Book Reviews: Social Media and the Destruction of Democracy

MINDF*CK: Cambridge Analytica and the Plot to Break America

By Christopher Wylie

INFORMATION WARS: How We Lost the Global Battle Against Disinformation and What We Can Do About It

By Richard Stengel

ANTI-SOCIAL: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation

By Andrew Marantz

American democracy has persisted for almost 250 years. This despite a couple of world wars, the Great Depression, multiple presidential assassinations and, of course, a civil war. Our democracy has been sufficiently robust to take these various disruptions, cataclysmic as they were, more or less in stride. But it’s a toss-up whether democracy here, and elsewhere, will survive the existential threat posed by (AI-enabled) social media.

Each of the books listed above offers a different lens by which to understand the grave political dangers posed by our social media platforms. There are more dangers than just the political, of course. Teenagers spend less time with their friends IRL (in real life) and more time online. In turn, teen anxiety, depression, and suicide are way up. News organizations have contracted, or failed entirely, because the ad revenue on which they depended now flows to the social media companies. The average smartphone user checks their device 63 times a day, up from 47 a year ago. And they tend to exhibit anger, tension, depression, irritability, and restlessness when separated from their phone — all signs of addiction.

The Political Dark Side of Tech Innovation

Nevertheless, it is the political harm and havoc that seems most serious, and that concerns each of these authors. In Mindf*ck, Christopher Wylie (sort of) spills the beans on the Cambridge Analytica scandal. I say ‘sort of’ because much of the story of how Cambridge Analytica sought to leverage Facebook data to disrupt and distort the 2016 presidential election, and how they (inadvertently, or maybe not) aided and abetted Russian efforts to do the same, has already been widely covered in the press.

As you may remember, Wylie had been CA’s research director until deciding he could no longer stomach what was going on and turned whistleblower instead. He eventually testified before the U.S. Congress and the British parliament (regarding similar interference in the Brexit vote).

Early in his book, Wylie makes this framing observation:

My work with Cambridge Analytica exposed the dark side of tech innovation. We innovated. The alt-right innovated. Russia innovated. And Facebook, that same site where you share your party invites and baby pictures, allowed those innovations to be unleashed.

This observation frames not only his book, but the other two as well. Wylie focuses on what was going on inside the world of Cambridge Analytica (and its parent, SCL) related to the U.S. and Brexit elections. Richard Stengel’s book, Information Wars, tells the story of the Obama State Department’s efforts to counter Russian and ISIS propaganda warfare largely playing out in the social media space. And Andrew Marantz’s Anti-Social offers an up-close-and-personal account of key alt-right warriors and how they captured (a good deal of) the social media conversation.

The Politics of Microtargeting

Conceptually, Wylie’s book is about the political use of microtargeting — “understanding exactly who we need to talk to, and on which issues” — through the applied use of artificial intelligence. In practice, this means political campaigns have moved from the public square to the private screen, and from public, broad-brush messaging to private, (seemingly) one-to-one communication.

Campaign messages no longer even had to look like campaign messages. Social media created a new environment where campaigns could now appear . . . as if your friend was sending you a message, without your realizing the source or calculated intent of that contact.

Public political messaging necessarily had to maintain some connection to the truth to avoid getting called out. Private political messaging, targeted carefully to receptive voters, operates with no such constraint. As a result, misinformation, even blatant falsehoods, are now the coin of the realm. As Wylie says, “In this new war, the American voter became a target of confusion, manipulation, and deception. Truth was replaced by alternative narratives and virtual realities.”

Wylie places the blame on nefarious political operatives like Steve Bannon and uber-conservative patrons like Robert Mercer. But he also places the blame squarely on Facebook. The company’s users were told its mission was bringing people together. In actual fact, Facebook was carefully segmenting those users into very distinct neighborhoods of “people who look like them” — what the company termed Lookalikes — to allow advertisers to target them more successfully.

Letting companies know whether or not someone is likely to buy a car, or a plane ticket, or a toothbrush, may not be a big deal. But translated to politics, it’s a very big deal. Facebook delivered to political operatives the holy grail for which they had always lusted: exceedingly detailed segmentation, based not only on external characteristics like geography, income, education, and the like, but also on psychological makeup. Essentially, Facebook provided a road map for psychic manipulation that tapped into, voter by voter, our vulnerabilities and deepest anxieties.

