Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

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October 4, 2022

UT researchers find encrypted messaging apps can benefit authoritarian propaganda

Rin Chiang

A study published in July found that authoritarian governments benefit from the secrecy provided by certain messaging applications’ encryption and use it to spread propaganda.

Conducted by the Center for Media Engagement, the research discovered that while activists also use encrypted messaging applications, their fear of surveillance means propagandists have the advantage in most cases.

“What we’re concerned about is it’s basically undemocratic,” said Inga Trauthig, head of research in the Center for Media Engagement’s Propaganda Research Lab. “People receive propaganda and think it’s unfiltered, authentic information and communication. You get a biased view about policy actions.”

Government professor Kurt Weyland said nondemocratic regimes often use propaganda as the first layer of control.

“A dictator, an authoritarian, ultimately rests on coercion and force,” Weyland said. “If you can maintain your power without having to use force, all the better. That’s the reason why you use force only … when really push comes to shove.”

Trauthig said state propagandists tailor content to and utilize the features available on encrypted messaging apps to spread propaganda. Trauthig referenced the Bharatiya Janata Party in India, which uses WhatsApp’s forwarding feature to spread its messages.

“(The BJP) have multiple people working to produce propaganda specifically for WhatsApp,” Trauthig said. “For instance, they share (a) video, and then they share short text with the video, and actually it is different than what is shown in the video, but it gets forwarded very quickly, and people just read the short text. That can be propaganda messaging.”

Trauthig said the first step toward a solution is understanding that authoritarian governments use messaging apps to spread propaganda. Then, people must think critically about the content they view on social media. Platforms also need to recognize their global importance. 

However, Weyland said people might overestimate the effects of new innovations. He said that because everyone capitalizes on new technologies eventually, the balance of power remains unaffected.

“Propaganda doesn’t depend on social media,” Weyland said. “This is just one more round in 2000 years of competition between governments and people.”

While placing too much importance on one medium can be harmful, Trauthig said in an email that she is against criticizing online spaces and pointed to recent advancements in technology, heavy social media usage globally and its impact on people’s lives.

“The encrypted messaging apps and the impact that they can have on public opinion and democracy has long been hidden behind closed doors,” Trauthig said. ”We are contributing to research to bring that out a bit more in the open.”

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