Propaganda, the "art" of manipulating how and what people think, is as old as communication. But as this eye-opening new book shows, it has reached a new level of refinement.
Woolley (Journalism/Univ. of Texas; co-editor: Computational Propaganda: Political Parties, Politicians, and Political Manipulation on Social Media, 2018)—the founding director of the Digital Intelligence Lab at the Institute for the Future—employs the term "computational propaganda" to characterize the political exploitation of technologies that have their roots in the internet. As he argues, human-mimicking "bots," "deepfake" videos, and other attempts to persuade and deceive herald a new era of technology that may further damage democratic values if they do not possess built-in safeguards against misuse. "The Web has become as much a tool to control people as a means to connect and empower them," writes the author, who acknowledges that the problem of digital deception is complex and opaque, its scale daunting. Woolley focuses on pervasive social media that are highly vulnerable to being manipulated not only by politicians and governments, but by anyone mounting a disinformation campaign. He insists we must "bake" democratic values and human rights into our current and emerging technologies, the ones that bear so much promise—and so much potential for calculated misuse. Innovation without caution is not an advance. While applauding the positive potential of new developments, Woolley goes into exhaustive detail analyzing the capacity for manipulation harbored by artificial intelligence and anthropomorphic tools. Such a narrative can't help but be immersed in a deep pool of techno-speak, but Woolley does yeoman's work in making most of it understandable. The delivery, however, is sometimes dry, and the author has a tendency toward repetition. But given the importance of his arguments, readers should stick with it.
A well-informed cautionary tale on alarming issues that show no signs of abating as disinformation continues to proliferate.