By Scott Bedbury
The Cambridge Analytica revelations have exposed how easy it is to push disinformation, hate and propaganda into the bloodstream of a loosely guarded media platform. By itself, that’s not a revelation. Every media innovation since the Gutenberg Press has eventually served the demons of propagandists and the Holy See alike, but social media is not just another innovation. Not since we split the atom have we created something so capable of tearing at the fabric of humanity so quickly. And, like the Bomb, we did so with little initial foresight to how we would harness or direct it, and whether the institutions of our time could even grasp what it all meant.
But unlike the dusk that followed the dawn of the Nuclear Age, there has been very little Oppenheimer’s remorse for what amounts to the most lethal attack on truth, trust and democracy in history.
In Mark Zuckerberg’s first interview following the alleged privacy breach by Cambridge Analytica, he tried to deflect some responsibility by suggesting he could not have anticipated this scenario in 2004 when he started Facebook. That is true. No one could have. But when he crossed the 500 million user mark in 2010, as Facebook’s Newsfeed began crippling the business models for traditional media and journalism outlets, and as it began filtering how users saw the world and how they received their messages, he should have realized he had created something far more powerful than an app to compare the relative hotness of Harvard co-eds.
Some say we’re at a tipping point and that things may get worse before they get better. The thought of an even more weaponized web fueled by advances in machine learning could bring one of the darker chapters in human history with the exception of a few global pandemics and perhaps reality TV. A world run by dictators, clicktators, kleptocrats and super PACs that harness the web to rape and pillage the emotional vulnerabilities of the masses would make for a great movie, worse than a Zombie Apocalypse. Fincher and Sorkin could reprise The Social Network and give it some real edge.
Sadly, we already see what happens when an emerging technology is weaponized and its power consolidated to an evil few. It didn’t end well.
Adolf Hitler is well remembered for his racist, genocidal ways, but what is less known about humanity’s most heinous human is how he weaponized radio, a relatively new technology, to exploit 80 million anxious minds that were losing trust in their government, increasingly uncertain about their future and looking for fictional enemies to blame.
Where Twitter might fit in the hands of some, radio was a perfect fit for Hitler’s fiery, hate-laced speeches in the 30’s. I suspect he would have liked podcasts, too. But it only took basic radio to amplify his bile-filled conspiracy theories of Bolshevik-Jewish slavery. Unlike any medium before it, radio was direct, unfiltered and real time. But it wasn’t enough by itself. Once elected Chancellor in 1933, Hitler quickly began seizing control of Germany’s independent press in a matter of days. The Third Reich ensured that all publishers and broadcasters would echo Hitler’s views. Those that refused ceased to exist.
Hitler was able to freely share his propaganda on Volksempfanger VE301 radios and speakers, each one stamped with an eagle and swastika and limited to three frequencies controlled by the Third Reich. By the time a thousand Luftwaffe pilots began bombing Poland in the early morning light of September 1, 1939, Hitler’s radio network was complete. Beer halls, government buildings, bakeries, town squares and more than 75% of German households had a radio and speaker. He had achieved near-total control of how Germany saw itself and the world around it.
It is not hard to see what Hitler’s intentions were — they were clear in his autobiography, Mein Kampf, written from his prison cell in the early ’20s and published more than a decade before the war. Hitler crafted a vision for how a defeated, disempowered Germany could be made great again, and how propaganda could control hearts and minds. Albert Speer, Hitler’s head of armaments and responsible for the design, manufacture and deployment of the radios, saw firsthand the power of these new weapons of mass distortion in the hands of Hitler. During his final testimony at the Nuremberg trials after the war Speer summed it up this way:
“Hitler’s dictatorship differed in one fundamental point from all its predecessors in history. His was the first dictatorship in the present period of modern technical development, a dictatorship which made the complete use of all technical means for domination of its own country. Through technical devices like the radio and loudspeaker, 80 million people were deprived of independent thought. It was thereby possible to subject them to the will of one man…”
The ability to speak to millions at once was impressive, but it was what Hitler said and how he delivered it that convinced Germans he could restore the Fatherland. Alfons Heck, one of five million members of the Hitler Youth Brigade, described his first Hitler rally, at age ten, this way:
“We erupted into a frenzy of nationalistic pride that bordered on hysteria. For minutes on end, we shouted at the top of our lungs, with tears streaming down our faces: ‘Sieg Heil, Sieg Heil, Sieg Heil!’ From that moment on, I belonged to Adolf Hitler body and soul.”
