Propaganda Machine: How Social Media Changed Content Consumption?

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If you lined up all of the twentieth-century fiction works and asked which one is the most relevant now. 1984, by George Orwell, is almost certain to top the list. However, the concept of a propaganda machine is not original; the fact that George Orwell contemplated it well before the cold war raises the question of how he knew.

The book’s vocabulary is frequently cited in the media, with Big Brother serving as a recognizable symbol of a nightmare future. The book talks about the ministry of truth, which is responsible for any necessary falsification of historical events.

Today we spend our days under the nonstop surveillance of a telescreen that we purchased at the smartphone store, carry with us everywhere we go, and tell everything to, without any coercion by the state. Facebook, Google, and cable news are the modern Ministry of Truth. Social media has effectively turned us into Big Brother.

The propaganda machine has existed throughout history but gained prominence during the world war.

Volksempfänger : The Brodcast that Changed the World

After Adolf Hitler took power in 1933, one of his first acts was establishing the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. Hitler was well aware that he needed to create the appearance that the party had the whole support of the populace to get other countries’ support.

Additionally, the squad was tasked with propagating Nazi philosophy.

Hitler requested one of his close friends, Joseph Goebbels, to assume command of the squad. Hitler was well aware that Joseph was the best man for the task. Joseph was well-known for his oratorical abilities and anti-semitic beliefs.

Joseph was adamant in his refusal to change his anti-Semitic beliefs. After learning that his five-year partner, Else Janke, a schoolteacher, was half-Jewish, he gradually withdrew and terminated the relationship.

Joseph recruited Otto Griessing to create what he thought would alter German history after assuming command of the army in 1933. Otto, an electronics engineer by trade, had spent the previous decade researching radio technology. He most recently served as technical director of Deutsche Stunde (a leading private broadcaster).

Otto was entrusted with the job of designing and manufacturing a low-cost broadcast receiver. Joseph’s instructions to Otto were very clear: he needed to accomplish it at a cost that was half that of an existing handset without sacrificing quality.

Otto was well aware that this would not be an easy job since his receiver would be pitted against the likes of Blaupunkt (formerly “Ideal Radio”) and Telefunken.

The radio model VE 301 was renamed Volksempfänger (People’s Receiver) during manufacturing. The model made its premiere at the Funkaustellung Radio Show in 1933, and by the fall of that year, Otto’s team had sold 200,000 units across the nation.

Joseph was well aware that widespread usage of a radio receiver would facilitate the propagation of Nazi ideology. At its height, the receiver reached over 80 million people, depriving them of any alternative thinking to Hitler’s.

Germany attacked Poland on 1 September 1939. At 5.40 a.m., Adolf Hitler announced his declaration of war over the radio.

“The Polish state has refused the peaceful settlement of relations which I desired and appealed to arms,” Hitler declared. “… In order to put an end to this lunacy, I have no other choice than to meet force with force from now on. The German Army will fight the battle for the honor and the vital rights of a newborn Germany with hard determination.”

– Adolf Hitler

Two days later, Britain and France declared war on Germany. No one could have anticipated that the conflict would endure six years at the outset.

While Volksempfänger permitted Germans to listen to foreign radio broadcasts, this practice became illegal when Nazi Germany declared war. In German-controlled areas, such as Poland, non-German people were prohibited from listening to radios (later in the war, this ban was extended to a few other occupied nations, accompanied by widespread confiscation of radio sets).

Between 1933 and 1945, the Germans manufactured more Volksempfängers than any other type. Perhaps for the first time in human history, a media instrument (a broadcast receiver) had become a propaganda machine.

Propaganda Machine: Social Media and Our Distorted View

Google and Facebook accounted for more than half of all digital advertising spend in 2020. In 2017, Facebook tested new ways of selling online advertising that would threaten Google’s control, but they later abandoned it mid-way.

As the New York Times piece points out, the technology world is rife with back door arrangements designed to safeguard corporations. Google pays Apple nearly $15 billion (roughly Rs. 1,10,718 crores) to remain the default search engine on its devices. While some deals make it to the news, others have a veil of secrecy around them.

Technology firms are taking proactive steps to safeguard our privacy; however, the algorithms that govern such platforms have turned into black boxes of sorts. Consider this; most social media platforms use algorithms to rank and recommend content.

The algorithms gather their inputs from factors likes, shares, and comments to understand the engagement. The algorithms’ goal is to increase engagement by determining what people like and ranking it prominently in their feeds. On the surface, this seems reasonable. But like the folks at Nature journal tested this assumption, they realized that popularity bias is more likely to lower content quality.

The explanation is that engagement is not a reliable predictor of quality when a small number of individuals have been exposed to an item. In such instances, engagement produces a noisy signal, which the algorithm is likely to enhance. Once a low-quality item achieves a certain level of popularity, its popularity will continue to grow.

Firms and organizations that spread false or malicious information have realized that popularity can boost low-quality content. Social media platforms have now started to lower the popularity of content from less credible sources.

For instance, on Google, it isn’t easy to rank your content high in search results if you write about niches like finance, health, and nutrition. But recent studies have proven that people are less likely to flag articles from less credible sources if they see many people have engaged with the content.

Wisdom of Crowds: Friction to Kill Propaganda Machine

In his best-selling book, Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki asserts that large groups of people are smarter than an elite few, regardless of their brilliance—better at solving problems, stimulating creativity, making sensible judgments, and even forecasting the future. But with most social media experiments, the wisdom of crowds fails as it is built on the false assumption that the crowd is made up of diverse, independent sources. There are three reasons why this happens.

  1. To begin, because of people’s natural propensity to connect with like-minded others, their online communities are rather homogeneous. Such homogeneous groups create eco-chambers.
  2. Many people’s friends are also their friends, they have an impact on one another. A well-known experiment established that knowing what music your friends enjoy has an effect on your stated preferences. Your social desire to conform distorts your independent judgment.
  3. Populaity signals are getting increasingly gamed. Right from link farms to social bots, most social media firms are fighting sophiscated techniques that have been developed to game the system. Researchers at Columbia Univserity found that nearly a large portion of online chatter about the 2016 US elections was generated by bots.

So what can you do to make sure you are not a carrier of false or malicious information? To start with, don’t just rely on social media and the idiot box to consume information. Double-check the facts before you share your next Whatsapp forward.

But the platforms themselves will have to create barriers or layers of friction to reduce the spread of information. Two years ago, WhatsApp limited the number of individuals to whom an individual may send a single message at a time. As a result, approximately 80% of messages died after two days, and the number of forwards decreased by 25%.

Social media platforms still have to take several steps before they can truly say that they are serving their audience, but for now, the onus rests on us to ensure that we are not becoming part of a propaganda machine.

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