“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more”
Last week we saw how governments and powerful people with an agenda have historically been able to spread propaganda using old school media. This week we’ll look at how the world of new media has changed, and what that means for us.
In his book ‘The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom’, The American writer Evgeny Morozov cited these changes when he said:
“The decentralized nature of online conversations often makes it easier to manipulate public opinion, both domestically and globally. Regimes that once relied on centralized systems of media control can now deliver ideological messages more subtly, with the help of little-known intermediaries like anonymous commenters on websites”.
And there is no doubt that ‘regimes’ are taking great advantage of these new platforms, and that they’re doing it deliberately.
What’s most important right now is that we as individuals recognise what’s happening, because until we realise how easy it is for our minds to be manipulated we remain the puppet of someone else’s game. In his novel ’1984’ George Orwell defined power as ‘tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing’. He also said ‘There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.’ I think we should all try harder to avoid being mad.
The harsh reality is that these new media delivery platforms are developing faster than our ability to deal with them. And that’s dangerous.
The stakes couldn’t be higher, we’re talking about our personal freedom and the foundation of our Western society — Democracy
In his recent book ‘Trust — America’s Best Chance’, Pete Buttigeig, a former candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, said this:
“Social media at first seemed like a benevolent force in political organizing — The feel was one of community-building. But it only took “two election cycles for malicious actors … to weaponize” these platforms, revealing the “instantaneous preferences of our least conscious selves”.
He goes on to call the technology behind social media platforms “amoral”.
The “purveyors of conspiracies have more tools at their disposal than ever,” he writes, “making it possible to disseminate dangerous lies on a massive scale and at unprecedented speed … We have lost access to the basic levels of trust that democracy demands”.
Jill Lepore — Historian and New Yorker writer concurs.
“History begins with the technology of writing and with printing. And then it was changed by radio and television and so on. Things are briefly upended by new technologies before finding a new equilibrium. With social media, that equilibrium has not happened. The question is how do you repair the fabric of democracy when the technology is itself built to polarise us? It is like we have built a perfect trap for ourselves. That is what leaves me so frankly terrified”.
Have you heard of Cambridge Analytica? Maybe you’ve heard the name somewhere. Maybe you know it was something to do with Facebook and elections.
Here are a few (non-alternative) facts about them — They’re from multiple sources and verifiable.
Cambridge Analytica was established in 2015 as a subsidiary of the private intelligence company SCL GROUP — SCL called itself a ‘global election management agency’.
Alexander Nix, chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, said in October 2016.
“Today in the United States we have somewhere close to four or five thousand data points on every individual ... So we model the personality of every adult across the United States, some 230 million people”.
Steve Bannon had a significant investment in Cambridge Analytica until April 2017 when he became Chief Strategist at the White House.
A subsidiary of CA in the UK — AgrregateIQ had a quote on its website attributed to Dominic Cummings who was’ at the time’ campaign manager for the Vote Leave organisation. It said “We couldn’t have done it without them”.
Facebook has said it believes that up to 87 million users' data was improperly shared with Cambridge Analytica.
Here are a couple more facts, straight from the mouth of someone whose credentials cannot be questioned. Perhaps the only person on the planet who really knows what’s going on in this strange new world. His name? — Mark Zuckerberg — Here’s what he said in his Testimony to Congress — April 2018.
“There are people in Russia whose job it is to try to exploit our systems and other internet systems and other systems as well.
This is an ongoing arms race. As long as there are people sitting in Russia whose job it is to try to interfere in elections around the world, this is going to be an ongoing conflict.
It’s clear now that we didn’t do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm. That goes for fake news, foreign interference in elections, and hate speech, as well as developers and data privacy”.
He mentioned Russia specifically — Putin has been in power for 20 years and with his KGB background he must be all over this stuff. And it’s nice to have a baddie to pin this on isn’t it. Trump doesn’t call it the ‘China Virus’ accidentally.
Russia, China, North Korea and Iran are easy targets, and will certainly be in the game. But trust me, there must be other big nameless players hiding in the shadows.
