I have never, in my whole life, gone into a new year braced for ugly. For heaven’s sake, I’m a futurist…. usually very excited to turn the page to tomorrow. But 2020 is an election year. Vamos a ver—let’s go see! It could be a very rough ride.
At the threshold of the political battles ahead of us, our country is deeply divided. The Internet, while giving us unprecedented connectivity, also makes available unlimited sites for vicious expression. Social media platforms make political disinformation an easy tool for the manipulation of people’s attitudes and actions. According to Oxford University professors Samantha Bradshaw and Philip Howard, “Social media, which was once heralded as a force for freedom and democracy, has come under increasing scrutiny for its role in amplifying disinformation, inciting violence, and lowering levels of trust in media and democratic institutions.” Thus, was born the Computational Propaganda Research Project at Oxford.
“Writing for the Yale Review, cybersecurity expert Renee DiResta quotes public relations and propaganda pioneer Edward Bernay: “There are invisible rulers who control the destinies of millions.” Remember that when, this year, the cyber-pot-stirrers start filling you with fear, anger, resentment, and self-pity and start pitting family, friends and neighbors against each other.
Computational Propaganda is “the use of big computers, big data, algorithms, automation, and human participation to purposefully distribute misleading information over social media networks” and people at the Oxford Internet Institute are worried about this new form of propaganda.
“Computational propaganda is a suite of tools or tactics used in modern disinformation campaigns that take place online…. These tools facilitate the disinformation campaign’s ultimate goal, media manipulation that pushes the false information into mass awareness…. The job of manipulating public opinions online entails building an inventory of the evolving strategies, tools, and techniques of computational propaganda, including the use of ‘political bots’ to amplify hate speech or other forms of manipulated content, the illegal harvesting of data or micro-targeting, or deploying an army of ‘trolls’ to bully or harass political dissidents or journalists online.”
Don’t kid yourself. No one party is innocent. All sides are using it.
The study from Oxford found that government agencies and political parties in 70 countries had “cyber troops” tasked with the job of manipulating public opinion online. Cyber troops are government, military, or political party teams committed to manipulating public opinion over social media, harassing dissidents, attacking political opponents, or spreading polarizing messages meant to divide (and conquer) societies….” Cyber troops, both within our borders and beyond are at work creating orchestrated chaos for the 2020 election.
Techniques used to manipulate users include some vocabulary you should have. The Yale Review reports, “Trolling, doxxing, and harassment are a growing problem. In 2018, 27 countries were using state-sponsored trolls to attack political opponents or activists via social media. This year, it’s up to 47 countries. Other tools of repression include censorship….”
- Trolling is making a deliberately offensive or provocative online posts with the aim of upsetting someone or eliciting an angry response from them. Troll farms run hundreds of employees around the clock putting out disinformation onto social media platforms to cause chaos among populations. They are especially good at creating social upheavals and pitting racial groups against each other.
- Doxxing is searching for and publishing private or identifying information (like home addresses) about a particular individual on the Internet, typically with malicious intent. It’s a form of intimidation which can have very serious consequences and collateral damage.
- Internet harassment is another form of intimidation that includes public shaming, bullying, stalking, extortion, identity theft, creation of bogus websites or publishing fake images.
It’s all so miserable, so awful. When you think about how beautiful the original Internet was…such a pure gift to humanity; the wonderful advantages and possibilities of being part of such a vast consciousness. It is tough to stomach this dark side of the web. It’s tougher to watch people buy into it. This is why Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, is working hard to fix it through his World Wide Web Foundation. (https://webfoundation.org/)
The Oxford Internet Institute postulates that “a strong democracy requires access to high-quality information and an ability for citizens to come together to debate, discuss, deliberate, empathize, and make concessions. Are social media platforms really creating a space for public deliberation and democracy? Or are they amplifying content that keeps citizens addicted, disinformed, and angry?”
Dear readers, I am going to challenge you to cultivate right thinking, logical thinking, well-researched thinking. Avoid sound-byte-ad-hominem thinking. Don’t be a ventriloquist’s puppet. I am going to challenge you to break out of the matrix of the cyber manipulation ahead. I am going to challenge you to avoid toxic messaging. I am going to challenge you to be a free thinker, not a group thinker… a treasured value of Topangans, since the early beginnings of our individualistic community. I am going to challenge you to open your minds and study issues beyond filter bubbles. I am going to challenge you to be civil.
Most of all, I am going to challenge you to embrace diversity, the diversity of ideas and the people who have them. Who wants to live in a mono-thought world? I am challenging you to let 2020 be a bit of beautiful.
So, vamos a ver…deep breath…vamos a ver 2020!
Happy Free-Thinker New Year!