Government Propaganda Online? It’s Only a Matter of Time

Online advertising today is used to drive purchases, but it’s only a matter of time before governments use it to shape public opinion and garner support – and not just among their own citizens.

Let’s say you are the U.S. State Department and your goal was to change opinion in Iran.  In the old days you would try to drop leaflets, pipe in short-wave radio, or spread some rumor.  You might also try calling lots of people with a “poll” with the aim of getting them to think another way.

But today, the cheapest, quickest, and most effective vehicle for mass outreach is Internet advertising. For a little more than $2 million, the U.S. government can show 10 online ads to each of Iran’s 35 million online citizens everyday for 30 days.  A more targeted campaign would cost less than the yearly cost of one soldier in Afghanistan.

Instead of having messages and ads shown to everyone like traditional advertising, governments can show online ads to just their target audience. Not only can Internet ads be shown to people browsing particular sites (like MySpace, Facebook,, and most international websites), it can also be further segmented by demographics, geography, purchasing behavior, interests, and more.  And while man of these sites are blocked in targeted countries, many popular overseas message boards are happy to take advertisements that might cost less than $100.

Buying online ads for something that does not appear to be political would be simple. And like Iran, targeting ads to people in most non-Western countries is cheap.

As our policy-makers become more familiar with new technology, governments will increasingly try to influence each other’s citizens through online persuasion (especially in cheap markets). 

This could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on implementation … but it is likely going to happen as governments realize what Scott Brown realized in Massachusetts — that online ads can move poll numbers.

3 thoughts on “Government Propaganda Online? It’s Only a Matter of Time

  1. Mahmud M.

    I’m not sure this would work but this would certainly be better than the current propoganda tha tthe U.S. Government performs in. Their TV stations to middle east audiences are a real waste of time, energy, and focus.

  2. steve e

    The government is running AdWords ads for financial reform against terms like “Goldman Sachs SEC”. See, for example:
    On a related note, Glenn Greenwald points out that in a 2008 paper, Obama adviser Cass Sunstein discusses the prospect of the government “cognitively infiltrating” (his words, not mine) chat rooms, online message boards, and the like.
    To quote Greenwald: Sunstein advocates that the Government’s stealth infiltration should be accomplished by sending covert agents into “chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups.” He also proposes that the Government make secret payments to so-called “independent” credible voices to bolster the Government’s messaging (on the ground that those who don’t believe government sources will be more inclined to listen to those who appear independent while secretly acting on behalf of the Government). This program would target those advocating false “conspiracy theories,” which they define to mean: “an attempt to explain an event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who have also managed to conceal their role.” Sunstein’s 2008 paper was flagged by this blogger, and then amplified in an excellent report by Raw Story’s Daniel Tencer.
    Sunstein’s paper is accessible at:

  3. Pat

    Government propaganda is worthy of suspicion as it has always been, but governments can accomplish only so much.
    The greater worry is foreign propaganda by internet filtering that permits certain communications but denies/oppresses others.
    For an America reliant upon freedom of speech to reach consensus, nothing could be worse than being dictated to by foreign interests.
    Wars don’t always need guns to be successful; stifling or directing communication is as effective as ever.


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