‘Network Propaganda’

This is what I’ll be reading for the next couple of weeks:


This book is open access, meaning you can download and/or read it free as a PDF here.

Network Propaganda

Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics

Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts

  • Overturns the conventional wisdom that new technologies and foreign agents swung the 2016 election in Trump’s favour and drove the current sense of a “post-truth” media landscape
  • Presents the most comprehensive study yet published on contemporary political communication in America, analysing millions of news stories, social media shares, and offline media coverage
  • Traces the history of political polarization and the radicalization of the American right wing
  • Challenges popular proposals for media reform and presents alternative ideas that tackle the longer term issues in American democracy
  • An open access title available under the terms of a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 International licence


This is an open access title available under the terms of a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 International licence. It is free to read at Oxford Scholarship Online and offered as a free PDF download from OUP and selected open access locations.

Is social media destroying democracy? Are Russian propaganda or “Fake news” entrepreneurs on Facebook undermining our sense of a shared reality? A conventional wisdom has emerged since the election of Donald Trump in 2016 that new technologies and their manipulation by foreign actors played a decisive role in his victory and are responsible for the sense of a “post-truth” moment in which disinformation and propaganda thrives.

Network Propaganda challenges that received wisdom through the most comprehensive study yet published on media coverage of American presidential politics from the start of the election cycle in April 2015 to the one year anniversary of the Trump presidency. Analyzing millions of news stories together with Twitter and Facebook shares, broadcast television and YouTube, the book provides a comprehensive overview of the architecture of contemporary American political communications. Through data analysis and detailed qualitative case studies of coverage of immigration, Clinton scandals, and the Trump Russia investigation, the book finds that the right-wing media ecosystem operates fundamentally differently than the rest of the media environment.

The authors argue that longstanding institutional, political, and cultural patterns in American politics interacted with technological change since the 1970s to create a propaganda feedback loop in American conservative media. This dynamic has marginalized center-right media and politicians, radicalized the right wing ecosystem, and rendered it susceptible to propaganda efforts, foreign and domestic. For readers outside the United States, the book offers a new perspective and methods for diagnosing the sources of, and potential solutions for, the perceived global crisis of democratic politics.

Table of Contents

Part I Mapping Disorder

1. Epistemic Crisis
2. The Architecture of our Discontent
3. The Propaganda Feedback Loop

Part II Dynamics of Network Propaganda

4. Immigration and Islamophobia: Breitbart and the Trump Party
5. The Fox Diet
6. Mainstream Media Failure Modes and Self-Healing in a Propaganda-Rich Environment

Part III The Usual Suspects

7. The Propaganda Pipeline: Hacking the core from the periphery
8. Are the Russians Coming?
9. Mammon’s Algorithm: Marketing, Manipulation, and Clickbait on Facebook

Part IV Can Democracy Survive the Internet?

10. Polarization in American Politics
11. The Origins of Asymmetry
12. Can the Internet Survive Democracy?
13. What can Men do against such Reckless Hate?
14. Conclusion


New book takes a closer look at media and American politics


Conversations surrounding the 2016 U.S. presidential election often involve references to “fake news,” Russian interference, data breaches, and the impact of various social media platforms on the divisive outcome. A new book from researchers at the Berkman Klein Center (BKC) that has its origins in a three-year study of the media ecosystem surrounding the election disrupts this narrative.

“Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics,” by Yochai Benkler, the Berkman Professor for Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard Law School and faculty co-director of BKC; Robert Faris, the research director at the center; and Hal Roberts, a fellow there, provides a comprehensive study of the media ecosystem surrounding the race.

“The idea of this book was to wrestle — really starting just after the election, even though the work started far before that — with what just happened? What the heck just happened in our country, to our media system, to our democracy?” Roberts said at a book talk on Oct. 4. The talk was moderated by Martha Minow, 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard.

A major contribution of the book is what the researchers call an “asymmetric polarization” model that stems from their research on partisan media ecosystems. The model, created with data from the media sources most cited during and after the election period, shows that left-wing media outlets are more closely aligned with centrist media outlets, and right-wing media sources are much more skewed and “are operating in their own media world,” Roberts said. The researchers found that this pattern was evident during the election and was even more pronounced during the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency.

Asymmetric polarization was consistent across different platforms; it was found in analyses based on cross-media linking and in media sharing patterns on Twitter and Facebook.

“There are clearly two sides, and those two sides are not the same. The right is more insular; it’s more extreme; it’s more partisan,” Faris said of the findings. “That’s not a subjective opinion; that’s an empirical observation. And much of what we try to do in this book is to document that and understand what it means and how it’s reflected in different behavior.”

The three-year study, which ran from April 2015, the start of the election cycle, until November 2017, captured the first year of the Trump presidency. The research draws on 4 million online media articles sourced from Media Cloud, a joint project between BKC and the MIT Media Lab, but also includes data from offline media coverage, and from social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, among others. The researchers also draw on previous work on media consumption trends and trust in institutions to contextualize their findings.

In addition to studying current media ecosystems, “Network Propaganda” also explores the history of political communications in the U.S. and the rise of different trends, such as radicalization, and the creation of a market for outrage.

“We go through a good bit of the media history and describe how changes in technology, changes in law and regulation, and changes in political culture all worked to reinforce each other in a long-term feedback effect to change the fundamental economics of the outrage industry,” Benkler said. The trio trace that market from its genesis in the 1960s to the rise of Rush Limbaugh in the early 1990s and the creation of Fox News.

“Network Propaganda” examines media coverage surrounding major events, and topics of media coverage during the election time span, including disinformation and how it was spread and consumed. The book also examines spikes in media coverage, like the one at the start of Robert Mueller’s investigation into foreign interference in the 2016 election. Case studies illustrate the researchers’ findings throughout the book, offering in-depth analysis of how trends in partisan media evolved to their present state, and how media outlets are grappling with concerns of trust.

“The thing that most surprised us, and to us seems to be most contrary to the prevailing narrative of the moment, is that it’s professional mainstream media — both in its professional centrist model, and in its highly commercially successful right-wing model — [that] is the scaffolding on which everything else is built,” Benkler said.

“Network Propaganda” is an open-access title and available to read for free online.

(Header image: This model shows one instance of asymmetric polarization drawn from the 100 most-cited media sources. The blue dots represent left-leaning media outlets, green show centrist outlets, and red are right-leaning.)


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