Propaganda and Disinformation

Blog Posts

Suburban Camouflage

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Filed under: Fraud and Deception, Illusion and Magic, Pranksters, Propaganda and Disinformation, The History of Pranks, The World of the Prank

All’s fair in war, (and the love of deceit) including manufacturing urban landscapes. The podcast 99 Percent Invisible has built its audience on the power of paying attention to details that most people don’t think about… or even know. From its blog comes this tale of an aircraft manufacturing facility concealed within a fake neighborhood in Seattle.


“Prop Town: The Fake Rooftop Suburb That Hid a Whole WWII Airplane Factory”
by Kurt Kohlstedt
99 Percent Invisible
November 3, 2017

Boeing’s aircraft manufacturing facilities were critical to the World War II efforts of Allied forces. But the unexpected attack on Pearl Harbor stoked fears of potential aerial assaults by Japanese forces. Some factories put up camouflage netting to disguise structures, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took things a big step further on top of the Boeing Plant 2 in Seattle, crafting an entire faux neighborhood.

By the mid-1930s, Boeing’s old Plant 1 was becoming increasingly outdated. Interested in keeping the company local, an area truck driver offered to sell Boeing a large plot of land (for a nominal one-dollar fee) on which to build a new factory. Plant 2 was designed and erected to apply modern assembly-line technologies and speed up production.

This new complex grew and expanded, ultimately spanning 1.7 million square feet. It would come to facilitate the assembly of B-17 Flying Fortresses, B-29 Superfortresses, B-47 Stratojets, B-52 Stratofortresses and other aircraft through and beyond the war. Read more.

Carl Sagan’s Crash Course in Critical Thinking

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Filed under: Fact or Fiction?, Fraud and Deception, Media Literacy, Propaganda and Disinformation, Spin, The History of Pranks

This could hardly be more timely, so we’re revisiting Maria Popova’s Brainpickings review of “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection,” a chapter from Carl Sagan’s book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, in which the legendary scientist distills his years of professional skepticism into a primer for recognizing and calling BS in everyday life. H/t Dino.


“The Baloney Detection Kit: Carl Sagan’s Rules for Bullshit-Busting and Critical Thinking”
By Maria Popova
BrainPickings
January 3, 2014

Sagan reflects on the many types of deception to which we’re susceptible — from psychics to religious zealotry to paid product endorsements by scientists, which he held in especially low regard, noting that they “betray contempt for the intelligence of their customers” and “introduce an insidious corruption of popular attitudes about scientific objectivity.” (Cue in PBS’s Joe Hanson on how to read science news.) But rather than preaching from the ivory tower of self-righteousness, Sagan approaches the subject from the most vulnerable of places — having just lost both of his parents, he reflects on the all too human allure of promises of supernatural reunions in the afterlife, reminding us that falling for such fictions doesn’t make us stupid or bad people, but simply means that we need to equip ourselves with the right tools against them.

Through their training, scientists are equipped with what Sagan calls a “baloney detection kit” — a set of cognitive tools and techniques that fortify the mind against penetration by falsehoods:

The kit is brought out as a matter of course whenever new ideas are offered for consideration. If the new idea survives examination by the tools in our kit, we grant it warm, although tentative, acceptance. If you’re so inclined, if you don’t want to buy baloney even when it’s reassuring to do so, there are precautions that can be taken; there’s a tried-and-true, consumer-tested method.

But the kit, Sagan argues, isn’t merely a tool of science — rather, it contains invaluable tools of healthy skepticism that apply just as elegantly, and just as necessarily, to everyday life. By adopting the kit, we can all shield ourselves against clueless guile and deliberate manipulation. Sagan shares nine of these tools. Read more.


Fake News Is the New Real News

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Filed under: Fraud and Deception, Media Literacy, Media Pranks, Political Pranks, Propaganda and Disinformation

Fake news (aka propaganda) has always been with us, just not in the hands of so many little people. Now it appears the genie’s out of the bottle and all the King’s horses and all the King’s men might not be able to put it back in…


“Fake news is here forever, study says”
by Fox News Staff
The New York Post
October 6, 2017

Fake information will pervade mature economies in the next few years, a new study has noted.

By 2022, most people in mature economies will consume more false information than true information, according to the study from research firm Gartner.

This trend will be fueled, in part, by “confirmation bias,” that “leads all people to seek out, select and value information that parallels what they believe and expect to be proven true,” the study’s authors, Magnus Revang and Whit Andrews, found.

