This past year seems more exhausting than usual — the chaos of current events and accelerating news cycles.

It’s been like going for a swim in an endless pool only to find you’re being swallowed by a swelling tsunami before it crests and then crashes across the landscape. The only hope for survival is to find something real and get a good grasp before being sucked back to drift aimlessly at sea.  

But even that — finding something real — can prove difficult in a world flooded with information that too often it seems is designed to distract rather than inform or educate. Technology intended to democratize the world has been weaponized by those who understand the physiological and psychological response researchers have observed while studying the effects of information overload. 

Aaron Delwiche, a communications professor at Trinity University in San Antonio and co-creator of the website Propaganda Critic, describes on that site “a growing body of research” that “suggests ... many people respond to this pressure by processing messages more quickly.” Delwiche writes in one entry the rapid processing of messages is accomplished “by taking mental shortcuts known as ‘cognitive biases.’”

“Propagandists love shortcuts — particularly those which short-circuit rational thought,” Delwiche states in an article that explores the connection between social media and the prevalence of propaganda. “They encourage this by agitating emotions, by exploiting insecurities, by capitalizing on the ambiguity of language, and by bending the rules of logic.”

Delwiche, who teaches courses about hacking subcultures, propaganda, and videogame design and criticism, outlines in the article how information technologies developed during the past couple of decades “have transformed propaganda in ways that were once unthinkable.” Computer-controlled accounts known as bots “control the flow of information,” which is amplified “with the help of fake user profiles called “sockpuppets” and steered toward those most likely to be influenced by “hidden persuaders” who identify their targets by analyzing “data about a user’s online behavior.” 

By now most of those terms and the process might sound familiar given the widespread coverage of Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election. U.S. intelligence agencies concur those efforts are ongoing — military cyber officials, according to The Washington Post, “are developing information warfare tactics” that could be deployed if Russia interferes next year “by hacking election systems or sowing widespread discord.”

Efforts to sow discord are underway already. I don’t know why I’m not surprised, but the first example of this I saw was a piece of fiction disguised as news on Facebook. Executives there have demonstrated a cavalier disregard for the truth and the protection of their users’ data, so it’s up to those who enjoy the freedoms provided by a democratic society to learn how to recognize propaganda and the techniques employed by those who would use it to disadvantage others.

The project team behind Propaganda Critic — a website “inspired by the pioneering work of the Institute for Propaganda Analysis ... from 1937 to 1942” — provide information that sheds light on the tricks used by propagandists. Team members provide tools that can be used to identify and analyze propaganda along with some proposed “strategies of mental self-defense.”

With a big election year on the horizon, Americans should expect to be bombarded by information and be prepared to deal with the misinformation and disinformation being disseminated. Propaganda analysis, Delwiche notes in one post, “is an antidote to the excesses of the Information Age.”

It wouldn’t hurt to take a good dose before the primaries begin in January. 

D.E. Smoot covers city/county government for the Phoenix. 

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