“But what if ignorance is strategically manufactured?” Data & Society Founder and President danah boyd asks, somewhat rhetorically, during a recent talk at a Digital Public Library of America conference.
She talks, of course, about misinformation and gaslighting campaigns that course through digital networks.
Propaganda and misinformation campaigns aren’t new, as boyd points out. Instead, it’s the playing field. The promise and hope of online connectivity and communication has given way to the sinister. “Slowly, and systematically,” boyd says, “a virus has spread, using technology to systematically tear at the social fabric of public life.”
At work are content campaigns and digital networks exploiting “data voids”, or information ecosystems ripe for manipulation, in order to sow distrust what we think we know, be it science, history, politics or the latest mass shooting near our collective next door. At root is agnotology, or culturally induced ignorance and confusion.
One of the best ways to seed agnotology is to make sure that doubtful and conspiratorial content is easier to reach than scientific material. And then to make sure that what scientific information is available, is undermined. One tactic is to exploit “data voids.” These are areas within a search ecosystem where there’s no relevant data; those who want to manipulate media purposefully exploit these. Breaking news is one example of this. Another is to co-opt a term that was left behind, like social justice. But let me offer you another. Some terms are strategically created to achieve epistemological fragmentation. In the 1990s, Frank Luntz was the king of doing this with terms like partial-birth abortion, climate change, and death tax. Every week, he coordinated congressional staffers and told them to focus on the term of the week and push it through the news media. All to create a drumbeat.
Today’s drumbeat happens online. The goal is no longer just to go straight to the news media. It’s to first create a world of content and then to push the term through to the news media at the right time so that people search for that term and receive specific content.
The goal as we know is to manufacture confusion at scale. Read on for more on how it’s done.