From Renee DiResta, writing in The Atlantic…
One Sunday morning in July of last year, a message from an anonymous account appeared on “Bernie or Vest,” a Discord chat server for fans of Senator Bernie Sanders. It contained an image of Shahid Buttar, the San Francisco activist challenging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the 2020 congressional runoff, and offered explicit instructions for how to elevate the hashtag #PelosiMustGo to the nationwide Trending list on Twitter. “Shahid Says…,” read the large print, “Draft some tweets with #PelosiMustGo—don’t forget to capitalize #EachWord. Don’t use more than two hashtags—otherwise you’ll be marked as spam.” The call to action urged people to start posting at noon Pacific time, attach their favorite graphics, and like and retweet other Buttar supporters’ contributions.
I was living in San Francisco then and had been following Buttar’s efforts to get attention, as traditional outlets largely ignored the democratic socialist’s underdog campaign. The day before, incensed at Pelosi’s refusal to debate him, he had sparred with an unoccupied chair outdoors on a public street. But on Twitter that Sunday morning, the challenger had a more promising strategy: If the ploy worked, his slogan would show up on millions of screens across the entire country without costing him a dime. Team Buttar’s message was sent at 10:30 a.m. I wondered whether the online armies would turn out for him. “Did you see this?” I asked a colleague at the Stanford Internet Observatory over Slack, dropping the anonymous call to action into the channel. Then I made a pot of coffee and waited to see whether Buttar’s supporters could pull it off.
Through my work at the Internet Observatory, I’d witnessed many attempts to push messages by gaming the algorithms that Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms use to identify popular content and surface it to users. Confronted with campaigns to make certain ideas seem more widespread than they really are, many researchers and media commentators have taken to using labels such as “misinformation” and “disinformation.” But those terms have fallen victim to scope creep. They imply that a narrative or claim has deviated from a stable or canonical truth; whether Pelosi should go is simply a matter of opinion.
In fact, we have a very old word for persuasive communication with an agenda: propaganda. That term, however, comes with historical baggage. It presumes that governments, authority figures, institutions, and mass media are forcing ideas on regular people from the top down. But more and more, the opposite is happening. Far from being merely a target, the public has become an active participant in creating and selectively amplifying narratives that shape realities. Perhaps the best word for this emergent bottom-up dynamic is one that doesn’t exist quite yet: ampliganda, the shaping of perception through amplification. It can originate from an online nobody or an onscreen celebrity. No single person or organization bears responsibility for its transmission. And it is having a profound effect on democracy and society.
Buttar’s #PelosiMustGo was both typical and unusual. Hashtag campaigns occur all the time, but I happened to catch this one right at the start. First, it was a blip in a corner of the internet, but the hashtag soon lit up the modern propaganda system. This amplification chain is incredibly powerful; it surfaces civil-rights violations, protest movements, and breaking events, whether traditional media choose to cover those events or not. But it’s also how quack medical claims and a daily parade of conspiracy theories are made to trend—#Ivermectin, #SaveTheChildren, #StopTheSteal.
Buttar had two key prerequisites for creating a viral moment: an Extremely Online supporter base experienced in Twitter conflict, and a hashtag slogan expressing righteous indignation. At 11:57 a.m., a Twitter user who went by @Pondipper and had a modest 1,700 followers, jumped the gun: #PelosiMustGo. Tweet No. 1. Buttar himself posted promptly at noon: “Why do you think #PelosiMustGo?” he asked his 113,000 followers. The tweet inspired several hundred replies and retweets, some encouraging him, others questioning him, others mocking him. But anyone who engaged with Buttar’s post—whether to applaud it or scorn it—was telling Twitter algorithms to elevate it. My coffee cooled as the hashtag moved up Twitter’s rankings and began elbowing aside trends about AR-15s, golf, Donald Trump’s pardons, and then–Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
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