And even improved artificial intelligence (AI), which companies like Facebook and Google are working on, won’t be able to stop it, a separate study by Gartner found. “Counterfeit reality” or fake content, will “outpace AI’s ability to detect it.”

Generating false information will always cost less than the cost of detecting it. “False information will consequently outpace true information where there is economic or political interest to purvey it,” Revang and Andrews wrote. Read more.

The Story of Snopes

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Filed under: Creative Activism, Fraud and Deception, Media Literacy, Prank News, Propaganda and Disinformation

Turbulent times have brought increased attention for Snopes, the long-running, cred-heavy fact-checking website. This longform feature weaves a compelling tapestry of research, analysis, and narrative, including a raw and revealing interview with the site’s embattled cofounder David Mikkelson.


“Snopes and the Search for Facts in a Post-fact World”
by Michelle Dean
Wired
September 20, 2017

“It was early March, not yet two months into the Trump administration, and the new Not-Normal was setting in: It continued to be the administration’s position, as enunciated by Sean Spicer, that the inauguration had attracted the “largest audience ever”; barely a month had passed since Kellyanne Conway brought the fictitious “Bowling Green massacre” to national attention; and just for kicks, on March 4, the president alerted the nation by tweet, “Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower.”

If the administration had tossed the customs and niceties of American politics to the wind, there was one clearly identifiable constant: mendacity. “Fake news” accusations flew back and forth every day, like so many spitballs in a third-grade classroom.

Feeling depressed about the conflation of fiction and fact in the first few months of 2017, I steered a car into the hills of Calabasas to meet with one person whom many rely on to set things straight. This is an area near Los Angeles best known for its production of Kardashians, but there were no McMansions on the street where I was headed, only old, gnarled trees and a few modest houses. I spotted the one I was looking for—a ramshackle bungalow—because the car in the driveway gave it away. Its license plate read SNOPES.” Read more.

Who Do You Believe? Me Or Your Lying Eyes?

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Filed under: Fraud and Deception, Propaganda and Disinformation, Truth that's Stranger than Fiction

Why fact-checking can’t stop Trump lies, by Vox’s Brian Resnick

Watch the video

“‘Right-wing news’ is oxymoronic”

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Filed under: Fraud and Deception, Media Literacy, Political Challenges, Propaganda and Disinformation, The History of Pranks

With interesting clarity, Terry Heaton shows how he and other producers of Evangelical television used propaganda to seed the false narrative of the liberal “elite” news media and in the process created right-wing news and, ultimately, the Republican religious right. Now he wants to take it all back.


How The Religious Right Pioneered Propaganda As News
by Terry Heaton
HuffPost
June 16, 2017

Before Fox News, there was Pat Robertson’s ‘700 Club,’ where I was an executive producer.

Television evangelist and conservative political activist Pat Robertson poses in the control room for his 700 Club TV show. (Photo by © Wally McNamee/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

So-called “fake news” took center stage on several occasions during former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee last week. More than once, Comey pointed to specific articles by the New York Times as not true or completely false. However, he did validate others, including one in which he himself had been the Times’ source. The fake news meme has become one of the most troubling arguments in the history of contemporary journalism, ever since Donald Trump used the term to describe CNN at his first press conference as president.

Americans find themselves drowning in this unseemly and childish battle for the soul of news and information purveyance, and the undiscussed problem is that the entire mess is built on the false narrative of “the liberal (elite) press.” I know, because I was among the people who advanced the concept and shaped the discussion in the early ‘80s, as senior and executive producer of Pat Robertson’s flagship television program The 700 Club.

Before Fox News, there was The 700 Club with CBN News and “TV Journalism With A Different Spirit.” We knew what we were doing in the exploitation of the word “liberal,” and truth-telling demands its deconstruction today. The all-or-nothing split between conflicting political narratives has reached its pinnacle with the election of Donald Trump, and it needs to be hacked into a million pieces.

William F. Buckley was among the first to give the word “liberal” a pejorative interpretation, but it was the wordsmith William Safire writing for Spiro Agnew who in 1969 elevated it to a political talking point in his famous speech that opened the war against the press during Richard Nixon’s secret battles in Vietnam. The word became the central weapon in a strategy that involved attacking the messenger instead of changing the message.

