Social media and democracy

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Online learning amid the spread of COVID-19, in Bangkok on May 20. The author says most of us are attracted to the ways in which educational content is conceived and designed, ignoring the amount of data the platforms will mine to make profit. Photo: ATHIT PERAWONGMETHA/REUTERS

The Twitter logo displayed on a mobile phone with Trump's picture shown in the background on May 27. Photo: OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP

A demonstration against Breitbart News and its propaganda for the Trump administration, in Los Angeles, California, U.S. on March 12, 2017. Photo: ROBYN BECK/AFP

The book is a primer on understanding the intersections between democracy, politics, deception and technological developments.

WE live in a dark phase filled with adversity. As dark and unpredictable as it gets. At this moment in the world, whatever flows, ruptures. Be it the flow (spread) of coronavirus, the flow of migration, the flow of money or the egregious flow of dis/information. Capturing the flow of dis/information campaigns in the digital ecosystem and the crisis of democracy is the nut graph of Martin Moore’s succinctly written book Democracy Hacked: Political Turmoil and Information Warfare in the Digital Age. The book is a primer on understanding the intersections between democracy, politics, deception and technological developments.

Digital media have reshaped contemporary politics in unprecedented ways. Moore argues that the old form of political communication has been supplanted by digital technologies, which have become a new force to reckon with. What Moore reveals in the book is downright desperation of political parties the world over to drub their opponents in uncanny ways by leveraging social media. In the first part of the book, Moore presents the bad and ugly, the mean and divisive, the savage and devious means by which some countries perform and practise politics and their consequences for democracy. It is better to approach the book with a rider. It is not just that democracy is hacked; democracy hacks too.

The book paints a grim picture of the pre-social media era by focussing on key developments such as the evolution of the hackers’ community in the 1970s, the rise of WELL, an electronic online forum, and later the formation of 4chan, an imageboard website where users participated anonymously by posting images or posts. These online forums allowed users to go on a hedonistic pursuit, claiming they could escape from real social world scenarios. Little did anyone realise that 4chan, predominantly used by the youth then, would bring together users to hack websites of companies for a lark or could be used to spew vitriol, indecency and obscenity mostly from a white supremacist position. Thus, women, Jews, the LGBT community, migrants and non-whites and so on were subjected to textual desecration. The author says that 4chan’s culture and language turned toxic over time.

Cut to 21st century, social media and other platforms are being used to churn out deception and venom. Hatred and prejudice are in the networks as well as in the air. Moore details how social media, which had an idealistic agenda to begin with, have become indispensable to the political tumult in today’s democracy. The author’s narrations reveal the seedy and sinister motives with which memes, texts and videos were produced, for instance, in the presidential elections in the United States in 2014. Donald Trump was held aloft while Hillary Clinton was downgraded on false grounds using mimetic warfare and trolling.

Images are used to ridicule, trivialise and ferociously malign people in the big league as much as ordinary people. Highlighting the key proposition of some businessmen, the author says that the object of using digital media in politics is to crush the mainstream media, which are presumably considered “left”. The savage efforts to promote social media as a reliable source to seek information have caused truth to lose its ground and legitimacy in the public sphere. Instead, falsehood runs amok in the wildest manner possible.

The new plutocracy

The book underlines that technology is not inherently biased. It is the criminality of human minds that make it unleash nefarious activities. Moore sheds light on some of the digital dynasts who make plutocracy possible. One such plutocrat is Robert Mercer, who is anti-establishment, against climate change policies and oriented towards rupturing the public sphere and subverting democratic accountability. He is neither a politician nor a public servant. He hunkered down for a while and, at the right moment, invested in digital media and big data. He led the frontal attack on democracy by scouring data from social media to target voters and manipulate their perceptions to his own ends, which is, say, to see that Trump won.

The author presents another plutocrat, Andrew Breitbart, who sees a plot in the arrival of the Frankfurt School scholars in the U.S. and alleges that they turned the country into a hotbed of Left ideologies. To jettison Left or “Democrat Media Complex” from the U.S. and the world is Breitbard’s arch mission.

