– Cailin O'Connor, James Owen Weatherall
Misinformation has become such a bugbear on the modern internet. Following the inability-cum-refusal of large companies to enact the same level of content moderation the small forums of yesteryear did as a matter of course, spam began to pretend to political power. There have been numerous calls for large platforms to start taking misinformation seriously; calls which the large platforms have industriously ignored. It was—and remains—my hypothesis that capitalist constraint is what stayed their hand; that they couldn’t effectively deal with the problem without also taking a hit on their mostly-invented growth metrics. However, suppose I gave them the benefit of the doubt, even if undeserved. What would the field have to say in order to account for the new scales to which their neglect allowed the problem to grow?
Not much different, it turns out. I sought out this motivated read to see if there could be any new information in a field whose primary texts are still upheld from the days of the Cold War, but anyone who has already spent any amount of time studying propaganda systems will very likely find this book wanting. The book itself might be recent, but the same can’t be said of what is written on its pages. The most of what it has to say are things I had already found in other sources at other times, with an almost particular focus on Oreskes and Conway’s The Merchants of Doubt. Neither O’Connor or Weatherall even have specialties in propaganda or malinformation, but instead are professors of mathematics and statistics. Their claim is not to offer any new or prescient insights into the matter, but to instead come equipped with computer-simulated statistical models which simulate the effect of propaganda infecting and altering a content-agnostic network of social relations. Their mathematical simulations and other such prognostications, almost with the simplicity of an assignment constructed by a university freshman, conformed to the general consensus of what propaganda studies would’ve suggested it would. Applying basic math to basic concepts, to achieve basic results, for basic purposes.
... but in many ways, that’s my issue with it. In trying to use a few simple tricks to reach the same conclusions as everyone else, it feels as if O’Connor and Weatherall have surprisingly little to say on the subject which they supposedly dedicated an entire book. If I already thought the working consensus of propaganda studies was just fine—a working consensus that is very effective at identifying propaganda, yet wildly terrible at doing anything to stop it from spreading—then why would I have sought out this book to read? That is a question which the authors can’t seem to answer. Their operative-network models come so tantalizingly close to offering a new look at how misinformation spreads throughout social groups, that it becomes all the more frustrating when their innovations turn out not-so-innovative after all. It’s operating on such a beginner’s understanding of the concepts and histories in communication studies that I could only recommend it as a beginner’s text to other people, and even then, not a terribly good one.