In the article “Policing Propaganda” from The Economist, the main topic is online campaigning in the United States and Britain within recent years. Online campaigning is compared to the initial use of the telegraph since both were major breakthroughs in communication technologies that changed the way politicians interacted with citizens. Digital media, however, operates on a universal level and the major traffic happens on privately owned and moderated technology firms like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. The issue the article presents is that, since online campaigning has only become relevant in the past ten years, laws and regulations are limited, therefore propagating false political claims and microtargeting receptive groups. Online limits set on campaigning should be made to regulate opportunities for populists to exploit misinformation in both general online advertisement and cases of microtargeting.
The article claims that false political claims, especially those propagated by influential politicians, can be harmful to politics by stirring conspiracy theories and misdirection. This aligns well with Hofstadter’s Paranoid Style, Hochschild’s Deep Story, and Cramer’s Rural Consciousness as misinformation regarding other politicians and parties could easily make politicians, parties, or policies seem immoral when combined with preconceived distrust and resentment towards politicians or demographic groups. Additionally, unregulated online propaganda can increase polarization between parties as misinformation is used to target opponents which could later discourage bipartisanship.
Banning politicians from distributing false information online would nullify the concerns of vilifying politicians and it would remove a major platform for populist campaigning techniques. Consequently, it would be a major infringement of free speech. The article mentions, however, that adopting policies already used for political advertisements on television could and should be used online. Of these, disclosing the sources behind advertisements would, at least, lend more credibility to the information. Of course, there is still the danger that the sources themselves are not credible and it would be up to the audience to evaluate the claims. With the perspectives of the Paranoid Style, Deep Story, and Rural Consciousness, many Americans already have predisposed perceptions, and disclosing sources may have little effect on the perceived credibility of claims. A false claim whose source is a radical organization may be seen as reasonably credible to those whose ideals already align with that of the organization.
Britain’s take on policing political advertising, as per the article, is to ban it from television save for a handful political broadcasting networks. I believe that that is too close to the extreme of a total ban on political advertising. My other concern is that limiting political advertising in that sense would limit an audience to those with an interest in politics. This may feed the elitist theory elaborated on by Page and Gilens since citizens more involved in politics would be able to make more informed decisions than ordinary citizens. This ties into the issue of microtargeting.
Microtargeting does not seem to be inherently harmful to democracy, nor does it seem to be ill intentioned. On a basic surface level, microtargeting appears to be a great way to appeal to vast amounts of smaller, niche groups by addressing their personal problems. The problem becomes apparent when microtargeting is used by politicians to make conflicting claims to different groups. This is extremely exploitable for populists since a very specific emotional appeal and directed resentment. Groups predisposed to hate institutions and other groups would easily fall under the influence of a populist campaign, and faith in politics could quickly crumble within very niche groups.
The relative ease of persuasion, of course, makes microtargeting a major potential threat to democracy, but I would argue that the threat may not be as large as it seems. While microtargeting is relatively unregulated, regulation may not have to be drastic. The biggest limitation to microtargeting is appealing to enough groups for it to matter. If a populist were to reach enough groups are through microtargeting, assuming a different appeal is not used for every group, the appeal would have to be generalized while still being emotionally effective. If that manages to be the case, then the threat to democracy would lie within the populist rather than the use of microtargeting. Essentially, the danger of microtargeting would be the conflicting appeals being used to win an election or push a policy, but the final outcome fails to match the expectations the groups were led to believe.
In conclusion, policing political online campaigning and microtargeting to avoid the spread of misinformation should follow guidelines already present in radio and television networks. Policing should not be pushed to an extreme where it limits free speech, but it should also not be used in the other extreme where it promotes populism. The spread of conspiracy theories, hate, distrust, and resentment as consequences of misinformation are the biggest factors that need to be taken into account for regulations. Minimizing them is essential to the stability of democracy as we advance through the digital age.