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(p.101) Part Two Dynamics of Network Propaganda

(p.101) Part Two Dynamics of Network Propaganda

Network Propaganda
Yochai BenklerRobert FarisHal Roberts
Oxford University Press

Political communications usually focus on three primary mechanisms by which media ecosystems affect politics: agenda setting, priming, and framing. Agenda setting is focused on shaping what questions are salient in audiences’ minds.1 Priming focuses on what standards they should use to evaluate candidates or positions on these salient issues.2 Framing is a more gestalt idea. It relates to the context within which an issue, opinion, or claim is made, and influences our understanding of and attitudes toward it. Consider the politics of drugs in a gubernatorial race as an example of the three different types of effects. Whether to think about drugs and drug use, as opposed to, say, education policy or jobs, as the important political issue of the election is agenda setting. Whether to assess the incumbent governor’s performance on the issue of drugs by focusing on changes in the number of overdose deaths of habitual drug users or by focusing on the number of kilos seized and prosecutions brought is a priming question. And whether to think about drug use as a criminal-enforcement issue or a public health issue is a framing question.3 Whether one thinks of drug use in the frame of “crime” or in the frame of “public health” or whether one is primed to focus on public health measures or criminal enforcement measures has enormous practical implications for where elected and appointed officials put the state’s efforts and which classes of policy responses seem reasonable or whacky. As we will see in Chapter 4, for example, the major agenda-setting success of the Donald Trump campaign and Breitbart was to make immigration the core substantive agenda item in the 2016 election. Using text analysis and other measures of salience, we will see that right-wing media framed immigration primarily in terms of fear of Muslims and Islamic terrorism, rather than framing the question in terms of solving the problems of undocumented immigrants in the United States, or of Latin American immigration, as it was in the rest of the media ecosystem. Because of that successful framing, Trump voters were primed to look for progress on that front first and foremost, which helps (p.102) explain why the newly sworn President Trump rushed to issue his “Muslim ban” within a week of taking office.

How do agenda setting, framing, and priming map on to the questions of propaganda? What might it mean to say that if political party A wants the election to focus on issue A rather than B, that would be “manipulating” public opinion, or in any sense be “false”? At the simplest level, one could pretend to be what one is not and inject agenda-setting or framing narratives into the political debate. So, for example, if we believed that the origin of the large email dumps and the incessant focus on Hillary Clinton emails were in fact the product of Russian hackers and sockpuppets masquerading as American media outlets and activists (spoiler alert for Chapters 6 and 8: we do not), we would call the successful agenda-setting campaign “propaganda” in the sense that the origin of the campaign is masked in order to achieve a manipulative propagandist purpose.

Beyond origin, in principle, though we do not observe it in the American system in the period we asses, one could keep up a steady flow of communications intended to deflect public attention from what you are actually trying to achieve and crowd the agenda with side issues. For example, you might really want to make sure you can pass a massive tax cut that would benefit rich donors, but, knowing that your voters are fed up with tax cuts, distract your target population by persuading them that the most important issue of the day is Muslim immigration and that you will give them what they want on that front. More realistically, given that the actual 2017 tax reform was experienced as defeat by the Trump wing of the Republican Party, if your real belief is that immigration is the major issue, but that focusing on Muslim rather than Latin American immigration would make it easier to sustain the alliance between the white-identity and Christian-identity wings of your coalition, you might emphasize the frame of Muslim immigration even if you knew that, in fact, it was a marginal factor in actual patterns and effects of immigration. Recall that the touchstone of propaganda is the intention of the propagandist.

More pervasively, the salience of an agenda item and its framing are the product of narratives about what the agenda item is, why it is important, how we should fit the flow of daily stories into it, and so forth. If these stories, in their individual detail and their overall effect, are manipulative, false, or materially misleading, we can describe even the broader shift in agenda and frame that they achieve as “propaganda.” Much of what we see in Chapters 4 to 6 is the “who” and “how” of network propaganda. We see a network of sites, some peripheral, but more importantly central, keeping up a steady flow (p.103) of false or misleading stories that together add up to a narrative of Muslim immigration threat (Chapter 4), the deep state attempting to overturn the 2016 election (Chapter 5), or that, whatever you think of Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton is a corrupt, vile criminal who as secretary of state sold out her country to terrorism-supporting Arab sheiks and Russian oligarchs (Chapters 4 and 6).

