Analyzing online content and how people interact with that content is essential to understanding the process of online radicalization. Bad actors worldwide use social media to post content to arouse emotions and create chaos, distrust, and polarization. With algorithms instantly and repeatedly feeding similar content, it is easy to go down a rabbit hole of authoritarian creation, resulting in undue influence. Dr. Stuart Shulman is the founding Editor of the Journal of Information Technology & Politics. He holds a Ph.D. in American Politics (Oregon 1999) and is currently the founder (2009) and CEO of Texifter, a software business serving academic, commercial, and government clients. DiscoverText is a web-based text analytics platform for improving human and machine learning. His past work includes extensive teaching and leadership roles, building externally funded teams for collaborative interdisciplinary research. His projects involve qualitative, quantitative, survey, and social media data and human annotation at scale, information retrieval, and machine-learning methods.   

I had the pleasure of meeting Stuart while working on my doctorate. At the time, I wanted to know whether there was a scientifically valid quantitative way of validating my BITE model using online data. Thankfully, one of my professors at Fielding Graduate University introduced me to Dr. Shulman. 

When we first met, Stuart was analyzing data on Twitter, now X, using technology developed for federal agencies sorting public comments about proposed regulations. Academics have completed hundreds of studies using the same platform to examine Twitter data. While working on these projects, Stuart started noticing stories that he found interesting. They were not necessarily true stories, but they were told in ways that were compelling and even addictive and invited others to participate. Even though these stories were offensive, dangerous, subversive, and upsetting, he couldn’t look away, which surprised him. He saw how easy it was to be drawn in and be harmfully influenced by online content that is rapidly fed to us online.  

Stuart was raised in Canada with his Canadian mother and American father. Even though he lived in Canada throughout his childhood, his friends considered him an American immigrant. He went to college in America, where he got his PhD in politics.  Because of his experience of having both nationalities, he was interested in what Canadians thought of the United States and what Americans thought of Canada. He found that, for the most part, Americans ignored Canada, even when it came to politics. Canadian politics were never discussed in his political science classes and was rarely covered in the U.S. news. So, when he noticed a lot of posts about the 2019 Canadian election that were from purported Americans, he looked a little deeper. 

Stuart did find it interesting that suddenly Twitter users with flag-bearing identites claimed to be American but were commenting on the Canadian election. He thought that was unusual, so he looked deeper into who was posting #trudeaumust and, more generally, at the four major candidates. He discovered lots of open QAnons as well as links to Russian-backed propaganda websites and uniformly pro-Russia actors. These were the people, troll farms, and bots who planted seeds of distrust and discord, started malicious stories, and spread them with the intention of influencing our elections. 

While researching my book The Cult of Trump, I learned about William Lind, an American military strategist who partnered with Paul Weyrich of the Christian Right. Fourth-generation Warfare tactics aim to make people distrust experts, science, and institutions like democracy. This creates discomfort and uncertainty within the masses, making them more vulnerable to something that would explain the world and give them certainty. With the loyalty of the masses, they can more easily dismiss the separation of church and state and push a theocracy, undermining democracy. Along with those, they want to try to bring back old views of male domination, decrease access to women’s health, abolish gay rights, and discriminate against all who don’t share their objectives.  

A year before the January 6, 2021, insurrection, there was a dramatic uptick in online talk about violence and insurrectionism in the Biden Twitter data. Shulman had documented enough evidence of “digital soldiers” that he was invited to brief the US and UK intelligence community on February 12, 2020. Stuart also prepared over 100 Vimeo educational videos about plans for violence, trying to educate people to be careful.  

In December 2019, after the Canadian 2019 election, Stuart began collecting posts regarding Biden before he was the nominee. Biden wasn’t doing particularly well then, but he noticed millions of tweets about Biden, most of them negative. When Stuart looked closer at who was posting the most viral tweets, he discovered that most of them were from a man named Charlie Kirk. Charlie Kirk is one of the leaders of Turning Point USA. This conservative non-profit focuses on high school and college students who want to promote “the principles of freedom, free markets, and limited government.” Stuart decided to investigate why Charlie Kirk had the most viral tweets of anybody. Again, he found the same digital markings of QAnon.  

Stuart learned about Alternate Reality Games through all this research into viral posts on Twitter. Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) are online narratives where participants leave “breadcrumbs” or clues to encourage followers to add thoughts and stories, creating more intrigue and suspense. The government is very limited in what they can do about this, so the stories easily keep circulating.  

Stuart’s work involves teaching people new technology that helps them create better solutions, but a human must be involved in the process. He does not give people a magic button, which he sometimes feels people want. He believes a threat to American politics is the uncritical assumption that there is a magic button, for example, AI, to handle whatever threats arise. This is where my framework of the influence continuum comes in, where decisions are made freely with critical thinking ethics and based on the healthy side. This is also one of the reasons why I do what I do. I aim to educate the public about the undue influence that can affect anyone. I have hope and optimism about the future because of this work and the vital work of others, such as Dr. Stuart Shulman.   

Resources

DiscoverText

On Twitter/ X @stuartwshulman

Dr. Shulman’s Researchgate profile