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The emperors of cyberspace who control democracy

Saturday January 5 2019

Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg. The company hired Definers Public Affairs to help it deal with fallout from revelations of Russian disinformation on its platform. PHOTO | BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI | AFP 

ERIC WAMANJI
By ERIC WAMANJI
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The world over, the fate of elective politics seems to rest on the hands of just three people.

The “Emperors of the Cyberspace” – Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Google’s Sundar Pichai and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey – are at the core of today’s democracy. They control powerful communicative platforms critical to democratic societies.

Sample this. Last year when he met a senate committee in the US, Mr Zuckerberg had a solemn pledge: “2018 is an incredibly important year for elections. Not just with the US midterms, but around the world, there are important elections in India, in Brazil, in Mexico, in Pakistan and in Hungary … We want to make sure that we do everything we can to protect the integrity of those elections.”

TROLL FACTORY

See, Mr Zuckerberg, ideally wouldn't get anxious about the elections of sovereign states. Yet, when it comes to polls, his job is cut. He has emerged as an influential actor.

His platform, reaching a dizzying two billion people worldwide, is a significant apparatus in determining power politics of most countries. Indeed, what scares political regimes across the world is how prolific the underworld has become in manipulating FB and other social media channels to subvert the will of the people in politics through industrial manufacture and vending of deceptive content.

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That is why lately FB has come under intense scrutiny and criticism accused of aiding the Russians to sway the 2016 presidential elections in the US, which was inflamed in rhetoric of race, Islamophobia, immigration, LGBT rights and trade imbalance. A Russian “troll factory” is said to be behind the polarising and divisive politics.

Mr Zuckerberg was even forced to apologise: “After the election, I made a comment that I thought the idea of misinformation on Facebook’s changed the outcome of the election was a crazy idea. Calling that crazy was dismissive and I regret it … This is too important an issue to be dismissive.”

But the systematic manipulation of social media to tilt political persuasions was not distinct to US. Ukraine, Germany, Italy, Poland, France have all been victims. Even Brexit is attributed too to disinformation via social media.

LIBERAL SOCIETY

Ironically, social media threatens to destroy the very liberal society that created it. Yet, the advent of Information Superhighway enchanted proponents of liberal democracy hoping an unadulterated public sphere where intercourse of ideas thrived will expand the democratic spaces of the world.

German scholar Jürgen Habermas, in his 1962 seminal work "Structural transformation of the public sphere: An inquiry into category of bourgeoisie society", hoped for an all-inclusive virtual public sphere grounded on rational-critical discourses producing informed opinions for a true democracy.

But then, the social media, just like the press Habermas distrusted, has failed to live to the billing. The public space has been hijacked and is now manipulated at the whims of lords of disinformation.

Elective democracy is increasingly reflecting the will of troll factories and artificial intelligence through algorithms operated by social media platforms. These platforms determine dominant public perception, public opinion, and public decisions during elective politics and therefore public policy and governance. They decide political power.

And this is critical because the Internet, where social media is hosted, is becoming the default platform for information. The numbers are mind boggling. So far, four billion people worldwide use it. An estimated three billion people are on social media. Twitter has about 336 million users while YouTube boasts of about 1.3 billion users. Google claims 1.17 billion users.

This extensive reach will further explode in the global south where Internet penetration is rapidly scaling up, mobile telephony is becoming ubiquitous, affordable data and where smart phones with 4G networks is a reality. The universality of technology to a largely non-discerning population is going to pose greater challenges.

POLITICAL BEHAVIOUR

That is why an inquiry into these online empires, which have emerged as tools of mass deceptions, is critical. Disinformation is the phantom phenomenon of the cyber society staging a coup against the people.

The kind of political information accessible to these users informs the political behaviour of citizens. Indeed, whoever has the power to manufacture narratives and invade our spaces and therefore our psyche, will likely control our political decisions. A compromised democracy has far-reaching ramifications on economies, human rights, dignity and justice. A system disenfranchised wishes, regresses, and sinks into bitterness and despondency.  Social media is aiding this subversion through its agility of spontaneity, reach and addictiveness. But the elixir is the big data — a lucrative commodity far useful than Arabian oil.

Data miners are collecting psychographic information and eventually design a nuanced psychological profile regime of the voter. See, psychographics are powerful and refined. They focus on our fears, attitudes, persuasions, personalities, interests, opinions and even preferences.

Unpacking the psychological proclivities of the electorate is like hitting the sweet spot because rhetoric is designed around these realities targeting the masses with near precision.

This data is fed to troll factories, which manufacture content that appeals to our base needs. They then capitalise on the ubiquity and affordability of the social media platforms to target the citizens.

