‘It never was ok for technology to be separate from policy,’: Schneier

Imagine a world in which Facebook was located at “One Public Interest Technology Way.”

It’s hard to imagine. After all, in our lifetime, the role of much of Silicon Valley has simply been to create great tech and, in Facebook’s case, bring people together. As Facebook’s recent announcement to allow political misinformation to flourish on the platform shows, the company doesn’t think too deeply about the big picture of democracy’s needs. This chasm of realities is on full display in the debate over Facebook’s proposed digital currency, Libra.

It should surprise nobody, then, that the company is located at One Hacker Way.

The hacker ethos remains with the company, even at its current size. The way of the hacker is to live outside the system, to find ways to exploit the system, but by no means to be the system. Respect is gained by how much you can circumvent barriers in the network. Being a hacker is to be part of a discrete community.

Unfortunately, this type of disaffected communitarianism, scaled up doesn’t support the rules-based outcomes needed for a successful democracy. It’s not that Facebook or Zuckerberg see themselves as hackers. But the hacker culture drives the flawed understanding of the broader world in which if you code it elegantly enough, everything else will fall into place.

Why does the arc of Silicon Valley bend in this direction? It goes back to the sector’s communitarian roots.

Today, the underlying communitarian hacker ethos in the Western tech world threatens to overturn the political system itself.

This disconnect between tech and the political needs of a democratic society is the subject of a speech by security expert Bruce Schneier, in a recent appeal for the growth of public-minded technologists.

Schneier quite rightly observes:

Historically, programmers have been given an inherent right to code the as they saw fit because historically, it didn’t matter.

Technology consisted of tools.
Now it does matter and that privilege needs to end.
Technology is deeply embedded in society.
And the work technologists do affect the world we live in – in a very human way.
Technology is social, it’s political, it’s economic.
It’s a complex system that’s bigger than any one academic discipline.

If we’re honest with ourselves, it never was ok for technology to be separate from policy.
It’s just that today the separation is much more dangerous.
We need technologists in all aspects of public interest work: informing policy, creating tools, building the future
…We need people who can speak tech to power, and we need them now.

This is a reality so obvious, it’s easy to overlook. It explains the disconnect between Silicon Valley and Washington and Silicon Valley’s interaction with Washington.

Addressing the disconnect between the tech world and political world is key to addressing the longer-term challenges technological change presents to our democratic future. More attention should be placed here.

Hong Kong social media attacks – what they are, what they’re not

Hong Kong’s anti-government protesters Wikicommons Cypp0847

A report by Australian Strategic Policy Institute about the burst of disinformation found on Twitter around the Hong Kong protests exposes the skills gap between China and Russia in this sphere.

ASPI concludes that the Chinese-language Twitter ops are “likely to have been a rapid response to the unanticipated size and power of the Hong Kong protests rather than a campaign planned well in advance.”

In other words, it was likely a hastily-assembled “brute force” operation designed to distract the China-language diaspora from news of the Hong Kong protests. The networks, which appear to be hired out for a variety of commercial and non-commercial campaigns, were also used to try to shape views around certain individuals, such as dissident billionaire Miles Kwok.

The analysis of the Twitter campaign highlights the still inward-looking nature of active Chinese social media propaganda and influence campaigns.

ASPI quotes a study that estimates the Chinese government “pays for as up to 448 million inauthentic social media posts and comments a year.

“The aim is to distract the population from social mobilisation and collective forms of protest action,” ASPI notes. “This approach to manipulating China’s domestic internet appears to be much less effective on Western social media platforms that are not bounded by state control.”

In fact, it appears China is a paying for social media presence.

Contrast that with Russia’s efforts on social media in which networks are built mostly in the open.

A fundamental difference between China and Russia’s approach to propaganda to date is that, while China will pay for propaganda, Kremlin figures out ways to make people pay for the propaganda they crave.

They do this through endless “causes:” protest groups, political campaigns, extremist political organisation, and utopian causes.

This is a self-funding approach, very much tailored to the the internet “not bounded by state control.” The relative success of cryptocurrency will likely make this even more common.

I’m thinking not just of causes that cross paths with Russia-linked figures: Ed Snowden and Julian Assange.

In a study of social media activity linked to Russia, for example, George Mason University researchers found fraudulent crowdfunding claiming to support US veterans. Whether it traces back to Russian crime is not clear. But the prospect of the overlap between Russian fraudster and Russian disinfo experts is possible.

All of this suggests that in the open internet, Russian actors, to date, are more accomplished at assembling, galvanizing and motivating audiences.

Russia has a long history of propaganda and manipulation in the West. Its heritage operating in the Western space stretches back more than a century.

In its latest wave, Russia has been busy. Princeton University researchers calculated in the six years to 2019 almost three-quarters of foreign interference efforts were conducted by Russia.

When we talk about China’s online influence campaigns, they function at a different level.

Rather than a Russian-style of activation and galvanizing of communities online, China is more likely to create new platforms that overlap business, trade, payments and influence.

They are in a whole different game, one that is nothing like what Russians are doing online.

Anger in China creates pressure for an immediate response from Western brands

Hong Kong protesters (Source: Wikicommons)

“The perception of economic harm can have an outsized effect on domestic interests, creating pressures for rapid political compromise,” according to research on China’s power for economic coercion over Australia.

And the pressure for rapid compromise is also what makes global brands buckle so quickly. Australia, however, may have more strength in this area than generally believed.

The larger question is whether Western consumers and politicians will mobilise to defend free speech as vigorously as China has done to protect its conception of its territorial sovereignty.

(From The Age, on the global response to China’s outrage over the NBA manager’s comments on the Hong Kong protests. )

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.

“All your democratic language are belong to us”

The invocation of the language of liberalism to damage our democracies is not new. In a system in which ideas compete for legitimacy, simply artificially pumping up one idea to an unnatural level skews the debate, and leads to damaging outcomes. The success of authoritarians and anti-democratic nations in doing this in recent years is a key feature of our time. Consequently, the voices that crow the loudest about “freedom” and “liberty” — our values — are often doing so to hijack the conversation, to polarize it, and to render it a weapon against sensible debate.

My latest: What happens when the language of democracy is hijacked?

(Photo: anastasiasoboleva/tumblr)