Digital Propaganda: The Power of Influencers

Issue Date July 2022
Volume 33
Issue 3
Page Numbers 115–29
file Print
arrow-down-thin Download from Project MUSE
external View Citation

Read the full essay here.

Attempts to manipulate public opinion using social media and emerging information communication technologies (ICTs) continue to proliferate internationally. Governments, corporations, extremist groups, and a wide variety of other entities around the globe now commonly use both automated bots and anonymous human “sockpuppet” accounts in efforts to amplify and suppress particular streams of information during elections, security crises, and other pivotal events. They use these same tools to sow disinformation and engage in organized political trolling campaigns. However, the technologies and tactics used in these internet-based “influence operations” are changing. This essay leverages insights from over 70 interviews with people who both produce and track online manipulation campaigns. It compares emerging trends in digital disinformation and computational propaganda across the globe using qualitative data from 12 countries—Burma, Brazil, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Mexico, the Philippines, Turkey, Ukraine, and the United States. In essence, internet-borne manipulation efforts are evolving from relatively unsophisticated “inorganic” campaigns pushed by social media bots and towards more complex “semi-organic” efforts combining both coordinated human users and artificial intelligence software. Additional, related, trends include the increased coercive political use of social media influencers and encrypted and private messaging applications.

About the Author

Samuel C. Woolley is assistant professor of journalism and project director for propaganda research at the University of Texas–Austin’s Center for Media Engagement. His latest book is The Reality Game: How the Next Wave of Technology Will Break the Truth (2020).

View all work by Samuel C. Woolley