Of commissars, cults and conspiratorial communities: The role of countercultural spaces in “democracy hacking” campaigns
The goal of this article is to place the cultivation of virtual conspiratorial communities by prosecutors of influence operations within a theoretical structure of information warfare as “democracy hacking.” We join emerging scholarship in describing democracies as information systems wherein maintaining high standards for the quality, origination, credibility and perceived freedom of information in discourse is necessary for ensuring the moderating function of the whole. While the cyber attacks, data leaks and bot manipulation of social media that are the common focus of much analysis constitute the most visible efforts to spoof the function of mechanisms that ensure these standards, the success of each nevertheless depends on a strong foundation from which disruptive narratives can gain credibility in the public eye. Closed, conspiratorial communities are an essential part of this foundation. Such spaces are commonly characterized by cult-like discursive practices that discourage critical thought, “meme-ify” controversial content and encourage hostile rebuttal of external criticism. At the same time, platform and cross-platform opportunities for information dissemination without violation of the insular boundaries of such spaces provide unique possibilities for the spread of community narratives. Taken together, these dynamics amount to a dramatically improved ability to combat the moderating features of democratic systems. The study examines these dynamics with specific reference to the case of r/The_Donald and finds strong validity for the suggested framework.
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