How Your Politics Make you Easier to Mislead

Propagandists use our social and political ties to spread fake news:

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Painting by Russ Mills ( listed for open use)

You have almost definitely spread a false idea without realizing it.

So have I. It’s not completely our fault. It’s due to a design flaw in humans. No matter our political leaning, the more powerful our political convictions, the stronger the desire we feel to believe information that confirms our belief systems.

That is to say, our political affiliations make us more susceptible to being fooled.

And those who spread misinformation are counting on that.

In the art of propagating ideas, the most useful participant is the one unaware that they are being misled.

We are much more likely to accept information as true if it comes from a source we view as trustworthy, and we tend to conform to the opinions of our perceived tribe; whether that tribe is political, social or religious.

We are hardwired to trust our community.

A story has more credibility, more staying power and propagates much faster if it is being shared by influential members within a community than it does when spread artificially by “bots.”

More simply put — we are more likely to spread an idea from someone we trust, whether it’s true or not.

Grifters, conspiracy theorists, state propagandists, intelligence services and even advertisers are all aware of this — its one of their prime methods to propagate ideas.

Bad actors use this weakness as well to insulate you from the influence of other sources they find threatening. They want you to distrust the sources that don’t align with their message, to consider them “fake news”.

This is surprisingly easy to do utilizing our inherent tribalism.

It’s a tactic President Trump has used to great success. That same cult-like subservience to a leader and “post-fact” mentality that his critics bemoan is also used by less ethical members of the “alternative press” such as Greyzone, alt-right outlets and even state-controlled organizations like Russia Today (which has a long history of spreading conspiracy theories through its subsidiaries.)

Trump says not to trust the “failing New York Times” or the “mainstream media” because they are lying to drag down his presidency.

Propagandists like Max Blumenthal and Alex Jones warn the reader of the duplicitous methods of “corporate media”, whom they insinuate are controlled by the elite and the CIA.

The result is the same. They want their followers to ignore critical sources of information, and believe only the narrative that they endorse.

How Does it Work?

These tactics were used by actors the world over long before the United States had a president with such a loose relationship with truth telling — as well as by intelligence services.

There is little in this world more blinding than partisanship: extreme partisans refuse to accept any information that they don’t perceive as originating from their sub-community. It is a resistance that borders on cult-behavior. This makes planting propaganda among such subjects particularly effective.

An October study from Sanford analyzing the spread of false information stated “ in the broadest sense it is partisans at the political extremes, whether liberal or conservative, who are most like to believe a false story in part because of confirmation bias.”

According to a theory called “Power Law”, messages from trusted large social media accounts carry far more weight than “bot” campaigns.

Bots may be good at putting a message out into the world or amplifying a story, but “influencers” with reputation have far more credibility with their audiences.

Cults and intelligence agencies employ similar tactics to recruit subjects, and the fruits of those efforts are strikingly similar.

True-believers take the message to the world, and ignore critics who try to attack their ideas.

There is little effective difference between true believers of cults and those of hyper-partisan ideologies when it comes to their evangelism.

Both want to spread their message.

The CIA, while operating in West Berlin during the Cold War, found that it was much more effective to plant propaganda with unwitting journalists working for communist papers than in trying to amplify their fake stories through capitalist media.

Russia Today does the same thing. It plants conspiracy theories and propaganda through it’s affiliates all over the world. When done well, the reader won’t even realize the source for the information is RT.

Ok, but Why?

People and organizations spread disinformation for a variety of reasons, some of them are benign. In a Pew Research Center Survey from June, some people said they do it simply because they think “it’s interesting”.

But most of the groups have much darker intentions; intelligence services from every country do it to affect public perception of events unfolding on the ground and influence diplomatic pressure as well as to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries.

Grifters like Alex Jones and Max Blumenthal are pushing a narrative either for money or by virtue of falling victim to their own far-fetched beliefs and unprovable accusations.

And some countries do it merely to sow doubt, and aren’t afraid to use existing social divides to do so.