As I write this a multi-year enquiry has just published its findings into the link between Cambridge Analytica and the Vote Leave Campaign. Their conclusion? — CA was “not involved” in the EU referendum.
They did however warn that there were “systemic vulnerabilities in our democratic systems”, and they levied fines on Facebook for not doing enough to protects its users from having their data “harvested” for political purposes.
Well, that’s that then — all sorted.
I’ve been deliberately conscientious in researching the facts I posted earlier. That, after all is the whole point behind this series of blogposts — It’s easy to be lazy and just accept someone else’s opinion as truth.
So, to be clear, what I’m about to say is just my opinion, not a fact — I think it’s likely that the enquiry board just couldn’t dig deep enough to get to the truth. They didn’t have the tools, and they didn’t have the know-how. For me, there’s no doubt — Trumps election and the Brexit Vote were influenced by parties unknown, and they used social media as a vehicle for that influence.
As Dorothy said — We’re not in Kansas any more.
What’s terrifying is that when stuff like this hits the news so many people just seem to switch off. The webs of intrigue are just too entangled, the concepts too large to grasp.
Back to something else Herr Goebbels said.
“You can’t change the masses. They will always be the same: dumb, gluttonous and forgetful.”
I don’t know about you but I don’t want to be dumb, gluttonous and forgetful
Here’s Pete Buttigeig again.
“We can blame the technology but in the end the question is about what choices we are going to make, whether it’s through regulation or through whatever personal disciplines we cultivate — so that we are not at the mercy of the ways we can be hacked. The problem is not so much that the systems can be hacked as it is that our minds can be hacked. And that I do agree is already under way”.
Maybe regulation will come but, as Mr Zuckerberg said “This is an ongoing arms race” — Maybe they’ll never catch up.
I’ll say it one last time; we’re not in Kansas any more. We’re living in a new world, and we’re as vulnerable as newborn babies. There are dark forces out there who want to control our minds and control our actions.
So it’s down to us to fight.
Social media and the instant communication platforms available to us on the Internet should be improving our lives, not worsening them.
When these technologies first appeared there was great optimism.
In 1997, Wired magazine said: “Where conventional politics is suffused with ideology, the digital world is obsessed with facts … the Digital Nation points the way toward a more rational, less dogmatic approach to politics.”
Whether it’s politics or a simple exchange of views, the hope expressed in that article still exists. It’s just that we’ve taken a wrong turn.
We’ve gone down a road where we consume and pass on information without pausing for even a second to question it. We mindlessly let ourselves be recruited as foot soldiers into the regiments of whatever cause we’ve expressed some inclination toward.
We find ourselves becoming polarised and intolerant. We stop listening and start shouting, we’re no longer calm, we’re enraged.
To be brutal, we’ve succumbed to lazy thinking.
If you’ve not yet read George Orwell’s ‘1984’ I urge you to do so. It’s scary how a book written in 1948 can be so relevant today.
Here’s another quote.
“The masses never revolt of their own accord, and they never revolt because they are oppressed. Indeed, so long as they are not permitted to have standards of comparison, they never even become aware that they are oppressed”.
Standards of comparison — What did he mean by that? This is my interpretation.
We all have personal standards, yardsticks by which we live and gauge our performance. Our standards define who we are, even if we don’t think too much about them.
People with low standards are vulnerable to the influences of others, they fail to stand up for themselves. But I believe all of us have high inbuilt standards of decency, compassion and tolerance. We all want to be good people.
But sometimes we forget, we forget to draw the comparisons Orwell referred to. We forget to pause, reflect and decide if the things we encounter along the way meet our own all important standards.
If more of us did that today I think we’d start to see how oppressed we really are, I think we’d start a revolution.
I’ll leave you with some advice from the physicist Richard Feynman.
“Be a free thinker. We must be careful not to believe things simply because we want them to be true. Don't accept everything you hear as truth. Be critical and evaluate what you believe in.”