Recent, nonpartisan revelations have shown a scary nightmare has come true: the global ethno-nationalists who brought us Brexit, Trump, etc. have been actively working to game not just Facebook and Twitter, but Google, YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest, and just about any other place where folks gather in any numbers online.
Why is that so terrifying? The goal here is NOT to push targeted ads that champion a candidate or cause; the goal is total information warfare. Namely, these forces want to completely control your information environment – anytime you’re online, looking at anything, they want to be there in your face. If you google “Trump” they want all the top results to be their results on Trump, not some independent fact-based entity. If you google “Putin Syria,” again it will be what they want you to see about what Putin’s doing in Syria, nothing else. In your FB feed, they want you scrolling only through their links, seeing their ads, watching their videos and they manipulate FB’s all-powerful algorithm to ensure this is the case.
Well, you say, what about TV news, local news, and print? Here’s the sad truth – print has never been less influential with fewer readers. As for TV, the reporters, writers, and producers are special targets – we now know they are subjected to ferocious online information campaigns targeted specifically to their own devices in order to try to control the information they pass on to you. As a quick example, I work in digital communications and a colleague of mine knew all the IP addresses for every single person working in Congress’ smartphones, laptops, and PCs and could hit them with ads and links anytime he wanted. Cost him about $80,000 to figure all that out. What do you think you get when your spending is virtually unlimited?
The Matrix is a fiction, but instructive. The characters talk about it being a prison that cannot be seen or touched. A jail of the mind. This is essentially what is dropping down over the democracies of the world. The internet has given every well-funded, power-mad thug a pathway to that most crucial of political forces – our brains. And we do not realize what they are doing as the systems we trust – Silicon Valley, our elected representatives, our intelligence community – refuse to acknowledge the scale of the problem and find a workable solution. Our gov’t is led by one of its beneficiaries; Silicon Valley has its stock values NOT the integrity of our democracy to worry about; and the intelligence community is not equipped to interact with us, the citizens, in a way that would counter the threat. Ultimately, we have been failed by a lack of imagination among ourselves and our defenders and have yet to come to terms with what’s truly at stake.
We are not left with much in our hands besides what we do with our own minds. The Matrix may have many of us, but it does not yet have 100% of any of us. We have to get back to reading books, newspapers, and other print media. Analog is damn tough to manipulate and usually vetted by someone. The ads and “sponsored” articles are clear as day (usually). But we also have to study how to think critically, how to interpret data, how to view statistics, and how our own emotions can be manipulated for someone else’s dark purposes. The single most dangerous thing to you should be anything on the internet that makes you angry, confirms a previously held belief, or turns you against some other group of citizens. If we simply go along with the status quo, we open ourselves to a quiet yet mendacious manipulation that no one yet has figured out how to stop.
This is exhausting stuff I know, and not just this post! Hang in there. If there is any hope to be had, it’s that these guys are not trying too hard to hide what they’re doing and we genuinely want a better way for us to learn about and engage with the world. I think we’ll get there, but first we have to take extreme responsibility for our own media diets and tread carefully as we determine what to believe and what not to. Good luck.