In Mein Kampf Hitler explained the importance of communicating first to those who would not challenge his views; the simpler and less educated ones with malleable minds that he could easily influence and control:
“The broad masses of the people are not made up of diplomats or professors of public jurisprudence nor simply of persons who are able to form reasoned judgment in given cases, but a vacillating crowd of human children who are constantly wavering between one idea and another.”
And given the apparent diminished intelligence of his intended followers — the persuadables — Hitler believed it essential to design and deliver simple, memorable slogans that would appeal to emotions rather than any logical argument:
“The receptive powers of the masses are very restricted, and their understanding is feeble. On the other hand, they quickly forget. Such being the case, all effective propaganda must be confined to a few bare essentials and those must be expressed as far as possible in stereotyped formulas. These slogans should be persistently repeated until the very last individual has come to grasp the idea that has been put forward.”
Hitler wrote a lot of sick but eerily familiar slogans in Mein Kampf. One of them is as relevant today as then. This bit of advice from the Fuhrer about propaganda could have fit within Twitter’s original 140-character format — in German, no less.
Translated into English:
For an aspiring 21st century autocrat or dictator to overthrow a democracy like the U.S., France, the U.K. or Germany, they wouldn’t need to remove the free press by force as Hitler did or murder journalists as Putin is widely believed to have done since taking power in 2000. They would only need to cripple public trust in the most essential avatars of truth — the most trusted media outlets, academics and scientists. They would need to sow doubt in their tactics and motives, attack them by name, brand them as liars, call them fakes, bully them at every turn, and intimidate anyone that stood in their way. They would relentlessly attack truth and fact wherever it threatened their power and create enough disinformation, noise and distraction to make the pursuit of truth so difficult most of the Republic would give up the hunt and just listen to them.
And if the drool for populist repressive rule was really strong they might even say, “Don’t trust them. Trust me. They’re all liars.”
This is how democracies die in the 21st century.
Many of our greatest innovators — Gutenberg, Nobel, Einstein, Pasteur, Shockley, Morse, Bell, Oppenheimer and Fermi — faced real ethical challenges because of what they created. But each of them left valuable fingerprints on humanity. Oppenheimer’s remorse was real. He refused to participate in the creation of the hydrogen bomb and his partner Fermi shifted his work to enable nuclear energy to drive electrical grids. What redeeming fingerprints will Page, Brin, Dorsey and Zuckerberg leave?
In this war against truth a billion rounds of highly specialized ammunition now fly near the speed of light at assigned targets with bomblets to impersonate, replicate and accelerate social media disinformation. In both campaigns to help elect a US President — one in Russia and one in the US — thousands of fake social media accounts served as remote weapons depots capable of creating, distributing, sharing and retweeting ordinance faster than a thousand fast-fingered millennials. Perhaps most cunning was how Cambridge Analytica, armed with deep Facebook user data that violated privacy protections, was able to target individual voters in key swing states in America with propaganda designed expressly for them, informed by their own online behaviors. Ditto for the Brexit vote. AI is very good at determining what message, words, images, designs and videos will get your goat and change if not inflame your mind.
But don’t be shocked. You’re really not that hard to read.
The digital genies created by AI are out of their bottles, flying fully uncorked, unbound by ethics and unfazed in their mission to distort how humanity sees reality. But the damage to truth doesn’t stop there. Mainstream media has followed this carnival ride like the tail of a mad dog running to who-knows-where, even if it’s a tweet from an enraged, intolerant old man on a golden toilet with a cell phone and a fragile ego. In a matter of seconds, the world can now be sent racing to interpret, analyze and opine the meaning — or insanity — of words chosen by some modern day evil twin of Chauncey the Gardner.
For too long social media has been exploited by dark forces bent on destroying truth and trust for profit, power or politics. For too long our most influential social media companies have chosen to behave like feckless technologies, utilities or private surveillance platforms rather than the brands they are, with enormous responsibilities that come with enormous power.
A great institution, regardless of its size, has a conscience. Somewhere along the way that got lost in the clicks, tweets, retweets, posts, shares, likes and thumbs up in Silicon Valley.
If we fail to begin controlling this incredible power, if the great innovators of our time ignore their responsibilities for what they are creating, if our government fails to protect its citizens, if we all sit on our hands waiting for someone else to fix this, these weapons of mass distortion and disruption will leave us with just one option:
Make the truth big, keep it simple, keep saying it, and pray to God they eventually believe it.
Scott Bedbury is an author, founder and CEO of Brandstream, and former marketing executive for Nike and Starbucks. This is an excerpt from his new book on the war against truth, trust and transparency to be released in 2020. He can be reached at email@example.com.