How Disinformation Works

An edited version of this article first appeared in the Centre of Global Policy’s The Navigator

Friendly Sirens and Deadly Shores

By Muhammad Idrees Ahmad

As the US prepares for another high stakes election, the outcome is likely once again to be influenced by a third party: Russia. But only if the electorate cooperates.

Ahead of the 2016 election there were frequent mentions of Russian interference, but its possible impact was generally dismissed. Democrats were convinced their candidate would win; and Republicans, resigned to the same, treated Russia as a side issue. The outcome jolted everyone. Because of this, no one is discounting the threat this time around. But the underlying causes that helped Russia succeed have grown deeper. There is now greater awareness about Russian tactics, but the means for resisting them are weaker.

In the myriad investigations, few stones have been left unturned about the methods and scope of Russia’s intervention. But while Russia has shown ingenuity in using digital propaganda, its success derives less from methodological sophistication than from structural vulnerabilities. To have any hope of countering Russian “active measures”, it is important therefore to understand not just the dissemination of propaganda, but also its reception. Propaganda, ultimately, is a cooperative enterprise. It feeds on existing biases. It requires both an active audience, which already shares the propagandist’s assumptions, and a larger, passive audience, which imbibes it based on the legitimacy accorded it by the active audience. People are susceptible to propaganda because it offers affective rewards and reduces cognitive labor. That is why any discussion on how it functions needs to begin with why it works.
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