While the global impact of rogue regional powers such as Russia on social media and our elections does matter, I believe there are far more important and more local factors that deserve discussion.
Namely, the effect of hundreds or maybe even thousands of random individuals chasing the high of momentary fame, ideological expansion, or a quick buck.
Perhaps the best foreign instance of this local propaganda development involves a story In 2017, where The Guardian and BuzzFeed revealed that the Macedonian town of Veles, with a population of 45,000, was the registered home of at least 100 pro-Trump websites, many of them filled with sensationalist and utterly fake news.
The sites’ ample traffic was rewarded handsomely (the GDP per capita in Macedonia is 1/9th the United States’) by automated advertising engines, like Google’s AdSense.
Geographic concentrations of ideological pools occur not just in Macedonia though, and not just on personal websites.
In every country, hundreds of individuals register and monetize massive social media networks based off of identity politics, sensationalist headlines, and in many cases misinformation.
At the least malicious level, you have websites rapidly monetizing what is essentially rage bait and clickbait for personal or political gain.
When it comes to those chasing the personal gain aspect, The New York Times did a fantastic podcast involving a couple who created for some time, a thriving small-scale media empire in their own home by truly focusing on the business of outrage.
On the political side, you have organizations like North99, PressProgress and Ontario Proud, which are rapidly harnessing the power of social sharing to push their individual agendas in radically different ways.
Organizations like North99 and Ontario Proud engage in meme messaging without any of the same requirements of consistency that political parties are required to follow. This allows them to test out messages in rapid succession, in order to find the most shareable pieces of content over time.
From a more News-delivery angle, PressProgress, an organization launched by the Broadbent Institute (a self-described left-wing think tank) uses a plethora of obvious union and left-wing connections to push for a decidedly prescribed version of the news.
Now, while one may have a dislike for any of these organizations, it is worthwhile pointing out a key importance here: their relatively large size.
In many cases, achieving audience scale forces a key moderation between high excitement, high-risk content which quickly catches the attention of a potential viewer and well… the truth.
These organizations use social media to push and test their messaging, rather than aim to actively mislead and would do just about anything to avoid publishing a genuine falsity as it would put an end to their political and business enterprise.
On the malicious end of the spectrum, you find smaller groups which are far more extreme, dangerous, and willing to openly mislead in order to bring about whatever result they deem appropriate.
Here you can find one or two person teams working on either advancing a political movement regardless of cost, or attempting to bring in every last dollar in ad revenue.
These organizations are in most cases decidedly unbranded and don’t make more than a few thousand dollars a month, given their limited traffic and limited access to advertising technology.
Finally, you have the most dangerous but least malicious groups. These are pages that random average Joes manage just for fun.
While it may be fun for them, these average Joes and Janes can have a real effect on Canadian culture and the spreading of fake news.
These pages are the most dangerous because they make the least amount of money, and due to their relatively small size operate in virtually closed bubbles within the internet.
Here fake news spreads like wildfire without any real capacity to regulate as the audience remains too small and ideologically similar to actually mark the content as fake.
How does fake news propagate into the mainstream?
Well, it is certainly not because these brands are trusted.
For the most part, a recent survey by Loewen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs shows that when it comes to brand reputability, new, well-funded media startups are by no means able to compete with established legacy news corporations.
So realistically how much influence do thousands of tiny websites and social media pages mirroring their base’s extreme ideology change political rhetoric in the grand scheme of things?
Here I think there needs to be a clarification: Not all traffic is equal.
Some content you read sticks with you for months. Other content is forgotten the same day you read it.
If fake news does manage to gain a footing in people’s social feeds, and it is shocking enough, entire networks of social media pages and users regardless of size could suddenly adopt that message and accidentally spread fake news.
But again, the problem here does not solely fall on small, medium, or large producers or companies. Rather, the entire structure itself allows content to rapidly become viral before a deep dive and fact-checking can be done.
This rapid movement of information creates an interesting paradox—any attempt to seriously look through services which distribute and aggregate news such as Facebook sharing, Google News, Google organic search, Twitter, or other platforms, would go against what makes those features products in the first place.
Could you imagine if you had to wait two hours before your tweet could go live while it was going through ‘quality assurance’?
That would literally kill the entire point of Twitter’s fast-moving world while seriously stifling freedom of speech.
The same goes for virtually every other service including video search engines like YouTube.
Given that changing these systems would be incredibly hard, providing more realistic alternative solutions that understand the digital playing field could seriously help everyone involved.
For example, one of the key aspects which makes the internet a fantastic place is the plethora of “free” content.
This is almost everything on YouTube, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Snapchat, Instagram, Linkedin, Tumblr, and because of the Google and Facebook extended ad networks the list really goes on.
On these platforms, users typically give up their information in a trade to access these services for free, while advertisers support the platforms by bidding on ad inventory they assume is valuable.
That trade of information for better or for worse allows a large portion of our internet to exist for our enjoyment without a direct monetary cost.
Now doesn’t that sound great? Perhaps a little too picture-perfect.
While extreme malicious intent is already mitigated to some extent for many users, there is no understating the weaponization which can still occur on social media as a result of the data lost or in many cases given away.
Outside of extreme cases such as Cambridge Analytica, everyday user information is being traded, many cases in secret by large corporate entities.
For example, “If you’re a Mastercard holder in the US, Google has reportedly been tracking whether your buying habits are influenced by online ads in your offline purchases for the past year. The secret deal between the two companies was brokered after four years of negotiation.” But this was not made public until a report was published by Bloomberg.
This kind of data mining along with any other on Facebook is quite worrying, but realistically a serious obstacle in the way of any real change.
Even if Facebook were to gut all their politically dubious ads, this kind of advertising would still be needed to fund its core business… unless there are new funds to replace what is lost.
Circumnavigating the online data problem
Data security is a serious need for some and they would be willing to spend on a subscription product that removed all ads and data tracking from their preferred services.
For most of us though just a better understanding of what exists around us can solve the potential threats of weaponized political posts, while some form of regulations to limit the extent of private data-sharing deals could solve the more structural problems which expose user data for private gain.
It is extremely important to point out that regulation must be extremely limited and well thought out, as any excessive movements to limit the capacity for free moving information would directly hinder the usefulness of the platforms themselves.
Here our problem should not be with having our data used, rather it is and should be about not knowing what our data is used for while being placed into a state where we cannot actually be informed.
It is impossible to provide consent without proper information, a problem experienced consistently when enjoying any one of the major platforms on the web at this moment.
Moving forward in a weaponized digital environment
With so many players actively attempting to influence the digital field one has to wonder how you can move forward. The truth is I can’t imagine myself stopping my use of Facebook, or Instagram, or WhatsApp, or any of their replacements.
If I leave one I simply divert my attention to another like YouTube or Netflix. At the end of the day, some things won’t change, and in a reasonable society, we may have to accept to a greater extent what is occurring around us as the new standard in communication—less as a danger and more as an unplanned evolution with workable kinks.
What do you think about the weaponization of digital media? Does it really matter or is it just another advancement of technology which we can adapt to?