WHENEVER DONALD TRUMP would boast about his social-media popularity in the 2016 presidential election, Samuel Woolley would shake his head knowingly. An expert on digital misinformation, he understood that although the numbers were fiction—counting bots not voters—they dangerously influenced public perception.
Manipulation and deception has always been a part of politics. But it is particularly abundant and influential on the web, since it is less expensive and easier to reach people, and artificial intelligence methods like “deepfakes” make it simpler to doctor video and audio.
As the 2020 election approaches, Mr Woolley, who teaches at the University of Texas at Austin, worries that “computational propaganda” will be even worse. Misinformation that splits one side’s support is just as effective as vaunting the other side. It was an effective tactic in the past. As he describes the 2016 campaign: “The goal was to divide and conquer as much as it was to dupe and convince.”
Mr Woolley believes society is unprepared and needs to fight back—a point he hammers home in “The Reality Game: How the Next Wave of Technology Will Break the Truth” (PublicAffairs, 2020). We publish an excerpt from the book below, and a short interview with Mr Woolley after that.