IMAGE: Sviatlana Zykava — 123RF

Weapons of mass manipulation

Politics in the days of social networks has gone down some very strange paths. In non-democracies, such as China, the regime devotes more people to the elimination and manipulation of content on social networks than to its huge army: a significant part of the population dedicates its time to replicating the work of George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, fabricating an alternative reality for the rest of the population, eliminating anonymous, critical or “unacceptable” comment, inserting praise for the government on forums, networks and newspapers using multiple accounts to simulate widespread support.

In Russia, things are pretty much the same: thousands of trolls, bots and fake accounts devote their time to protect the leadership of Vladimir Putin and manipulating the political landscape in his favor. The automation of disinformation practices the regime perfected in some former Soviet republics has now been proven to have been used in the recent US presidential elections.

Facebook acknowledges that some 470 accounts linked to false identities based in Russia were part of a coordinated attempt to invest about $100,000 in more than 3,000 ads on the platform about controversial issues aimed at dividing the electorate, coupled with a wide variety of false accounts of supposed US citizens who shared those advertisements. These ads are estimated to have reached some 70 million US voters, most of them living in strategic states, contributing to what was arguably the most polarized and bitter campaign in the country’s history, during which, issues most people thought were consigned to history were forced back onto the political agenda. It is likely that a significant number of voters were manipulated by the inflammatory messages spread by the intelligence services of a foreign power.

Suspicions of Russian manipulation of the US elections that handed the White House over to Donald Trump have since been confirmed, appears published on Wikipedia, is now subject to a Senate investigation, and seems to validate what some people previously dismissed as paranoid or conspiracy theories. There is now a new approach to politics and interference in electoral processes, perfected in non-democratic countries to be used to influence elections around the world. These infinitely variable weapons of mass manipulation are difficult to detect and can be directed at any number of aspects of the electoral process, and will manifest themselves in other countries, allowing them to be further perfected.

We now face the most sophisticated and complex assault on the foundations of democracy ever: governments using social networks to pursue a specific strategy, to manipulate public opinion in other countries’ elections. Rigging elections is nothing new: in the past, governments have used the media to their own ends. But as the traditional media’s influence has waned, with more and more people switching to social media, rigging has adapted, becoming more sophisticated, taking on the guise of ordinary people and spreading ideas as they had some basis in reality through practices such as astroturfing, a practice social media seem not to have found ways to filter. Refining and strengthening these filters to stop such attacks and helping the public to identify them will surely be one of the most complex tasks democracy will ever have faced.

(En español, aquí)