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Sunday, March 04, 2018

Waging war with disinformation

In the superb BBC Radio 4 documentary on Marshall McLuhan, by Douglas Copeland, one of McLuhan’s comments (from half a century ago) that really struck home with me was that in the electronic, networked, instant media age there will be “ways of being evil that we don’t understand yet”. How astonishingly prescient of the man who invented media studies. I think we are beginning to understand what at least one of those ways might be: destroying the trust that keeps a society together. We can see this happening all around us as the internet and social media are creating entirely new opportunities for “influence operations" (IO) and the mass manipulation of opinion.

It seems that (yet again) McLuhan was spot on. The era of mass manipulation is indeed upon us and it is aided and abetted by social media. The well-known example of Jenna Abrams (@jenn_abrams) illustrates the general case perfectly well. Jenna was an “alt-right” blogger with 80,000 followers on Twitter, and her tweets were cited by Buzzfeed, the NY Times and other news agencies. It subsequently turned out that “she” was a creation of Russia's Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg.

This emergence of this kind of directed, industrial-scale trolling isn’t just about using mass media for propaganda purposes. That’s hardly new. But the scale and intimacy of social media make the misuse of them, as McLuhan predicted, a new and different kind of evil. The impact of this evil is not to convince the general public that some particular thing is true, but to undermine the general public’s trust of anything at all. Or, as noted in the Boston Review, the most toxic consequence of this kind of social media manipulation “[is] existential distrust".

It’s really hard to know what to do about this. In the past, new technologies (eg, rather obviously, printing) have come along and it has taken generations for society to evolve “political, cultural, and institutional antibodies to the novelty and upheaval” of the information revolutions set in motion by those technologies (remember the instructions manuals telling people to say “hello” when they pick up the telephone). However, the accelerating rate of technology-induced change is creating a shock wave, just as an airplane flying ahead of the speed of sound creates a shock wave (that we hear as the sonic boom).
Now that we’ve detected the shock wave, we have to respond. We have to change either democracy or social media.
Whatever  you think about Hillary, she is right that the issue needs to be addressed. I think she is thinking about fixing social media, but given that, for the time being at least, democracy is under our control and social media is not, we instead need to think hard about reinventing democracy in the McLuhan age. But how? At the conceptual level, it seems obvious that someone who thinks the moon landings never happened should not be allowed to participate in any decisions that impact the rest of us. But what about someone who thinks the government spends more on foreign aid than it does on the NHS?  What about the one in five British voters who think that Sherlock Holmes was a real person? These people exist in social media echo chambers that are impermeable to reason and therefore never participate in the discourse that the rest of us depend on to learn about the world and set our opinions in response.

If we don’t take action, then a generation from now the rule of President Kardashian will make us rue the day the universal franchise was conceived.


Unknown said...


(1) It's not as if well-informed, clever people cannot make spectacularly bad decisions.
(2) Many political questions have a large, sometimes dominating, subjective component. No-one should imagine that there is an objectively correct answer to every political question.
(3) People who are less well-educated may have legitimate interests that are different to those of the better educated; a restricted franchise would rely on the altruism of the reduced electorate.
(4) If the concerns of the less well-educated (well-founded or not) are not addressed, to what do they resort? Lampposts and ropes?

Have you read Popper's ? Part 1 is a thoroughgoing deconstruction of Plato's 'philosopher-king' model of governance.

Unknown said...

"The Open Society and its Enemies" got left out after "Popper", for some reason.

Cayce Pollard said...

Don't know why the formatting is all wrong - will try and fix it.

I agree that its because the concerns of those who didn't benefit from the "new economy" were not addressed they quite rightly got angry, but that doesn't mean that they will a course of action that will address their concerns - look at Trump and his steel tariffs. They may (but almost certainly won't) improve the lot of 150,000 steelworkers by reducing the living standards of 5m other workers.

I haven't read the Popper so I just read a couple of summaries eg

Unknown said...

You will know without asking that I agree that Trump's steel and aluminium tariffs are stupid and self-defeating. All systems will produce errors; protectionism has been tried by all kinds of regimes and is a remarkably resilient policy for one that has been so comprehensively demolished in theory and in practice. What we should aim for is a system that can corrects errors without recourse to blood on the streets. Excluding people from political participation on the grounds that they're not clever enough to be considered is not likely to achieve that.

Cayce Pollard said...

I didn't say anything about whether people are clever enough (and agree with your point that clever people making bad choices), but about whether they are sufficiently well-informed to take part. This isn't about judging peoples' opinons but abotu their knowledge of basic facts that are essential to the process. It is not clear to me at all that someone who doesn't know that the government spends more on debt repayments than defence should be having a say on government spending.

A democratic system born in the Edwardian age and shaped for mass media is not necessarily the best system for a post-industrial society and needs reinventing and reinvigorating. How? I don't know, but I'm open to hypotheses.