That political strategy has been so effective to date that it has given birth to the idea that mainstream news is actually “fake news” and not to be believed in the administration of President Donald Trump. The number of people who now believe this falsehood is staggering, and it poses a real threat to our democracy. (more…)

Comedian Lee Camp Deconstructs New York Times Hatchet Job

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Filed under: Media Literacy, Political Challenges, Propaganda and Disinformation

Lee Camp, comedian, writer and creator, host, and head writer of the comedy news show Redacted Tonight gives a propaganda tutorial based on the hatchet job The New York Times did on him. H/T to Boris.


Lee Camp: How to Write Propaganda for the NY Times—As Demonstrated in an Article About Me
by Lee Camp
Alternet.org
June 13, 2017

The comedian debunks the lies and distortions spread about him in the New York Times.

On June 7, the New York Times vomited up a hit piece on little ol’ me – a guy who has been doing stand-up comedy for nearly 20 years and thought maybe that comedy could be used to inform and inspire audiences, rather than just make fun of the differences between men and women.

At first when you’re the center of a smear job, you’re annoyed and frustrated. But as I read further through the piece, I realized it was a master class in how to write propaganda for one of the most “respected” news outlets in our country. I’m actually grateful it was written about me because now I can see with my own eyes exactly how the glorious chicanery is done. I count no less than 15 lies, manipulations, and false implications in this short article, a score that even our fearless prevaricator-in-chief Donald Trump would envy.

So here now is a “How To” for writing propaganda for the New York Times, using the smear piece against me as an example. Read the full article here.

First Responders to BS: Fact-Checkers are Heroes for Our Times

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Filed under: Conspiracy Theories, Fact or Fiction?, Fraud and Deception, Hoaxes vs. Scams, Media Literacy, Political Challenges, Propaganda and Disinformation, Spin, You Decide

Like at Snopes, the team at Politifact has its work cut out for it. Here’s a rousing rant from editor Aaron Sharockman.


“PolitiFact: The Power of Fact Checking in a Post-Truth World”
by Aaron Sharockman
Tampa Bay Times
June 7, 2017
Here’s a quick test: Think about how Donald Trump announced he was running for president. Now, do the same for Hillary Clinton.

I think most of you probably got one but not the other. We remember Trump and his wife Melania gliding down the Trump Tower escalator in June 2015. And we remember some of the things Trump said that day.

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you,” Trump said. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

As for Clinton? (more…)

From Russian Satire to Serious (but Fake) News–a Flowchart

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Filed under: Fraud and Deception, Hoaxes vs. Scams, Media Literacy, Propaganda and Disinformation

The NYT tracks an item from a Russian satirist to FOX News.


How Russian Propaganda Spread From a Parody Website to FOX News
by Neil MacFarquhar and Andrew Rossback
The New York Times
June 7, 2017

Born in the shadowy reaches of the internet, most fake news stories prove impossible to trace to their origin. But researchers at the Atlantic Council, a think tank, excavated the root of one such fake story, involving an incident in the Black Sea in which a Russian warplane repeatedly buzzed a United States Navy destroyer, the Donald Cook.

Like much fake news, the story was based on a kernel of truth. The brief, tense confrontation happened on April 12, 2014, and the Pentagon issued a statement. Then in April, three years later, the story resurfaced, completely twisted, on one of Russia’s main state-run TV news programs.

The new version gloated that the warplane had deployed an electronic weapon to disable all operating systems aboard the Cook. That was false, but it soon spread, showing that even with all the global attention on combating fake news, it could still circulate with alarming speed and ease.

In the days after the incident in the Black Sea, a Russian writer named Dmitri Sedov wrote an opinion piece, apparently meant to be satirical, that imagined the incident as an electronic warfare attack and described the panicked reaction of one crew member. Read the rest of the story here.


Not #FakeNews, But an Incredible Simulation

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Filed under: Creative Activism, Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Fact or Fiction?, Fraud and Deception, Media Literacy, Media Pranks, Prank News, Pranksters, Propaganda and Disinformation, The World of the Prank

A new video game brings your republic-wrecking fantasies to life.


If you were for some reason dying to play a video game about fake news, it’s here now
by Marissa Wenzke
Mashable
March 27, 2017

This fake news simulator is the depressing video game America deserves

It’s something that’s come to be reviled, the very thing that may have cost America a presidential election — fake news.

And the horrible phenomenon that’s been called out by everyone from former President Barack Obama to Apple CEO Tim Cook now has a video game all about it.

Yes, you can actually climb inside the minds of real-life humans who distribute lies for money. Fake It to Make It describes itself as “a social impact game about fake news.”