The nexus between Mercer and Breitbart happened with the former investing in all digital schemes Breitbart executed. The author writes that Mercer continued to invest in several organisations building on the premise that all media are biased. This led to Facebook, Twitter and other social media gaining traction and attracting people. Mercer next turned to Cambridge Analytica (CA), which is an offshoot of Strategic Communications Laboratory. No one knew the gamut of deception until the expose happened of mass-harvesting of Facebook users’ data that CA used to change the voting behaviours of people, be it in the U.S. or Brexit. In brutal ways, CA used the harvested personal data to sell political ideas and ideologies to users, especially during Trump’s elections. All these point to the fact that Mercer and his ilk had only one goal to achieve—turn democracy on its head.

A new war

Subsequently, the author begins to scope out the widespread use of digital media to launch disinformation campaigns at geopolitical levels. It is the beginning of a new war, where there is no trench, no soldiers and no rationality. It is a digital warfare with bots, algorithms, drones and the like on the frontline. It is not waged to conquer territories but minds. Moore argues that Vladimir Putin needed a framework to set up disinformation factories to establish Russia as a superpower. So, he spread the news that Russia was under attack from other countries and was being spied upon; its data hacked. It is in the shadows of a lie that Putin constructed his digital empire, the author reveals. Russia, as part of its geopolitical guerilla warfare, identifies the weak spots in a country/person and inflames social media with divisive campaigns.

The task of controlling social media was not as easy as Putin might have thought. Internet is a vast architecture and he could not restrain the eruption of pluralistic views. Not the way he had TV and other media on a tight leash. This prompted him to establish battalions of content creators who needed to be nationalists and loyal to the Kremlin. The digital army of parties in India, as it is elsewhere, also commissions several people to write posts, create memes, produce disinformation campaigns, fill the space with fake news and spread disharmony and hatred.

Fixing elections

The second part of the book discusses how Facebook, Google and Twitter were used to fix and nix elections and how they helped many world leaders come to power. The author documents success stories of Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines who used influencers on Facebook to reach audiences. Barack Obama and Trump made the best use of social media for their election campaigns. In India, Narendra Modi pioneered the social media blitz in 2014.

The ambivalence in the ideological functions of social media occurred when an unholy truce was struck between politics, advertising/marketing and big data. Subsequently, Facebook said that its strategy “helps people to connect with each other” to allow unverified news streaming into its space. Recently, Facebook announced it would not remove false claims made in Trump’s re-election campaign advertisements even if they happened to be flagrant lies.

Facebook wants to connect people but for a much different purpose than what its punchline would indicate. The more the merrier—the more data it could get about more users, the more exchange value it would get by profiling them and selling them to the new crop of political evangelists who are also the biggest spenders. In addition, Facebook ramped up its affordances by adding News Feed, Instant Articles, Facebook Connect and dark posts to its kitty. Moore explains the role of technological innovations in helping Facebook achieve its twin goals, intertwined though, of economic growth and political disruption.

Cradle of anarchy

The book describes Google as the cradle of anarchy. Google is a search engine without parallel and less fierce competition. It is also known for overturning its initial pledge that it would not be consumed by any greed to attract ads. When Google was exposed to the possibility of data mining and got the taste of algorithm gold rush, it had less concern for users or for its ethical degeneration. The search engine turned into a relentless surveillance engine, tracking what people search and its related activities. It bundles our preferences and sells us to advertisers. In the process, its imperialism grew to an extent that it swallowed as many digital companies as it could, thereby having a stranglehold on digital services in the market.

To add to that, wearable technologies synced with Google has contributed to what is known as cognitive capitalism. Moore, in a masked provocation, details that our digital footprints allow Google to deepen its pockets. Advertising is not about buying media space, but buying people, he remarks. To its credit, Google has its own regime of advertising bludgeoned through keywords, clickbait and several other ad features.

The author begins his discussion of Twitter in a very positive way, highlighting its potential as an emerging news source. He argues that gatekeeping by journalists has shifted to the public, who have become alternative sources. Twitter is an alarm system for journalists to understand what people perceive, the author writes.

He also discusses the downside of the growing use of Twitter for journalism. Local journalism has taken a back seat as journalists now depend on Twitter for news updates and as field reporting has also come down. On a large scale, this has resulted in the sacking of many journalists in legacy media firms.

