The Collaborative Nature of Modern Subversive Campaigns

By Sergei A. Samoilenko

In January 2019, fake editions of The Washington Postwere handed out by members of culture jamming activist group the Yes Men at several Washington D.C. locations. The group’s co-founder Jacques Servin told the real Post that the fake paper was meant to be a newspaper from the future providing ideas for how to impeach President Trump that would serve as a roadmap for other subversive actors.

Character assassination is fundamentally strategic. Strategic actors can only succeed if they manage to discredit the target in the eyes of various audiences that make up public opinion. To accomplish this goal, attackers seek ways to instigate scandals and other mediated events that spotlight their allegations and urge various publics to share opinion about the moral profile of the target. Importantly, the target’s reputation is only damaged if issues promoted by the attacker resonate within public opinion.

In recent years, more CA campaigns are jointly produced by strategic attackers and various thought communities contributing to their efforts. This collaborative approach is best represented in subversive political campaignsthat attempt to weaken or destroy an ideological order. Activist or social movements strive to engage invested stakeholders (the media, bloggers, competitors, etc.) or motivated adversaries interested in the downfall of one’s reputation.

The development of participative internet culture and social networking sites provided subversive actors with good reasons to invest in building sustained relations with the above interest groups. Social media also expanded opportunities for subversive campaigners to engage with various networked communities. Finally, the internet media offered them new tools for launching collaborative campaigns. Subversive internet campaigns can trigger highly mediated events linked to a character-based issue or a highly contested social conflict (e.g., the #MeToo movement). The ultimate campaign’s goal is to cause public outrage that would eventually produce a long-term reputational crisis for the target of attack.

The new collaborative trajectory of strategic CA campaigns is reflected in contemporary research on participatory propaganda. Strategic attackers thus embrace more and more the logic of traditional public relations campaigns seeking long-term relationships with their publics instead of focusing on short-term disruptive strategies. That requires the producers of CA campaigns to invest more time to learn current beliefs, attitudes, and emotions of all publics, especially those facilitating their ability to achieve goals. This strategic complexity is definitely a new venue for CA research.

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