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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.