unsearchable and unfindable if they’re not. Words online exist almost exclusively in the context of other texts through links.

So there is a skewing built into the patterns of words online. Every idea leads off to another, and those links form the basis for judgement of the idea serving as point of departure.

So texts, news, Facebook feeds, all lead off toward another dune in the sands of digital words.

Online, there is not the same hierarchical cannon for words as there was in the print age – when the New York Times sat above the Cleveland Plain Dealer, which sat above a neighborhood weekly. It was the same for books: airport novels sat below classics, which sat below the pillars of Western civilization such as Plato’s works and the Bible.

Instead, everything today exists as a link in a centerless information universe.  Online, there is no natural commons for everyone to cross – only things at the side, connected in a web to other things.

This has important considerations for the way political news is transmitted and how it’s interpreted. This is true especially given the fact that the rise of the liberal democratic nation state roughly coincided with the Western invention of the printing press.

Today we live in a kind of digital scriptum continuum, in which a story can be “expanded and expanded”, stretched, repeated, remixed, subverted, mocked and reinterpreted across various websites and social media. To read the story and share it is to annotate it and spin it – influencing the perception around it.

Meaning itself is changed by the reality of the medium, as Marshall McLuhan might argue. This blending of spectator and participant has big implications for politics online.

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After Trump, a global online war to save democracy

By now you probably know that something has changed in this world with the election of Donald Trump. You may be wondering how it affects you and what you might be able to do to make it better.*

For something this complex, using a Star Wars analogy is helpful.

For years, the free people in countries like Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have been warning the world that Russia has been menacing them online, using a combination of cyber attacks, fake news and misinformation to try to coerce its leaders and people. Russia has aimed to influence their nation’s political direction.

From those countries to the US, it has been:


But the US, caught up in wars in the Middle East, endless political gridlock, and its own problems, didn’t take the warnings seriously. Of course, Americans knew something big could one day hit them online but they expected the “Cyber Pearl Harbor” to be a massive attack on its infrastructure.

Instead, when the day came, it was in the form of an information attack on the US during the election, designed to sway voters’ minds. The tens of thousands of hacked emails pushed through WikiLeaks were only one factor.

A much bigger element has been the secret weapon used by anti-democracy forces for years. It functions as a Death Star, aimed at legitimate democracies and pro-democratic movements around the world.

First it was used on pro-democracy protesters in Ukraine, then it was aimed at the UK’s referendum on the EU (Brexit) to support the Leave campaign.

But the biggest use of the death ray has been in crippling and dividing opposition to Donald Trump, first in the primaries and then in the general election. (Google the Great Meme War).


That’s why the Trump victory is more akin to the September 11, 2001 attacks. Trump is not another Republican president; rather he is a man who doesn’t really believe in fundamental ideas central to democracy on which the US has been built and improved over the last 240 years.

Like the Death Star, this machine has more targets lined up to attack.

What the targets have in common is an embrace of democracy, rule-of-law, tolerance and openness. Basically, all the ideas underpinning the United States of America and the era of relative (and I stress “relative”) peace and stability the world has known since the end of World War II.

In the age of weaponised social media and information, however, this Death Star, isn’t a machine as much as a horde of people, evidently guided by Russia’s online information war crowd. Where in the world are they physically? They could be anywhere.

Some are partisans who have bought into an “anti-globalist” worldview. Some are Serbians living abroad who nurse grudges over NATOs role in the war in ex-Yugoslavia.

Reddit, 4Chan and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, create an enormous backdoor into liberal democracies everywhere. This is something Russia has figured out.

People on those platforms can attack and degrade liberal democracy wherever they find it.

Unthinkingly, they seek to replace it with radicalism, racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, anti-gay hate – basically, every possible way to divide a cohesive society.

The alt-right, for example, got big backing from followers on Reddit.

Whether a coincidence or not, this attack on the mainstream democracy resembles the philosophy of a chief Russian ideologue, who supports political extremism, while targeting the broad middle, the masses which don’t seek radical solutions to problems.

Often the candidates and causes backed by this Death Star in the real world are aligned with Russia.

Today’s leaders of Russia are paranoid kleptocrats (rulers by theft), who so misjudged the West’s motives, they have launched an assault on the fundamental cohesion of our society.

And here is where it gets weird.

Did you notice how the tone of the election of Donald Trump didn’t make sense for an American campaign? He lied and then gloated that he had lied. He was backed by radical racists, whom he wouldn’t disavowal, something uncharacteristic in a US candidate. Then there was the unending spectacle that kept the traditional media, Trump’s opponents, and the broader public in a continual stage of reaction. Rather than articulating a competing vision for the Republican Party, the middle class or for America, all of these stake holders were kept in a constant state of distraction.

There were even fake statues of Trump put up in public only to be torn down.

Mysterious fights broke out at his rallies.


A group paid for a huge mural of a Trump as superman in Times Square, which making an image-based, cartoonish appeal for the candidate.

The PR stunts turned heads even as they confused.

But they are similar to the unreality of Russian “sovereign democracy“, an invention of the Russian regime, in which the constant lies, confusion about the motives and authenticity of politicians and groups, leaves the public unable to believe or trust anything they read or see.

There are all indications that the Trump White House will, to some degree, continue to use some of these tactics of distraction.

