The Audience is the Amplifier: Participatory Propaganda

Wanless, Alicia; Berk, Michael

Propaganda is changing in a Digital Age. What once was a top-down effort to the masses has through the internet become a participatory affair. As people increasingly “plug-in” to online services, a wealth of personal data aggregated by internet giants facilitates the creation and distribution of tailored provocative messaging, which savvy propagandists then push through online communities to unsuspecting target audiences who help spread persuasive content further. In this dynamic information environment, audiences are no longer passive consumers of persuasive content. Instead, they are active agents who participate in its creation, spread and amplification, inadvertently furthering the agenda of propagandists whose messaging resonates with their world view. Propagandists achieve this through behavioural advertising, manipulating internet algorithms, targeting and provoking online echo chambers and communities, and winning traditional media coverage. Often such efforts blur the lines between what is real and what isn’t, when staged activities are obfuscated through astroturfing or botnet amplification to look like an authentic engagement by ordinary users. These methods, alongside the pervasiveness of modern communications in our lives, create ample opportunities for skilled propagandists to set agendas for and influence national political dynamics or policy choices. This chapter explores the emergence of participatory propaganda, drawing from a model first identified during the US 2016 presidential election and subsequently found in online political activity in the UK and Canada using social network and content analysis.