In Chapter 4, we describe how Breitbart, interacting with Donald Trump the candidate, forced immigration to become the main Republican election agenda, despite the desire of party leadership to stay away from that issue, by keeping up a steady flow of misleading stories that associated immigration with terrorism, the spread of incurable disease, criminality, and abuse of the welfare system. We then dig deeper into text analysis to explain how Islamophobia allowed Breitbart to serve as a bridge between the frank racism and anti-semitism of the white nationalists and the more muted racial anxiety of the more mainstream white- and Christian-identity pillars of the Republican coalition. We conclude by exploring how the network of right-wing sites interacted during the month before the election to weave together the Islamophobia frame and the “Clinton corruption” frame to make for a coherent narrative that left wavering Republicans no choice but to hold their noses and vote for Trump.

In Chapter 5, we shift to focus particularly on Fox News and the central role that it played during the first year of the Trump presidency in creating a narrative that deeply challenges the rule of law in America. Working from the broad frame of the “deep state,” through the specific conspiracy theories of Seth Rich and Uranium One, we document how the reassertion by Fox News of its leading role in the right-wing media ecosystem, which we showed in Chapter 2, was achieved by the network effectively turning itself into the president’s personal propaganda network. Throughout these stories, Fox led and interacted with the rest of the right-wing media ecosystem to combat civil servants, national security, and law enforcement agents, many of whom were lifelong Republicans, who put their commitment to their civic role ahead of partisan loyalty. Inside the propaganda loop, the choice of these Republican public servants, based on the possibility of objective truth—that there is a truth of the matter about what did or did not happen, and of what is or is not legal—is simply incomprehensible. Inside that loop, such choices necessarily imply corruption or betrayal. We document how, both online and on television, Fox led a persistent campaign at peak moments in the development of the Trump-Russia controversy, to impugn the intelligence (p.104) community and federal law enforcement agencies in order to protect the president.

In Chapter 6, we turn to examine the operation of mainstream media in a propaganda-rich environment. We begin with the election period and document how internal dynamics of news reporting led mainstream media to emphasize the email investigation over substantive discussion of politics. We dedicate the bulk of the chapter to describing how Breitbart exploited the hunger for scoops and the public performance of objectivity and critical remove of mainstream journalism to harness the credibility of the New York Times, and later other major publications, to propagate and accredit the “Clinton corruption” frame. We conclude the chapter with a review of how media outlets in the self-correcting media ecosystem outside the propaganda loop dealt with errors and failures by describing the failures and corrective mechanisms surrounding the recipients of President Trump’s Fake News Awards for 2017. Because one of our findings is that mainstream professional media still play a critical role in shaping the American media ecosystem, we think it particularly important to document and identify failure modes in the presence of asymmetric propaganda dynamics and to help professional journalists adjust their practices and self-conception to fit this highly asymmetric system with which they interact. As we underscore in our “solutions” Chapter 13, one of the core recommendations of our work is that professional journalism has to revisit how it performs its commitment to objectivity—shifting from neutrality among competing views to a more scientific sense of provisional assertions of “objective” truth based on fairly disclosed and framed best evidence as the fundamental touchstone of that commitment.


(1.) M.E. McCombs and D.L. Shaw, “The agenda-setting function of mass media,” Public Opinion Quarterly 36 no. 2 (1972): 176–187.

(2.) S. Iyengar, and D.R. Kinder, News That Matters: Television and American Opinion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

(3.) A particularly useful review is Dietram A. Scheufele and David Tewksbury, “Framing, Agenda Setting, and Priming: The Evolution of Three Media Effects Models,” Journal of Communication 57 (2007): 9–20.

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