“Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world,” famously said the legendary Greek mathematician Archimedes. He was thinking big, in the manner of the old school of marketing and politics. Today’s political movers and shakers find it more efficient to move the world in their or their candidates’ direction by using tiny little levers on small groups of pre-selected voters.
Welcome to the booming market in small-scale social media political influencers. Behind the boom, three important things about social influencers: people like them; people trust them; and the small-scale asteroids cost much less than big-time celebrity stars or manufactured fake news propaganda.
Appropriate to the talents of small-scale influencers, their task is as easy as the big-timer’s job of selling to the whole wide world is hard. Small-scale political influencers are almost always sicced on people known to be leaning their way.
2016 saw Macedonian 20-somethings getting rich putting pre-fabricated Russian propaganda on various American — pro-Trump, right-wing, nativist — websites and Twitter accounts where sympathetic voters were known to graze.
In 2020, the goal and strategy remained the same, elect Donald Trump by motivating his base with lies, but everything about the messaging, the targeting and the delivery system had been fine-tuned. Particular un-facts were fed to people known to be particularly susceptible to them, not with trending messages or viral videos, but by a friendly human being, a persuader scaled to feel like a neighbor, a pal. A think-alike who can help you think and vote even more like him or her.
What happens, our guest Katie Joseff of the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas, Austin asked recently on the Tech Stream platform of the Brookings Institution, when a world of “unbridled data collection and a digital economy built on its targeted use” goes political?
Katie Joseff is a senior research associate at the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas, Austin. Past areas of research include political disinformation and election manipulation, both within the US and abroad; the psychological biases underlying propaganda; partisanship; anti-Semitism; targeted harassment of marginalized groups; the effects of false information on journalism and journalists; and the ethics of emerging technologies, including AR, VR, and AI surveillance. She studied social neuroscience and international security as an undergraduate, and partisanship and disinformation as a media studies master’s student.