Project Description

It Doesn’t Need to be True to be Relevant

Understanding the role of fake news, propaganda, bots, and narrative accelerants

Photo by Dawn Armfield on Unsplash

April 16, 2017
By Aaron Harms

We consume and absorb new information at a breakneck pace that only accelerates as it evolves. Three big and interconnected forces drive this. First, new media consumption platforms with increasingly targeted personalization and dopamine-rewarding social networks make it easier for us to stay in our comfortable information bubbles. Second, narrative landscapes are becoming more polarized and binary – with fewer nuanced perspectives that bridge one deeply held belief to another. And third, persuasion tools are becoming weaponized at scale: fake news proliferates, swarming bots besiege readers with automated content, and propaganda has evolved from leaflet dropping to data-driven A-B tested campaigns.

At Protagonist we analyze narratives for a living, and we often get the question: what should we do with all of this suspect data? Our first instinct is to exclude it because it’s noise. It’s a nuisance and unsettling. The temptation is to trash these forms of subversion for their inauthenticity. Go forth and identify those bots and chop them from the dataset. Find and delete those fake news posts from the analysis. Weed out that propaganda from the conversation.

But it turns out that when your goal is to win a narrative battle – which is what one third of our customers focus on –it’s actually essential to include the bots, the fake news, and the propaganda in the analysis. This is especially true when they are having a measurable impact on the discourse under study. When we analyze deeply held beliefs that drive human behavior, we’re especially interested in biased expressions. Fake news works not because people are deliberately ambivalent to the truth. Fake news works because it connects to an underlying narrative, making it, in the mind of the adherent, true enough.

We’re currently working on several prototypes for the Protagonist Platform to detect fake news, propaganda, bots, and other like mechanisms. Together, the presence of these types of data can reveal the underlying motivations in play for a discourse, as well as the degree to which highly orchestrated messaging campaigns propel a narrative landscape forward.

Narratives have always been a captivating mix of fact and myth. Our current media environment challenges our understanding of exactly what that mix can look like. It may be that narratives can persist and thrive with a heavier dose of myth than we might have imagined just a year or two ago. The imperative to understand, analyze, and work with those narratives has never been greater. At Protagonist that’s what we’re focused on helping our customers unlock every single day.

Aaron Harms, EVP, Product and Technology

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