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The War on Information

Via the Seattle Times comes a piece worth a read:  UW professor: The information war is real, and we’re losing it

Starbird argues in a new paper, set to be presented at a computational social-science conference in May, that these “strange clusters” of wild conspiracy talk, when mapped, point to an emerging alternative media ecosystem on the web of surprising power and reach.

It features sites such as Infowars.com, hosted by informal President Donald Trump adviser Alex Jones, which has pushed a range of conspiracies, including that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a staged fake.

There are dozens of other conspiracy-propagating websites such as beforeitsnews.com, nodisinfo.com and veteranstoday.com. Starbird cataloged 81 of them, linked through a huge community of interest connected by shared followers on Twitter, with many of the tweets replicated by automated bots.

Infowars.com alone is roughly equivalent in visitors and page views to the Chicago Tribune, according to Alexa.com, the web-traffic analysis firm.

“More people are dipping into this stuff than I ever imagined,” Starbird says.

A noteworthy observation that does seem to resonate with the current political moment:

It isn’t a traditional left-right political axis, she found. There are right-wing sites like Danger & Play and left-wing sensationalizers such as The Free Thought Project. Some appear to be just trying to make money, while others are aggressively pushing political agendas.

The true common denominator, she found, is anti-globalism — deep suspicion of free trade, multinational business and global institutions.

“To be antiglobalist often included being anti-mainstream media, anti-immigration, anti-science, anti-U.S. government, and anti-European Union,” Starbird says.

Also noteworthy:

Much of it was strangely pro-Russian, too — perhaps due to Russian twitter bots that bombarded social channels during the presidential campaign (a phenomenon that’s now part of the FBI investigation into the election, McClatchy reported last week).

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About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Gustopher says:

    If I wanted to destabilize a democracy, and I had the resources, this is exactly what I would be hoping to achieve as a halfway step — an independent, natively run and operated, conspiracy minded set of news sites dedicated to undermining trust in government and the press.

    What’s really nice about this is that if the government does anything to discourage the conspiracy sites, it is a violation of the First Amendment guarantees for a free press, and fodder for the conspiracy theories themselves.

    I have no idea whether this is a grand Russian plot against us, or whether with decentralized communication and news people just naturally cluster into small, like-minded communities. I suspect the latter may be the dominant force — after all, with the rise of the Internet, we have seen furries start gathering first online and then off (furries are harmless, but held in the same regard as crackpot conspiracy theorists).

    And, if I were a Russian spymaster, I would absolutely want to be running some kind of operation that I could point to and say “see how effective this is” and take credit for a natural phenomena… so, even if we found evidence of Russian involvement, I don’t know that I would believe they were the dominant cause.

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  2. Ben Wolf says:

    Grand Russian plots. No conspiracist thinking there.

    Nosiree.

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