Since the invention of the printing press, media has been an important factor for driving political participation. But there is one key difference with networked incitement, while media can mobilize social movements to action, disinformation incites large groups towards political violence. 

In her research into the outcomes of January 6th, Joan Donovan coined the term “networked incitement” to describe how influential figures organize large-scale political violence via social media. Networked incitement involves operatives coordinating political factions across multiple communication platforms to mobilize groups during . No sitting president before Trump had exploited the capacity of social media to directly reach citizens to command specific actions in real-time. Critically, what kept insurrectionists from taking up arms was largely left to chance on Jan 6th. The militia was simply waiting for Trump to declare the insurrection act. The US was one tweet away from civil war.

What do we do now?

In the 2022 election, Dr. Donovan noted a troubling trend in new voter vigilante groups, who were organizing on Telegram, a chat app that has unfortunately earned its nickname “terrorgram” because extremists, white supremacists, and militia groups use the app to coordinate. In the lead up to the national election this year, we are poised to see a rise in voter vigilante groups showing up armed, with cameras and guns, to broadcast and ‘defend’ ballot boxes, especially as some political candidates are calling for constituents to guard election polling locations and be ready for battle.

Over the last decade, intimidation tactics- like swatting and doxing- were popularized online as a way for malicious actors to harass, defame, and threaten women and journalists. Now, these tactics are much more common, especially when used to intimidate election officials. Daily, public figures online identify their opponents on social media, but it is their audiences who exact violence, harassment, and intimidation on their behalf. No one is immune from this kind of terror either- schools, hospitals, election sites, political offices, state capitols,  civil society organizations, and even the White House are reporting anonymous bomb threats in disturbing numbers. Intimidation is the evil twin of disinformation.

Hoaxes and false news are propagated by a mixed group of actors – political operatives, brands, social movements, and unaffiliated trolls – who have developed and refined new techniques to influence public opinion and profit from it. These mixed groups are “political factions” because they often coalesce around specific wedge issues and then disappear, only to re-establish themselves as new politicized issues take precedence in mainstream media. 

As an example, a faction of avowed white supremacists, political organizers, and news organizations were able to demonize critical race theory in 2021, leading to broad public concern about early childhood education. This campaign was not just about raising public debate, but also led to numerous physical skirmishes in town hall meetings, which included broadcasting the names and office locations of school board members to cause fear and pressure resignation. This same political faction has reemerged with a new campaign to villainize diversity, equity, and inclusion policies, which will undoubtedly lead to hyper-polarized political debates about race and racism. This will likely be a crucial wedge issue in the 2024 campaign, alongside immigration and the economy. Voter intimidation leads to a decline in civic engagement by everyday folks and causes highly competent and qualified people to leave their public sector jobs out of fear for their safety.

Political factions employ media manipulation techniques such as circumventing traditional gatekeeping institutions and- if that doesn’t work, impersonating them- while also leveraging algorithmic filtering and recommendation systems to their advantage. 

Because the internet is not a neutral, but a crucial global technology, failure to create regulatory processes and enforce corporate policy about media manipulation on social media threatens the civil liberties of all. Simply put, the product is the policy, until such time that governement requires technology companies to enforce their own terms of service.

We are no closer to political regulation that will defend society from the abuses of disinformers. And in the absence of policy, technology sets the norms, while the power elite sets the media agenda. 

It’s crucial for civil society and truth-telling institutions experiment with different strategies to diminish the impact of disinformation, which is often the precursor to networked incitement. To that end, CISI is currently building a new research lab to detect and document networked incitement. By gathering data and providing real-time media advisories on disruptions to the electoral process, we will contribute to improving the civic integrity of the US election.