Even worse, the manipulation came not just from political operatives like Steve Bannon and Cambridge Analytica, it also came from Russia. In fact, back in 2013, the Russian chief of the general staff, Valery Gerasimov wrote an article calling for a new kind of warfare, conducted in “the information space.” Wylie concludes:

At first, no one could have imagined that Facebook or Twitter could be battlefield tools; warfare was waged on the ground, in the air, at sea, and potentially in space. But the fifth domain — cyberspace — has proved to be a fruitful battleground for those who had the imagination and foresight to envision using social media for information warfare . . . In only five or so years, the Russian military and state have managed to develop the first devastatingly effective new weapon of the twenty-first century (emphasis added).

Why has this new type of warfare proven so effective? Because the real objective is to provoke us into tearing apart our own social fabric. Meaning that Americans on Facebook “did the Russians’ work for them,” laundering their propaganda through the First Amendment. The grim result, according to Wylie, is that “America is now living in the aftermath of the first scaled deployment of a psychological weapon of mass destruction (emphasis added).”

The Weaponization of Grievance

That may sound a tad hyperbolic — except that it’s also the conclusion of Richard Stengel’s Information Wars. For the last three years of the Obama administration, Stengel was responsible for U.S. efforts to counter Russian (and ISIS) information warfare. Previously the managing editor of Time magazine, he became the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Or, as he puts it, “I was the chief marketing officer of brand America.”

Stengel entered government from journalism as an ‘information idealist.’ He believed, along with the Framers of the Constitution, that information is the lifeblood of democracy, and that truth would inevitably prevail.

I had always believed in the notion that the best ideas triumph in what Justice William O. Douglas called “the market place of ideas.” This notion is found in John Milton and John Stuart Mill and is a bedrock principle in our democracy. But everyone presumed that the marketplace would be a level playing field. That a rational audience would ultimately see the truth. I think we all now know that this is a pipe dream. Unfortunately, facts don’t come highlighted in yellow. A false sentence reads the same as a true one. It’s not enough to battle falsehood with truth; the truth does not always win.

For a long time, mainstream media was where we (almost) all turned for what we believed was a reasonable approximation of truth. But now social media serves each of us whatever version of ‘truth’ we prefer — even versions that are blatantly false. Which means, Stengel says, that it’s never been easier to spread disinformation, deception, and discord, all in the service of political agendas. He highlights three master manipulators, and an underlying dynamic:

All three of them — ISIS, Putin, and Trump — weaponized the grievances of people who felt left out by modernity and globalization. In fact, they used the same playbook: ISIS sought to Make Islam Great Again; Putin yearned to Make Russia Great Again; and we know about Mr. Trump. The weaponization of grievance is the unified field theory behind the rise of nationalism and right-wing strongmen.

Stengel left government service chastened, unsure about whether truth, and democracy, have a fighting chance against their social-media-enabled enemies.

Still More Threats to Democracy

Andrew Marantz, author of Anti-Social, adds another player to the list of those who’ve mastered the weaponization of grievance: the neo-Nazi alt-right. In some ways, Marantz’s book is the most cynical of the three — he starts with the belief that alt-right trolls have succeeded in commandeering (a considerable portion of) online discourse and, partly as a result, that conventional, truth-focused journalism, may be a dying art form. Most of what he offers up is simply a series of vignettes and profiles of leading alt-right media warriors. Still, he does give us this helpful framing observation:

What I can offer is the story of how a few disruptive entrepreneurs, motivated by naïveté and reckless techno-utopianism, built powerful new systems full of unforeseen vulnerabilities, and how a motley cadre of edgelords, motivated by bigotry and bad faith and nihilism, exploited those vulnerabilities to hijack the American conversation.

Although Marantz’s book is largely about that ‘motley crew of [alt-right] edgelords,’ he makes quite clear that the Silicon Valley disrupters, preaching their gospel of “move fast and break things,” had no idea, nor concern, about the havoc their social media platforms might wreak. In their eagerness to topple gatekeepers in dozens of industries, they gave no thought to the potential for abuse once the gatekeepers were gone.

But now the carnage is increasingly apparent:

Smart, well-meaning people unable to distinguish simple truth from viral misinformation; a pop-culture punch line ascending to the presidency; neo-Nazis marching, unmasked, through several American cities. This wasn’t the kind of disruption anyone had envisioned. There had been a serious miscalculation . . . The arc of history bends the way people bend it. In the early years of the twenty-first century, the internet was full of nihilists and masculinists and ironic neo-Nazis and nonironic neo-Nazis, all working to bend the arc of history in some extremely disturbing directions.

Of tech’s many casualties, democracy may prove to be its most consequential. No doubt that’s more disruption than Mark Zuckerberg, et al, had in mind. But at least we get to post our party pictures for free.

X