A big part of technology adoption is understanding what it’s good for. Discussing Twitter, political scientist Yascha Mounk has made a point along those lines. His view gets at something I’ve mulled over in recent months: we may just have to learn that social media is structurally flawed for use in democratic politics.
I think the biggest danger of Twitter is one that we can actually do something about… Twitter is inhabited by some of the most extreme ideological people and yet a lot of decision makers, a lot of influential people in our country and around the world mistake it for reality.
They think that an argument that travels well on Twitter is one that most of the voters, most of the stakeholders agree with. They think about if something that’s heavily criticized on Twitter it must mean that a huge percentage of a population finds it bad or offensive and there’s simply no evidence for that.
Every study shows that only a minority of people use Twitter. That only a minority of the people who do use Twitter post regularly about politics. And it shows that those who do post about politics, in the word of one study, tend to be ideological extremists.
So I don’t know how to ensure that terrorist networks can’t form though social media. I don’t know how to ensure that when you log onto Twitter you won’t have a terrible time.
But I do know how all of us collectively can make sure that Twitter has less of an influence on our country and that is for us to learn to ignore Twitter, to pay less attention to it, to perhaps delete it from your phone, to not over estimate the representativeness of Twitter when you are making decisions in your place of work. it doesn’t take huge regulation.
It doesn’t take some systematic change in order to accomplish that. it is something that each of us can do on our own.
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.”
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.
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.
The hearing on Russian influence brought executives from Facebook, Twitter and Google to Capitol Hill for questions they struggled to answer. One of the minds behind the Occupy Wall Street movement to reform capitalism may have pointed the way to a solution. (All opinions my own and not my employers). Link to story I reference: www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2…ck-lives-matter
By now you probably know that something has changed in this world with the election of Donald Trump. You may be wondering how it affects you and what you might be able to do to make it better.*
For something this complex, using a Star Wars analogy is helpful.
For years, the free people in countries like Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have been warning the world that Russia has been menacing them online, using a combination of cyber attacks, fake news and misinformation to try to coerce its leaders and people. Russia has aimed to influence their nation’s political direction.
From those countries to the US, it has been:
But the US, caught up in wars in the Middle East, endless political gridlock, and its own problems, didn’t take the warnings seriously. Of course, Americans knew something big could one day hit them online but they expected the “Cyber Pearl Harbor” to be a massive attack on its infrastructure.
Instead, when the day came, it was in the form of an information attack on the US during the election, designed to sway voters’ minds. The tens of thousands of hacked emails pushed through WikiLeaks were only one factor.
A much bigger element has been the secret weapon used by anti-democracy forces for years. It functions as a Death Star, aimed at legitimate democracies and pro-democratic movements around the world.
First it was used on pro-democracy protesters in Ukraine, then it was aimed at the UK’s referendum on the EU (Brexit) to support the Leave campaign.
But the biggest use of the death ray has been in crippling and dividing opposition to Donald Trump, first in the primaries and then in the general election. (Google the Great Meme War).
That’s why the Trump victory is more akin to the September 11, 2001 attacks. Trump is not another Republican president; rather he is a man who doesn’t really believe in fundamental ideas central to democracy on which the US has been built and improved over the last 240 years.
Like the Death Star, this machine has more targets lined up to attack.
What the targets have in common is an embrace of democracy, rule-of-law, tolerance and openness. Basically, all the ideas underpinning the United States of America and the era of relative (and I stress “relative”) peace and stability the world has known since the end of World War II.
In the age of weaponised social media and information, however, this Death Star, isn’t a machine as much as a horde of people, evidently guided by Russia’s online information war crowd. Where in the world are they physically? They could be anywhere.
Some are partisans who have bought into an “anti-globalist” worldview. Some are Serbians living abroad who nurse grudges over NATOs role in the war in ex-Yugoslavia.
Reddit, 4Chan and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, create an enormous backdoor into liberal democracies everywhere. This is something Russia has figured out.
People on those platforms can attack and degrade liberal democracy wherever they find it.
Unthinkingly, they seek to replace it with radicalism, racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, anti-gay hate – basically, every possible way to divide a cohesive society.
The alt-right, for example, got big backing from followers on Reddit.
Whether a coincidence or not, this attack on the mainstream democracy resembles the philosophy of a chief Russian ideologue, who supports political extremism, while targeting the broad middle, the masses which don’t seek radical solutions to problems.
Often the candidates and causes backed by this Death Star in the real world are aligned with Russia.
Today’s leaders of Russia are paranoid kleptocrats (rulers by theft), who so misjudged the West’s motives, they have launched an assault on the fundamental cohesion of our society.