Trouble is that most people cannot decipher these fakes. Normally, citizens are unwilling to invest in critical thinking to decrypt information. In any case, we are largely predisposed to selective exposure- accessing information congruous to our beliefs. Newsfeeds, reliant on algorithms then push that content our way.

MANIPULATION EFFECT

And this is what Cathy O'Neil, warns in her ground breaking book Mathematical Weapons of Destruction. She argues that because, algorithms are never objective, any garbage passes — lies, manipulation, name them, in the optimisation strategy.

Yet, this does not stop us from developing attitudes, reinforce others and even act based on the search results bombarded to our faces in what scholars Robert Epstein and Ronald Robertson, described as ‘Search Engine Manipulation Effect'. Indeed, it is an acceptable truism that those who own the narratives rule the world. Troll factories understand this. And at their disposal is the social media. That is how Silicon Valley is revolutionising democracy. It can force unpopular leaders and decision on the masses.

It is frightening. It's like sitting on what Abraham Lincoln called blisters. To Lincoln: “Elections belong to the people. It's their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”

 Today, the social media executives are like the generals of yesteryears – powerful and revered. Regimes squirm in thought of disruptive power of Silicon Valley than Pentagon.

And why not? The cyberspace is the new frontline where information warfare is lethal. In the world where truth is no longer one, and alternative facts are cherished, democracy derided, manipulation is king.

FAKE ACCOUNTS

Appreciating the slippery nature of social media, Mr Samidh Chakrabarti, Facebook’s Product Manager for Civic Engagement, noted: “At its worst, it (social media) allows people to spread misinformation and corrode democracy.” The story of Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal is well documented and hit the world by surprise like a thunderbolt. Cambridge Analytica surreptitiously harvested data of users to use it for political targeted communication.

Such data and subsequent manufacture of disinformation vindicates the observation in The Formation of Men’s Attitudes.

In this book, French philosopher Jacques Ellul noted that in societies individuals are reduced to statistics where the propaganda machinery now wires general sentiments that could br cross cutting. That is how the newsfeeds thrive. And we became reliant of its information, unverified and pushed by the algorithms which, in turn, constructs echo chambers and cleverly blocking interaction with diverse ideas.

In the US, the Russians are said to have purchased ads fashioned to perpetuate divisive ideological persuasions. Besides, Russian based, The Internet Research Agency operated 470 fake accounts, which manufactured 80,000 manipulative posts during the US election.

But in 2017 the accounts were disabled to FB. Further, FB reported that using AI, it has blocked about 1.3 billion accounts. Last year too, Twitter reportedly neutralised close to 70 million fake accounts, mostly bots, that were likely used to manipulate genuine users online.

PROPAGANDA FACTORIES

The world may be lucky today because the tech giants are all American and can be subjected to rigorous rule-based systems. The three Emperors of the Cyberspace have appeared before Congress in the US and have been summoned in Europe and Britain.

It would have been tricky if such enterprises were from China, North Korea or Russia. But then, who knows in which despotic state will emerge a powerful social media enterprise that will opiate the masses of the world and disrupt democracy without caring a hoot.

During a hearing by the European Parliament, Mr Christopher Wyle, a whistle-blower with insider information, revealed that it is "almost certain that systematic fraud and voter deception took place … Facebook system allowed it to happen.”

In a testimonial to the Senate judiciary committee, FB admitted the Russian linked disinformation machinery reached a whooping 126 million Americans. Then Google revealed ads worth $4,700 had links to Russia. It also revealed 18 YouTube Channels were associated with the Kremlin. In their revelations, Twitter established 2,752 accounts were linked to Russia propaganda factories.

But disinformation factories are not just a preserve of Russia. Each society, including Kenya, has its own tiny cottage industries that manufacture and peddle fake news.That is why more vigilance is critical. Indeed, the future of democracy will thus be reliant on new regime of hard-nosed fact checkers and an increasingly watchful and sceptical citizenry and civil society.

FACT CHECKERS

Aware of the dangers of misinformation and how it can ruin its reputation and thereby profits, FB started to partner with fact-checkers, reaching about 24 countries, in a bid to nix misinformation before it hits the newsfeed.

It is also reportedly deploying AI to aid in deflating deceptive content. The efficacy of the project is yet to be established.

States too are duty-bound to establish monitoring mechanisms to debunk misinformation especially geared towards subverting democracy. Such agencies will have to collaborate with the diverse fact-checking entities locally and internationally.

At the heart of it will be incorporate critical thinking skills and social media literacy in schools. This way, society will progressively produce discerning citizens. See, today, critical thinking is such a scarce commodity even among the fairly educated class. Small wonder even the US suffered fools.

Still, the future of democracy is principally hinged on Mr Zuckerberg, Mr Pichai and Mr Dorsey — remember no one has elected them. Welcome to the information society.

Mr Wamanji is a Public Relations and Communication adviser. [email protected] twitter: @manjis