Campaign apps like Trump’s to fuel disinformation and partisan tensions

As if America needed any more propaganda, partisanship and disinformation floating through the digital sphere and political system, along comes another unchecked and invasive addition to the current crop of disinformation super-spreaders.

While Trump continues to constantly lampoon the “fake news” media – tweeting about it over 800 times since 2016 – and with Americans believing over 60% of the news they see on social media is inaccurate, the current landscape of information consumption is in bad place.

For years, the President has played on the idea that the news and the world are against him, and only he speaks the real truth. Indeed, a 2018 survey found that his supporters trust him over their own friends and family for information, and just 11% trust the media.

Who better, then, to curate their newsfeeds, recommend them videos and send them push notifications on the latest “news” than Trump himself? That’s exactly what the new Trump campaign app is doing, and the app and its model could set a lasting precedent and cause worrying consequences for future political campaigns in the US.

The ‘Death Star of Fake News’ App

Described by the Daily Beast as “The Death Star of Fake News” and by MIT researchers as a “voter surveillance tool of extraordinary power”, the app combines extreme data collection with an endless flow of unbridled propaganda to form a brainwashing behemoth.

Constant evangelical praise for the “incredible job” Trump is doing for the country, with absolutely no dissenting voice, creates a sort of sealed bunker for Trump supporters to feel safe away from the vicious, fake mainstream media, or what the President has begun to call “lamestream media”.

Jesse Damiani of Forbes explains it well, in that the app is presented as unbiased – as all good propaganda machines will try to seem – but it’s essentially a “scheme designed to meet all their users’ news and entertainment needs, 24/7 – like a Trump rally that’s never off.”

Indeed, the MIT report demonstrated that the information the Trump app pumps out is often “highly questionable or entirely disproven”, with no sources for statements apart from government press releases and tweets from Trump and his campaign.

It gives the campaign ultimate control over what the users see, and discretion to weave as divisive a message as possible, with Brad Parscale, the campaign manager saying, it “allows every person who wants to support President Trump to directly download the app, get information, communicate with us without the need of a third party company that might or might not be biased against us.”

Fake News Filter Bubble

Live streams and regular shows include contributions from Donald Trump Jr, who hosts his ‘Triggered’ podcast, and Lara Trump, who hosts ‘The Right View’ airing every single night at 8pm and apparently receives over a million unique viewers every show.

Indeed, I wrote previously about how the app had a heavily gamified element, earning users points the more content they share, which they can then redeem for prizes such as a photo with the President or Trump merchandise. This addictive social media style reward system helps to keep users invested and engrossed in the product, endlessly consuming and sharing whatever the campaign wants.

You won’t see references to the fact that the US is leading the way in Covid-19 deaths, that the economy is in tatters, that millions are unemployed and that racial tensions are being helped in no way by Trump like you would in most other media coverage. All of these news bulletins are spun or ignored to focus on the Democrats and Biden, with headlines like “Top 8 Moments from Joe Biden’s Embarrassingly Disastrous, Epically Boring Livestream.”

Text updates from the Trump campaign including extreme headlines.

The ultimate filter bubble looks to be worryingly effective, and essentially a campaign-run social media channel. Indeed, as Trump continues to complain about Twitter censoring his content and flirts with leaving the platform, it has been suggested his campaign should go all-in on the app and use it as Trump’s main form of communication. Over 385,000 people downloaded the app last month, highlighting the reach it has

Data Permissions

Ironically, while the base of supporters Trump holds seem to be suspicious of any overreaching from those in power, they are more than happy to be intruded on by Trump.

The huge range of permissions the Trump app requires from its users include access to your phone identity, bluetooth pairing, internet data, USB storage, your calendar, and even the ability to read, write and delete data from SD cards on the device. All of these details and intricacies allow the campaign to build comprehensive profiles on voters and therefore mean targeting and persuasion become far easier.

Importantly, the US does not fall under Europe’s recent GDPR regulations, and as the MIT Review notes, “a global perspective is now critical to understanding the implications of data-fueled political manipulation and preparing for the next wave of disinformation.”

Back in 2012, some became concerned over Obama’s use of data in precise online targeting, taking the idea of persuasion into “a private, invisible realm” away from the eyes of opponents or official watchdogs. This also led to the concern that we are descending into an environment in which the ability to manipulate voters on digital platforms through emotion and irrational biases “reshapes the public sphere.”

Now, in 2020, this kind of complete control of data and manipulative misinformation sent incessantly and directly to people’s phones, sets a new dangerous precedent of propaganda. For years we have rightly been concerned about the spread of disinformation on social media, but now we have a new platform to worry about: and one even more insidious and alarming.