The Cold War Daily

Notes on the new great power struggle.

Social media distorts underlying values needed for liberal democracy

There is quite a lot of effort put into taming social media for democracy, or at least understanding the disinformation networks flourishing on it. But the reality is, social media by its very nature is problematic for liberal democracy. Why? Liberal democracy is founded on Enlightenment principles, and its success, as author Neil Postman has written is historically linked to the printed word: “In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, print put forward a definition of intelligence that gave priority to the objective, rational use of the mind and at the same time encouraged forms of public discourse with serious, logically ordered content. It is no accident that the Age of Reason was coexistent with the growth of a print culture, first in Europe and then in America.”

A London coffee house in 17th Century (Wikicommons)

That doesn’t mean reason always prevailed in democracies, or all politics were reasonable in the past three centuries. But in democracies the politics had to at least make some sense on paper. That quality contrasted with the mass-media driven politics of 20th Century fascism.

Compare print-based logically ordered democratic content with the viral nature (read: emotional and sensational) of social media communication today in which algorithms reward high-engagement, which in turn
amplifies content likely to reinforce tribal identities.

As recent events underscore, it is the image and emotion that propels posts to wider popularity and those posts can carry only half-formed ideas. The claim that a pizza parlor in Washington masked a pedophile ring or that Hillary Clinton was hiding a “sickness” bypass the mind and head straight to the gut. This effect of imagery was something known to Comintern propagandists in the 1930s.

Meme: not about thinking but feeling

This effect provides another lever for interference and influence.

The risk for democracies is not just the uses of the format of social media but the longer-term effect the technology is having on lasting perceptions of political society. Since the time of the Enlightenment, a broad narrative of Western democracy has included skepticism (or critical thinking), reason, natural rights and a divine principle (basically a vague sense that the universe has a benign Creator). With these broad ideas, a sense of moral progress quietly kept the democratic public unified.

Social media instead inverts these experiences.

Where once healthy skepticism sat atop a vague belief in the Natural Rights of humanity and a Divine Order of the universe, now, there is a brazen cynicism for the very existence of power. What unifies swaths of the public isn’t a quiet faith in a greater sense of moral enlightenment, however imperfect. Instead, social media users lunge forward in a communitarian dynamo of outrage. Their emotions and sense of identity are fused into a swarm of anger, which can easily be manipulated because it already in motion, and so it seeks only direction.

In this way, the communication basis of liberal democracy has shifted. Politicians certainly can’t lead and appeal to the shared faith of the public to trust them, as has traditionally occurred in dark times.

Social media in its current form is an attack-only format, something President Trump knows all too well. Reason-centred reflection has given way to intoxicating outrage, fusing together communities. The skepticism to stand back from power and observe and question is reduced to a daily outrage, a sort of two-minute, on demand that can be fired up. That hate can easily be redirected not towards to the statements of politicians but the political institutions themselves.

The issue of algorithms is important here because these platforms are, to date, built on high-engagement. As virtual reality inventor Jaron Lanier says: “Often times when people think they’re being productive and improving society on social media, actually they’re not because the part of the social media machine that’s operating behind the scenes, which are the algorithms that are attempting to engage people more and more and influence them on behalf of advertisers and all of this, are turning whatever energy you put into the system into fuel to drive the system.”

“The enthusiasms that drove the Arab Spring turned out to be even more efficient for introducing the people that turned into ISIS to each other, in recruiting for them,” he said.

Lanier has said social media companies could seek another revenue model, rather than high engagement from the bulk of humanity.

Another possible compromise between democracy and tech companies would be for those companies to cordon off political discussion into a narrower space on the platforms, allowing it to be more easily monitored for manipulation.

Another answer still is to deem social media – with its constant engagement and attack-only mode – as an inappropriate/destructive place for political information. The reality is that in a democracy a citizen must be able to stand still, to deliberate with their mind, not to simply run in a pack driven by anger for their rivals.

‘Leaked document’ attack on Western credibility

Wikileaks’ Cablegate leaks provided valuable insight on the US war machine in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq. The cache of documents also exposed many other legitimate interests of the state.

Edward Snowden revealed an unconstitutional NSA program that the public would have never known about otherwise. But his leaks also uncovered vast troves of legitimate intelligence gathering at great expense to the US taxpayer.

Both events, looked at through the lens of state power, appear different than from a domestic news perspective. While not questioning the accuracy of the content of the leaks, the positioning and timing of them appeared devised for maximum impact. Publicity, yes, but also a sense of crisis and embarrassment for the countries involved.

In an alternative reading of recent history, you can see the documents dumps by both Wikileaks and the Snowden camps as assaults on the credibility and standing of Western power. Certainly, that is how Russia would see them, even if in the West there would be a reflexive urge for reforms.

By 2016, the ‘leaked document’ / ‘documents leaked’ Google search term waves are unmistakably aggressive, employing some of the same channels and outlets. The Google chart linked below shows the term ‘leaked documents’ with a blue line and ‘documents leaked’ with a red line.

The first spike in 2010 is WikiLeaks’ Cablegate documents, the cache of State Department documents released to the world. The second spike, in 2013, is the Edward Snowden leaks of NSA documents. The third spike, is of course, WikiLeaks intervention (with Russian backing) in the US presidential election in 2016.

You can argue about the news legitimacy of the varying surges of “leaked documents” – but you can’t argue with the attention they captured. With a clear Russian hand in the latter two, the pattern is clear.

So why look at this now? Because it shows what a long-term effort is needed to use information to shift a democracy’s discussion. In this case, the leaks helped drive up distrust in the US government on top of the organic reasons for it.

But to see the real effect of this “leaked document” offensive, look at the geographical chart below. It makes sense that they appear in English-speaking countries, as the documents were in English. But when you consider the global reach of the disclosures from the State Department and the NSA, the interest-level within the US and Five Eyes partners, as reflected in search, is telling.

On this data looking back to 2004, there is remarkably little bleed-over into non-Five Eyes partners, which suggests the target for the information was always the alliance itself, especially in 2013 and 2016.

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