Columbia University researcher Jonathan Albright, who studied Russian efforts to influence American elections, points not just to 2016 in a recent report to the US Senate, but rather “broader, sophisticated, and ongoing information warfare campaign” designed to divide American society along cultural issues.

They use movements like Black Lives matter, both creating groups that seem to support and oppose the movement solely in order to create conflict.

The objective is to plant so much doubt that people disengage from the news, allowing one agency to dominate the narrative.

The idea isn’t exclusively used by Russia, though they may be the most aggressive about it in the modern environment. Long before Stalin made the policy official KGB policy, the practice had been in use by various kingdoms and nations for hundreds of year.

This assertion was backed up in a recent interview done by Poynter, a group that specializes in fact-checking and analyzing media trends.

“ “They will heighten and amplify disinformation campaigns that tap into partisan politics, the globalist vs. nationalist narrative…in hopes of getting them to seep into mainstream conversations.”— Benjamin Decker, a disinformation specialist in an interview with Poynter, a media watchdog

This is exactly what those responsible for the spin and disinformation are hoping for- to sow doubt in any source of information not branded as “trustworthy” by our social group. They look to inflict myopic viewpoints upon social movements and sow distrust in the societies they target.

This allows their planted stories to be only ones that a given audience trusts.

Cults Use the Same Tactics

In cults, this tactic is called “isolation”. The subject is removed from the outside world in an effort to cultivate intense introspection, confusion, loss of perspective and a distorted sense of reality.

The goal is to make the cultist (or extreme partisan) trust only the cult and it’s leaders. Cults instill the belief that “outsiders” are dangerous and should not be believed.

Creating an “Us vs. Them” mentality is fundamental in maintaining a cult. There must be a rationale for dismissing the attacks of non-believers; religious cults may label cynics “heretics”. Political cults develop their own one-word retorts to dismiss critics.

This allows the influencers and leaders of groups to dismiss factual criticism without engaging the criticism itself; news from heretics should never be trusted.

A disillusionment with the status quo is also common among both cult members and extreme partisans, a feeling of marginalization and a desire to see their culture change are exploited to inspire trust.

It is comforting to think that all of the problems in one’s life or society are the fault of an insidious group of “outsiders” bent on misleading and destroying the world. It means the problems aren’t our fault.

Ironically, this aversion to outside influence or thought leaves these groups particularly susceptible to dis-information campaigns. When the leader of a group of conspiracy theorists declares a piece of propaganda to be true; the idea becomes very difficult to debunk in the minds of the faithful.

So how do we resist recruitment?

We are quick to recognize injustice or hypocrisy in others, slower to notice those qualities in ourselves. This tendency applies not only our own decisions but also to members of those we perceive as members of our tribe — we naturally trust the political and social communities in which we live.

How can we identify fake news without losing trust in our community?

Well, being willing to have our opinions honestly challenged is an important place to start. It’s scary and stressful, but if the goal is to avoid myopic group-think the effort is well worth making.

Avoiding tribalistic ties to extremely partisan groups is another obvious place to begin. If the group you are part of spends all of it’s time demonizing outsiders, it might be a good idea to consider some sources of information from outside the ideological bubble to see if they have a valid perspective.

We are living in an information war that rages 24 hours a day without halt. Technology has empowered this in a way that the world has never before seen. With that connectedness comes an inspiring ability to share and grow as a global culture.

Information can no longer be suppressed, which is a beautiful thing. But it can very easily be buried in an avalanche of lies.

We can’t stop the sophisticated apparatus from States and organizations bent on spreading misinformation, but we can help resist the tide by looking a bit deeper into ourselves and our assumptions.

I hope that if enough of us decide to try, we can use the beautiful aspects of technology to unite rather than divide us.

“There is no such thing as a friendly intelligence agency” -Diary of a CIA agent

Joshua Collins is a freelance reporter based in Bogota Colombia. For more stories you can follow him on twitter

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Photo at courtesy of Anthony DaRousa (free for use)

A reporter on immigration and world affairs, based in Cucuta, Colombia. Bylines at Al Jazeera, Caracas Chronicles, New Humanitarian and more

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