Computational Propaganda and Political Big Data: Moving Toward a More Critical Research Agenda

Gillian Bolsover and Philip Howard in the Journal Big Data: “Computational propaganda has recently exploded into public consciousness. The U.S. presidential campaign of 2016 was marred by evidence, which continues to emerge, of targeted political propaganda and the use of bots to distribute political messages on social media. This computational propaganda is both a social and technical phenomenon. Technical knowledge is necessary to work with the massive databases used for audience targeting; it is necessary to create the bots and algorithms that distribute propaganda; it is necessary to monitor and evaluate the results of these efforts in agile campaigning. Thus, a technical knowledge comparable to those who create and distribute this propaganda is necessary to investigate the phenomenon.

However, viewing computational propaganda only from a technical perspective—as a set of variables, models, codes, and algorithms—plays into the hands of those who create it, the platforms that serve it, and the firms that profit from it. The very act of making something technical and impartial makes it seem inevitable and unbiased. This undermines the opportunities to argue for change in the social value and meaning of this content and the structures in which it exists. Big-data research is necessary to understand the socio-technical issue of computational propaganda and the influence of technology in politics. However, big data researchers must maintain a critical stance toward the data being used and analyzed so as to ensure that we are critiquing as we go about describing, predicting, or recommending changes. If research studies of computational propaganda and political big data do not engage with the forms of power and knowledge that produce it, then the very possibility for improving the role of social-media platforms in public life evaporates.

Definitionally, computational propaganda has two important parts: the technical and the social. Focusing on the technical, Woolley and Howard define computational propaganda as the assemblage of social-media platforms, autonomous agents, and big data tasked with the manipulation of public opinion. In contrast, the social definition of computational propaganda derives from the definition of propaganda—communications that deliberately misrepresent symbols, appealing to emotions and prejudices and bypassing rational thought, to achieve a specific goal of its creators—with computational propaganda understood as propaganda created or disseminated using computational (technical) means…(More) (Full Text HTMLFull Text PDF)