‘Lie Machines’: How Governments Are Using Tech to Spread Misinformation About Covid-19
Philip N. Howard, director of the Oxford Internet Institute, explains how bots, trolls, and junk news are harnessed by political actors to sow deception
Lie machines are on the rise — they’ve been built to undermine our faith in society’s key institutions and to encourage citizens to question authority. Lie machines have helped swing elections and sow discontent. And now they’ve been tuned to abet authoritarianism during the coronavirus crisis.
“It’s about doubting institutions that have performed pretty well for a long time, like national health care systems and professional news outlets,” says Philip N. Howard, the director of the Oxford Internet Institute. Howard is the author of the new book, Lie Machines: How to Save Democracy from Troll Armies, Deceitful Robots, Junk News Operations, and Political Operatives, which has taken on an urgent new relevance as states and political actors try to influence the perception of their response to the pandemic.
Howard defines the lie machine as “the social and technical mechanisms of putting an untrue claim into service of ideology,” composed of three parts: producers of lies, such as political candidates; distributors, such as social media platforms like Instagram; and marketers, such as political consultants. In the age of Covid-19, the lie machine is working to undermine trust in institutions like the World Health Organization, pushing a narrative that scientists and experts should not be trusted. And this, Howard argues, has worrying implications for global health.
OneZero spoke with Howard, who has written several books examining the role of technology in politics, such as Pax Technica: How the Internet of Things May Set Us Free or Lock Us Up, to discuss how the far-right uses the lie machine and political lies in the age of the coronavirus, among other topics.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
OneZero: In your new book, you argue that tech platforms are not passive, but actors in the political process. Can you explain this role of technology in politics?