Later, the author puts in perspective how Twitter is also used to spread aggression-filled and offensive comments. If Trump’s tweets are anything to go by, or some of the tweets by politicians in any part of the world are any indication, Twitter distorts news. Craving for fast-food journalism through Twitter kills trust and accuracy. The author also points out that there are many whose voices are not heard as social media are too remote for them to access economically and otherwise.

Question of privacy

The third part of the book focusses on platforms gaining momentum in the digital sphere and the world’s pressing question of privacy, surveillance and the irredeemable loss of the democratic zeitgeist. The efforts of Amazon, Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase to set up a remote digital health-care facility to address health issues in 2018 did give rise to new hopes. It led to Amazon partnering with the American Heart Association and much later even hosting the Cancer Genome Atlas that housed huge amount of molecular structures. Amazon accomplished this using its cloud computing facility. But its biggest asset was the data of patients.

Likewise, the author explains how Google along with Deepmind, a data company, partnered with Royal Free Hospital in the United Kingdom that shared all its patients’ medical records. Digital platforms realised that there was wealth in health. Moore says that platforms are like online bazaars. Unlike traditional bazaars, platforms track consumers and keep collecting data on end even after they leave.

Educational platforms are also on the rise, more so now as the lockdown (because of COVID-19) mandates that classes be held using online platforms. Most of us are attracted to the innovative ways educational content is conceived and designed (interactivity, animation, self-paced, etc.), ignoring the amount of data that these platforms will mine to make profit. Public transport platforms such as Uber, Ola and Lyft and over-the-top entertainment platforms services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime run on data that users put in and which are then processed by algorithms in enigmatic ways.

The author points out that ceding basic services such as health and education to platform companies reflects the government’s apathetic commitment to its citizens. As many have written in the wake of COVID-19, nations are forced to rethink their strategies on health and education expenditure, especially not to cave in to the neoliberal agenda.

Aadhaar & surveillance

The chapter on surveillance begins with how Indian governments have linked Aadhaar number to our life—be it getting a scholarship, passport, or food rations. While the previous government touted that it was introduced to ensure proper transfer of benefits to people, the current government adds to the existing list saying it is a digital identity that could be used to prevent bank frauds and terror attacks.

With Aadhaar, it has now become easier for the government to track an individual. In other words, there is nothing that an individual can claim to be his/her private information that the state does not know about. When it was presented before the Supreme Court that Aadhaar takes away the fundamental rights of citizens, the court ruled that Aadhaar cannot be made mandatory. However, the government has not compromised on its intent and considers Aadhaar as its panoptic weaponry.

Singapore’s Smart Nation is similar wherein digital infrastructures are used to control the population. China is leading the charge with its social credit system that tracks its citizens, awards points to them on the basis of their purchase behaviour. For instance, someone buying a pack of cigars may lose points as opposed to one buying napkins. In addition, Moore highlights that increasing surveillance has led to a data and algorithmic bias whereby it could be used to target one group of people.

Moore has offered an unvarnished account of plutocrats, social media companies, states and their policies and agendas in grand detail. On the one hand, he has captured their economic growth and, on the other, their role in political disruption. The book has some interesting and thought-provoking pointers one cannot dispense with. The author’s critical remark that social media have depoliticised the youth by alienating them from rationality is going to be foundational for understanding society, people and their perceptions. It is also disheartening to note that many among the youth have become mercenaries in digital armies of political parties, engaged in labour, producing a product called hatred, whose exchange value is disharmony and violence. In this regard, the author appeals to sensitise ourselves to the way democracy is muted and mutilated.

The crisis of democracy can be perceived but is as invisible as coronavirus. As the virus of disinformation spreads, religions are not spared on social media. It is crucial to understand where hate and lie originate before they are circulated through networks. Hate originates in the hating body and not in the hated body. Much as coronavirus demands a new economic world order, it is time for the economies of love, and not hate, to endure.

M. Shuaib Mohamed Haneef is assistant professor and head in charge, Department of Electronic Media and Mass Communication, Pondicherry University.

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