By that definition, it’s less a celebration of fake news and more a socially conscious dissection of it. Well, that’s at least what it’s intended to be, as its creator Amanda Warner explains.

“I think that better understanding how and why we are manipulated by others, for profit or power, is worthwhile knowledge to have,” she told The Verge.

The game takes you through a journey that mirrors the stories of real-life fake news creators. For instance, it starts by asking you to choose a purchase you want to make, like a $1,000 used car or $400 for a deposit on an apartment (deals we think questionably exist IRL). Read more.


The Full Dossier on the Right’s New Radical Kingmakers

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Filed under: Fraud and Deception, Media Literacy, Propaganda and Disinformation, Spin

Donald Trump rose to power as a candidate in service to the people. Specifically, two of them: eccentric billionaire Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah. This essential long read goes deep into their background, motivations, and historically destructive power.


“The Blow-it-all-up Billionaires”
by Vicky Ward
The Huffington Post Highline
March 17, 2017

Last December, about a month before Donald Trump’s inauguration, Rebekah Mercer arrived at Stephen Bannon’s office in Trump Tower, wearing a cape over a fur-trimmed dress and her distinctive diamond-studded glasses. Tall and imposing, Rebekah, known to close friends as Bekah, is the 43-year-old daughter of the reclusive billionaire Robert Mercer. If Trump was an unexpected victor, the Mercers were unexpected kingmakers. More established names in Republican politics, such as the Kochs and Paul Singer, had sat out the general election. But the Mercers had committed millions of dollars to a campaign that often seemed beyond salvaging.

That support partly explains how Rebekah secured a spot on the executive committee of the Trump transition team. She was the only megadonor to frequent Bannon’s sanctum, a characteristically bare-bones space containing little more than a whiteboard, a refrigerator and a conference table. Unlike the other offices, it also had a curtain so no one could see what was happening inside. Before this point, Rebekah’s resume had consisted of a brief run trading stocks and bonds (including at her father’s hedge fund), a longer stint running her family’s foundation and, along with her two sisters, the management of an online gourmet cookie shop called Ruby et Violette. Now, she was compiling lists of potential candidates for a host of official positions, the foot soldiers who would remake (or unmake) the United States government in Trump’s image. Read more.


Meet New Alt-Right Media Power-Broker Robert Mercer

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Filed under: Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Media Literacy, Political Challenges, Propaganda and Disinformation, Spin

He made his money in tech and he’s investing it in new toys — data analytics and international politics. With his sights set on the media, his ultimate target is your heart and mind.


“Robert Mercer: The Big Data Billionaire Waging War on Mainstream Media”
by Carol Cadwalladr
The Guardian
February 26, 2017

Robert Mercer very rarely speaks in public and never to journalists, so to gauge his beliefs you have to look at where he channels his money: a series of yachts, all called Sea Owl; a $2.9m model train set; climate change denial (he funds a climate change denial thinktank, the Heartland Institute); and what is maybe the ultimate rich man’s plaything – the disruption of the mainstream media. In this he is helped by his close associate Steve Bannon, Trump’s campaign manager and now chief strategist. The money he gives to the Media Research Center, with its mission of correcting “liberal bias” is just one of his media plays. There are other bigger, and even more deliberate strategies, and shining brightly, the star at the centre of the Mercer media galaxy, is Breitbart.

It was $10m of Mercer’s money that enabled Bannon to fund Breitbart – a rightwing news site, set up with the express intention of being a Huffington Post for the right. It has launched the careers of Milo Yiannopoulos and his like, regularly hosts antisemitic and Islamophobic views, and is currently being boycotted by more than 1,000 brands after an activist campaign. It has been phenomenally successful: the 29th most popular site in America with 2bn page views a year. It’s bigger than its inspiration, the Huffington Post, bigger, even, than PornHub. It’s the biggest political site on Facebook. The biggest on Twitter.

Prominent rightwing journalist Andrew Breitbart, who founded the site but died in 2012, told Bannon that they had “to take back the culture”. And, arguably, they have, though American culture is only the start of it. In 2014, Bannon launched Breitbart London, telling the New York Times it was specifically timed ahead of the UK’s forthcoming election. It was, he said, the latest front “in our current cultural and political war”. France and Germany are next. (more…)

How to Diversify Your Biased News Portfolio

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Filed under: Media Literacy, Propaganda and Disinformation, Spin

Ever get the feeling you’re being pandered to? You don’t know the half of it. Here’s a company that hedges all bets in order to assure they get your ad dollars.