And here is where it gets weird.
Did you notice how the tone of the election of Donald Trump didn’t make sense for an American campaign? He lied and then gloated that he had lied. He was backed by radical racists, whom he wouldn’t disavowal, something uncharacteristic in a US candidate. Then there was the unending spectacle that kept the traditional media, Trump’s opponents, and the broader public in a continual stage of reaction. Rather than articulating a competing vision for the Republican Party, the middle class or for America, all of these stake holders were kept in a constant state of distraction.
There were even fake statues of Trump put up in public only to be torn down.
But they are similar to the unreality of Russian “sovereign democracy“, an invention of the Russian regime, in which the constant lies, confusion about the motives and authenticity of politicians and groups, leaves the public unable to believe or trust anything they read or see.
There are all indications that the Trump White House will, to some degree, continue to use some of these tactics of distraction.
This “unreality” flowing into the US’s internet is incompatible with the basics of our democracy in which we rely on some level of factual truth to understand the candidates for whom we vote. Facts are the engine of our system.
So where does that leave us today?
Broadly, it’s a battle between those who favor democracy and the dark forces from outside that would undo it in the hope of helping authoritarian kleptocracies.
Even the Trump victory, which at first glance looks like a celebration of hate and irrationalism, can be explained by the economic, demographic and technological changes facing the US and the world. If it can be explained, it can be understood. If it can be understood, it can addressed. So can Russia’s ability to influence the US elections. Moscow recognized that social media was uncontested space and went about exploiting to influence the politics in the West. Simple.
In the near-term, expect a stream of unreality telling us everything is out of our hands. That fear and suspicion should be our guide, even though such emotions undermine out ability to think sensibly.
Until then it was unimaginable that Americans would need to.
Now with Trump in the White House, it will likely be an unrelenting war on democratic, American values, free speech, freedom from fear, and even the expectation of a rational government.
The weaponisation of social media presents a greater challenge for believers in democracy: our tradition forbids the government from trying to influence its own people. Even if Trump weren’t headed for the White House, those who want to defend democratic values online can’t count on, or expect, a government plan.
Instead, citizens will need to organize themselves into online militias to control and shape the democratic debate. And to steer it towards democracy and away from radicalism.
It will be difficult – but it won’t be impossible.
In this way, those defending liberal democracy really will be the Ewoks. They’re be outsized and outgunned – and the authoritarians, the racists, the sexists, the know-nothings, they will have the bully pulpit of the White House, backed, potentially, by the Death Star of Russia’s cyber influence campaign.
But pro-democracy netizens can use the same tools the trolls use against them: memes, artwork, viral messages, social media bots, combinations of all of these. They can troll the trolls, they can take the fight to the defenders of the indefensible.
Reupping their messages, speaking with a united, if somewhat chaotic, voice will help propel the message for democracy far beyond the online forums. Remember, in order to defend democracy, you may need to dismantle its critics online – and when doing so, you should have fun and be relentless.
With the election of an quasi-authoritarian in the White House, citizens of the free world will be counted on like never before, to fight back.
As Winston Churchill, facing a Nazi invasion in 1940, could have said of this time: “We shall defend our liberal democracy, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on Facebook, we shall fight on the chatrooms, we shall fight in Facebook and on Twitter, we shall fight in the 4Chan and Reddit; we shall never surrender.”
Those were dark days in Britain.
These are dark days in the US.
But history works in strange ways.
Today, free Americans, and British and French and Latvians and Estonians and Ukrainians and Finnish and Germans can work together online to support each other. Free Indians and Pakistanis and Malaysians and Japanese, too.
Pro-liberal democracy people anywhere, can fight for democracy online.
Just as there is a globalized online effort to roll back liberal democracy and the international rules-based order, there needs to be a globalized online effort to support democracy and the rule of law.
Fighting for this online will have far more impact than in the streets.
And rather than celebrating the irrational forces of darkness, those who fight for democracy fight for a world in which power is rational, fair, and open.
This is a lot to lay on young people.
And it’s easy to blame the older generation.
But it’s also true that every generation must defend democracy anew.
Now is your time.
There will be dark moments, when you’re going to see strange, disheartening things.
But remember, if a problem can be measured and described, it can be addressed and fixed. That’s true of politics too.
That’s a reality worth fighting for.
Understanding what is happening, gives us the hope of correcting it and not succumbing to the disorder.
Technology has rendered the old rules of politics, news, and society out-of-date. But right and wrong matters more now than ever before.
So if you don’t want to be ruled by a:
Who creates a world dominated by guys like this:
And if you want to do work for this kind of world: