On August 18th, 2016, Katrina Pierson, a Trump campaign spokeswoman, told MSNBC that former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had a rare brain disease known as dysphasia, disabling her ability to properly communicate.
As part of a prodigious effort to distort Clinton’s state of physical health, her opposition didn’t end there.
A board-certified physician with more than 36 years of experience came forward thereafter with a chilling allegation: Clinton also suffered from Parkinson’s disease.
Both medical claims turned out to be false, but it didn’t stop the allegations from garnishing massive attention in the mainstream media, particularly right-leaning news outlets. The truth later came out that Clinton in fact only had a chronic cough associated with pneumonia.
As one can heed, news stories containing disinformation can strongly affect one’s perception of others. And even if the allegations are false, the information is still retained in the brain, possibly forever. Some may even still think it’s true, long after it has been refuted.
Why does the topic of propaganda matter when it comes to psychological warfare? Well, in the digital landscape, it is one of the strongest weapons in an arsenal. Disinformation is one of many warfare tactics that has been utilized by corporate entities, military forces, and governments across the world.
It is assumed that many internet users of diverse demographics have fallen victim to those tactics.
In this article, we delve into warfare tactics used by bad actors to disseminate propaganda on social media, from bots to disinformation. Here are three landmark tactics of psychological warfare on social media.
In the present day, social media continues to be the most powerful tool to get information out to the general public. Corporations, entertainers, journalists, politicians, and even state governments have all looked for merciless ways to exploit top social networking sites in an effort to achieve certain end-goals over its users, including monetary value, vanity metrics, and power.
In March of 2011, it was unveiled to the public that the U.S. military became fascinated enough to begin working on ways to manipulate it too, the Guardian reported.
As Nick Fielding wrote for The Guardian: “The discovery that the US military is developing false online personalities – known to users of social media as “sock puppets” – could also encourage other governments, private companies and non-government organizations to do the same.”
Fielding’s report piles on activities in cyberspace from two prominent military alliances, but the U.S. (and the Israeli) military were not the only ones interested in getting their hands on bots for psychological operations.
Starting in 2012, countries in Asia opened their doors to ‘click farms,’ which is a fancy word for social media sweatshops — or Bangladeshi people with bad finger sores. Actors within Asian countries have engaged in mass-clicking and also the creation of shiny bots carrying thousands or even millions, if not more, of fake accounts to automate the disinformation process.
As of 2017, Asia still holds most of the world’s bots with India, Russia, Pakistan, Malaysia, and China being the top countries where individuals produce such automated tools.
In the world of bots, the richest countries cash in on all the sweat and tears, while the less fortunate ones do all the work. That means techies residing in India, Pakistan, and Malaysia are likely where the sweatshops operate, while Russia and China do less automated work or flash their cash around and leave the rest to do their dirty work for them.
As to their manufacturing, few Asian programmers have relied on the reverse engineering of black-hat automated tools to best understand them and build more robust ones.
Moreover, engineering employees of social networking sites have also contributed to the creation of bots by giving away vital algorithms in exchange for money.
One example was an alleged former Google employee named SpK, who would later go on to build one of the biggest YouTube view bots using a particular form of cellular-based network control protocol, subsequently earning him a temporary gig at VEVO. SpK was allegedly hired to fraudulently inflate the view counts of many VEVO-based video clips from celebrities billions of times on the video-sharing platform.
Once these types of bots are built, they can be used for all sorts of commercial purposes, whether for hostile reasons or for good. We can only imagine what state governments have been up to.
Scapegoating is also commonly seen in warfare tactics used by bots. In 2016, and throughout 2017, both the U.S. and Russia reportedly engaged in a never-ending clash of scapegoating that have driven certain actions by U.S. lawmakers.
One such example includes the spreading of leaked diplomatic cables released by a non-profit organization formerly run by a computer hacker named Julian Assange. Its credibility purportedly rests on some of the world’s most sophisticated actors linked to the Russian and Chinese government, in addition to American intelligence officials.
During the final hours of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the digital landscape lit up with propaganda by WikiLeaks, prompting a response back in the form of DDoS attacks to protect late voting decisions.
The contents within the leaked cables were successfully used to scapegoat and disseminate propaganda on a massive scale.
During the Cold War, fake news had a different name: “Soviet disinformation.” False stories printed against the U.S. were led by pro-Soviet newspapers across many nations. However, the Soviets were not the only ones attempting to manipulate news organizations to spread disinformation.
In the 1950s, America’s premier intelligence agency became interested in recruiting journalists from widely-respected American newspapers. Soon after, the agency had a major influence over many wire agencies, according to Carl Bernstein’s work released in Rolling Stone.
But why was so much urgency placed in controlling news organizations?
During the Cold War, journalists from outside the Soviet Union began receiving funds from Moscow to promote Communist values within targeted countries. Known as “The Family Jewels,” many thought the constant cycle of propaganda came to an end after the Cold War.
Throughout the 2016 presidential election and in the early phase of Trump’s time in office, social networking sites had been disrupted by a tantalizing number of fear-mongering news cells originating from far right-leaning outlets, using identical tactics as far left-leaning outlets.
Infowars, Breitbart, and the Daily Caller, just to name a few, have all tactically injected fear, paranoia, and anxiety to their audiences almost on a daily basis, making their audiences almost submissive to their propaganda.
It’s almost like we’re in the Cold War again.