This “unreality” flowing into the US’s internet is incompatible with the basics of our democracy in which we rely on some level of factual truth to understand the candidates for whom we vote. Facts are the engine of our system.

So where does that leave us today?

Broadly, it’s a battle between those who favor democracy and the dark forces from outside that would undo it in the hope of helping authoritarian kleptocracies.

It’s the battle between a just world where truth matters and an irrational house of mirrors where it’s impossible to understand what’s going on.

Now that Trump and his propagandists are in the White House, expect this corrosive blend of lies and misinformation and disregard for facts to flood America, and the world.

Expect it to get weirder, full of digital hallucinations and fantasies. A regular funhouse every time you open up a browser.

But this is where you come in.

If you believe in democracy, if you believe in a world governed by law, which seeks justice driven by facts and accountability, you are going to have to fight for them.

At the heart of a tolerant, sensible democracy is the idea that if a problem can be measured and described, it can be addressed and fixed.

In a reasonable world, no problem is too big.



Even the Trump victory, which at first glance looks like a celebration of hate and irrationalism, can be explained by the economic, demographic and technological changes facing the US and the world. If it can be explained, it can be understood. If it can be understood, it can addressed. So can Russia’s ability to influence the US elections. Moscow recognized that social media was uncontested space and went about exploiting to influence the politics in the West. Simple.

In the near-term, expect a stream of unreality telling us everything is out of our hands. That fear and suspicion should be our guide, even though such emotions undermine out ability to think sensibly.

We’ll be told that there is malign conspiracy everywhere.


But the reality that can be measured and described is that Trump’s backers built their own information zone that circumvented the traditional media, making it irrelevant.

The truth is that this engineering and social-engineering challenge can be addressed and countered.

In the years leading up to this election, Americans didn’t defend their information space, the place online where they informed themselves and debated issues.

Until then it was unimaginable that Americans would need to.

Now with Trump in the White House, it will likely be an unrelenting war on democratic, American values, free speech, freedom from fear, and even the expectation of a rational government.

The weaponisation of social media presents a greater challenge for believers in democracy: our tradition forbids the government from trying to influence its own people. Even if Trump weren’t headed for the White House, those who want to defend democratic values online can’t count on, or expect, a government plan.

Instead, citizens will need to organize themselves into online militias to control and shape the democratic debate. And to steer it towards democracy and away from radicalism.

It will be difficult – but it won’t be impossible.

In this way, those defending liberal democracy really will be the Ewoks. They’re be outsized and outgunned – and the authoritarians, the racists, the sexists, the know-nothings, they will have the bully pulpit of the White House, backed, potentially, by the Death Star of Russia’s cyber influence campaign.


But pro-democracy netizens can use the same tools the trolls use against them: memes, artwork, viral messages, social media bots, combinations of all of these. They can troll the trolls, they can take the fight to the defenders of the indefensible.

Reupping their messages, speaking with a united, if somewhat chaotic, voice will help propel the message for democracy far beyond the online forums. Remember, in order to defend democracy, you may need to dismantle its critics online – and when doing so, you should have fun and be relentless.

With the election of an quasi-authoritarian in the White House, citizens of the free world will be counted on like never before, to fight back.

As Winston Churchill, facing a Nazi invasion in 1940, could have said of this time: “We shall defend our liberal democracy, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on Facebook, we shall fight on the chatrooms, we shall fight in Facebook and on Twitter, we shall fight in the 4Chan and Reddit; we shall never surrender.”


Those were dark days in Britain.

These are dark days in the US.

But history works in strange ways.

Today, free Americans, and British and French and Latvians and Estonians and Ukrainians and Finnish and Germans can work together online to support each other. Free Indians and Pakistanis and Malaysians and Japanese, too.

Pro-liberal democracy people anywhere, can fight for democracy online.

Just as there is a globalized online effort to roll back liberal democracy and the international rules-based order, there needs to be a globalized online effort to support democracy and the rule of law.

Fighting for this online will have far more impact than in the streets.

And rather than celebrating the irrational forces of darkness, those who fight for democracy fight for a world in which power is rational, fair, and open.

This is a lot to lay on young people.

And it’s easy to blame the older generation.

But it’s also true that every generation must defend democracy anew.

Now is your time.

There will be dark moments, when you’re going to see strange, disheartening things.

But remember, if a problem can be measured and described, it can be addressed and fixed. That’s true of politics too.

That’s a reality worth fighting for.

Understanding what is happening, gives us the hope of correcting it and not succumbing to the disorder.

Technology has rendered the old rules of politics, news, and society out-of-date. But right and wrong matters more now than ever before.

So if you don’t want to be ruled by a:


Who creates a world dominated by guys like this:


Or this:


And if you want to do work for this kind of world:


Where honor and truth are rewarded:

Order and light

And law and justice triumphs over evil:

Nazis on trial at the end of World War II

Where the working class matter:

LBJ fought for the Great Society to lift millions from poverty

And humanity can reach higher:

Kennedy setting out a great goal

And politics can improve our lives:

Teddy Roosevelt radically reformed the US for the better

Then it’s time to defend democracy.

The choice is yours.

The time to act is now.

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(* If I were to write a persuasive article on the online challenge to democracy, this is what it would look like. It’s not my typical fare but there you have it…)