Online disinformation and emerging tech: Are democracies at risk?

By Brad Allenby | November 21, 2019

Computer code on world map. Democracies are struggling to contend with the rapid pace of technological change. Image credit: Jonny Lindner via Pixabay.

It’s been a problematic several years to be a denizen of a democratic country. The news in the United States and elsewhere is filled with reports on populist unrest, the rise of authoritarian governments, breakups of long-standing alliances, and online disinformation attacks by domestic and foreign actors on the levers of democracies. Domestic political polarization and institutional failure in previously vibrant pluralistic countries are a reminder that Western democratic societies are not historically foreordained, but may actually be fairly fragile in the face of fundamental technological and social change.

Online disinformation campaigns supported by fundamental changes in military and geopolitical strategies of major players such as Russia and China harden tribal factions and undermine the security of infrastructure systems in targets such as the United States, as state and non-state actors mount increasingly sophisticated cyberattacks on democratic institutions. The accelerating velocity, volume, and variety of information are creating a dramatic increase in the complexity of the information ecosystem, which in turn causes people to retreat into fundamentalism and encourages further institutional breakdown. Militaries, private firms, and civic organizations are trying to respond to the immediate challenges of an unpredictably shifting and dangerous new environment, with limited success.

Unfortunately, virtually no one is focusing on the fundamental threats emerging technologies are posing to democratic institutions that we all take for granted. To take one example, consider the issue of free speech in the United States. This has been in the news recently as Democrats and Republicans alike attack social media firms for alleged bias and incompetence. Despite the sturm und drang, however, they are missing the really important point: speech in today’s United States (and indeed in the West) isn’t a matter for courts and constitutions; it is a matter for the terms and conditions of service, and CEO foibles, of the major social media companies: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Tencent (WeChat), Alibaba.  You can talk all you want to yourself, but if you want people’s attention, you need to be on social media.  And if they ban you, you essentially have no speech.

And to make things more interesting, network economics means that many social media firms are regional or global in scale, so such firms need to try to figure out speech not just between Republicans and Democrats in the United States, but among many other cultures, with very different ideas of what constitutes allowable speech, around the world. Companies like Facebook are, in short, trying to figure out the future; political entities such as the Republicans and Democrats, and the European Union, are trying to reconstruct frameworks that are already obsolete.

Free speech, however, isn’t the only place where fundamental technological change is overwhelming institutions and governance. The cycle time of political processes in pluralistic societies, especially as tribalism is inflamed and solidified by disinformation campaigns, is becoming slower and more polarized just as technological change is accelerating, increasingly decoupling regulation and policy from technological reality. The rise of civilizational conflict strategies, adopted by both the Russians and Chinese, shifts conflict from traditional conventional warfare, where the United States is globally dominant, to more subtle conflict across all elements of a society. So-called whole-of-society approaches to conflict favor soft authoritarian governments that are able to coordinate offensive and defensive strategies across their entire society, including private firms, civic groups, and even criminal organizations, in contrast to countries such as the United States, where the constitutional and cultural divides between the military and civilian spheres, and between private and governmental institutions, increasingly put the country at a disadvantage. The soft power of the West, a vastly underappreciated source of global status, is being dissipated by tribalism and xenophobic racial and national superiority narratives reinforced by increasingly sophisticated disinformation campaigns.

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One of the most troubling phenomenon is the slow undermining of the core assumption of a pluralistic, Enlightenment society: the individual as a responsible and reasonably rational citizen. This ideal has always been over-simplistic, but technologically enabled trends are making it untenable, even dysfunctional. And yet, although unrecognized, this is perhaps the most important way in which the new information environment is undermining democracies to the benefit of authoritarian regimes. Structuring a pluralism explicitly based on tribes and tribal narratives, including exclusionary racial and identity narratives, may be possible, but it requires a degree of institutional, political, and legal sophistication and agility which is currently not evident.

As in the case of free speech, the trends behind this shift are strong, and hard to reverse. Basic advances in disciplines including behavioral economics, evolutionary psychology, and neurosciences are combining with the increasing power of artificial intelligence, big data, and associated analytics, to dramatically enhance the power of disinformation specialists to manipulate the psychologies of their targets at the scale of the individual. Think of the Russian effort to meddle in the 2016 US election, a key feature of which was a campaign to enflame societal divisions around racial and other divides. In doing so, the Russians were able to draw on a long Soviet history of attempting to achieve what’s called reflexive control, a practice that enables Russia to predetermine an adversary’s decision in its favor by altering key factors in that adversary’s perception of the situation. Such capability used to be difficult and mainly theoretical, an apparatchik dream rather than a realistic goal. Today, however, AI and media tools enable it to be carried out with increasing precision and power, especially with state-level resources.

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New AI tools can create individualized narratives, others can generate video and voice that can’t be distinguished from real world products except by state of the art forensic laboratories. Messages can be targeted at small groups of five to 10 people by AI mechanisms fed by individual data consolidated from the internet, a process sometimes called computational propaganda.

When people feel that the world has gotten too complex to make sense, they tend to implement strategies that reduce an individual or institutional need to process incoming information, which frequently include a retreat to fundamentalism and a reliance on simplifying narratives backed by emotions. This is a basic finding from behavioral economics, which suggests that cognitive processes that use explicit rationality to reach decisions (so-called system 2 cognition) are energetically and psychologically costly, whereas automatic decision-making based on existing beliefs and narratives (system 1 thinking) is much easier and faster.

In short, the more complex the environment, the more humans and their institutions retreat to storylines that require less processing. Just when times require more sophistication and judgment, humans and their institutions stampede in the other direction.

It is a mug’s game to try to predict the future in such a chaotic system, but a reasonable scenario is that the institutional failure that is so evident today, especially in democratic governance frameworks in places like the United States and Britain, will continue to accelerate. Quite simply, it isn’t that pluralistic structures such as separation of powers, subordination of military to civilian leadership, or voting weren’t superior in their time to existing governance models such as monarchy or caste systems, it is rather that the pluralistic models of the Enlightenment succeeded spectacularly. In doing so they have bred the complexity and sophistication that, in turn, has rendered them anachronistic and ineffectual.

People in countries that have been successful for many years tend to assume that the values and institutions they are familiar with are historical norms, but to paraphrase financial guidance documents, past success is no guarantee of future performance. Indeed, current trends suggest the strong possibility that pluralistic societies, which have been ascendant, are no longer as competitive as soft authoritarianism. Like all scenarios, this does not mean that there aren’t things that can be done to protect, or at least salvage, some of the ideas and values that citizens of pluralistic societies hold dear.  But it does suggest that a far more clear-eyed and less emotional response to current challenges is required.

Whether the United States and other democracies are up to that challenge remains to be seen.

As the coronavirus crisis shows, we need science now more than ever.

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