“This Is How Your Hyperpartisan Political News Gets Made”
by Craig Silverman
Buzzfeed News
February 27, 2017

The websites Liberal Society and Conservative 101 appear to be total opposites. The former publishes headlines such as “WOW, Sanders Just Brutally EVISCERATED Trump On Live TV. Trump Is Fuming.” Its conservative counterpart has stories like “Nancy Pelosi Just Had Mental Breakdown On Stage And Made Craziest Statement Of Her Career.”

So it was a surprise last Wednesday when they published stories that were almost exactly the same, save for a few notable word changes.

After CNN reported White House counselor Kellyanne Conway was “sidelined from television appearances,” both sites whipped up a post — and outrage — for their respective audiences. The resulting stories read like bizarro-world versions of each other — two articles with nearly identical words and tweets optimized for opposing filter bubbles. The similarity of the articles also provided a key clue BuzzFeed News followed to reveal a more striking truth: These for-the-cause sites that appeal to hardcore partisans are in fact owned by the same Florida company.

Liberal Society and Conservative 101 are among the growing number of so-called hyperpartisan websites and associated Facebook pages that have sprung up in recent years, and that attracted significant traffic during the US election. A previous BuzzFeed News analysis of content published by conservative and liberal hyperpartisan sites found they reap massive engagement on Facebook with aggressively partisan stories and memes that frequently demonize the other side’s point of view, often at the expense of facts. Read more.


Teaching People to Become Bullshit Detectors

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Filed under: Fraud and Deception, Political Challenges, Propaganda and Disinformation, Truth that's Stranger than Fiction

“Calling Bullshit” is a college course designed to identify & combat bullshit. We need more of these!


From Current Affairs, Science, January 27th, 2017: Two professors at the University of Washington, Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West, have created a website meant to accompany a potential college seminar entitled “Calling Bullshit.” Here’s how Bergstrom and West explain the premise of their course. It’s worth quoting them at length.

The world is awash in bullshit. Politicians are unconstrained by facts. Science is conducted by press release. Higher education rewards bullshit over analytic thought. Startup culture elevates bullshit to high art. Advertisers wink conspiratorially and invite us to join them in seeing through all the bullshit — and take advantage of our lowered guard to bombard us with bullshit of the second order. The majority of administrative activity, whether in private business or the public sphere, seems to be little more than a sophisticated exercise in the combinatorial reassembly of bullshit.

We’re sick of it. It’s time to do something, and as educators, one constructive thing we know how to do is to teach people. So, the aim of this course is to help students navigate the bullshit-rich modern environment by identifying bullshit, seeing through it, and combating it with effective analysis and argument. More…

Visit the Calling Bullshit website.

Get your Bullshit Detector Watch website here.

WhatsApp Fuels India’s #FakeNews Fire

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Filed under: Fact or Fiction?, Fraud and Deception, Hoaxes vs. Scams, Media Literacy, Political Pranks, Propaganda and Disinformation

India has a long history of politically motivated hoaxes and guerrilla propaganda. A popular messenger app has thrown it into overdrive.


“Viral WhatsApp Hoaxes Are India’s Own Fake News Crisis”
by Pranav Dixit
Buzzfeed News
January 19. 2017

The United States is currently experiencing a fake news crisis — bogus news articles disguised to look like real ones to mislead people, influence public opinion, and/or to simply use their massive reach to reap advertising profits. These operations are sophisticated, data-driven, and highly targeted. But in countries like India where internet penetration and literacy still lag far behind the US, misinformation tends to have a more grassroots quality. Twitter is a fertile ground for all kinds of rumormongering, but with just over 30 million users in the country, its impact is limited.

The primary vector for the spread of misinformation in India is WhatApp. The instant messenger is fast, free, and runs on nearly all of India’s 300 million smartphones. It’s also encrypted end-to-end, which means it’s nearly impossible to track what flows through it. Its real-world ramifications, nonetheless, can be brutal.

In November, WhatsApp rumors of a salt shortage sparked panic in at least four Indian states and caused stampedes outside grocery shops as people rushed to stock up. The government eventually debunked the rumours — but not before a woman died.

India’s misinformation problem predates the internet. In the early ‘90s, rabble-rousers in northern India trying to stir up tensions in Hindu and Muslim communities would mass-produce cassette recordings full of fake gunfire, screams, and chants of “Allah-ho-Akbar,” and then play them in car stereos at full volume in the dead of the night to incite communal violence. Read more.