Adam Satariano in the NYT reports on the latest instance of platform manipulation, this time by Chinese tech giant Huawei against unfavorable 5G legislation being considered in Belgium. There’s nothing particularly novel about the single pieces of the process: paid expert endorsement, amplified on social media by coordinated fake profiles, with the resultant appearance of virality adduced by the company as a sign of support in public opinion at large. If anything, it appears to have been rather crudely executed, leading to a fairly easy discovery by Graphika: from a pure PR cost-benefit standpoint, the blowback from the unmasking of this operation did much more damage to Huawei’s image than any benefit that might have accrued to the company had it not been exposed. However, the main take-away from the story is the adding of yet another data point to the process of convergence between traditional government-sponsored influence operations and corporate astroturfing ventures. Their questionable effectiveness notwithstanding, these sorts of interventions are becoming default, mainstream tools in the arsenal of all PR shops, whatever their principals’ aims. The fact that they also tend to erode an already fragile base of public trust suggests that at the aggregate level this may be a negative-sum game.
Just followed the Medium book launch event for the print edition of Cory Doctorow’s latest, How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism (free online version here). The pamphlet, from August 2020, was originally intended as a rebuttal of Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism [v. supra]. The main claim is that the political consequences of surveillance capitalism were not, as Zuboff maintains, unintended, but rather are central and systemic to the functioning of the whole. Hence, proposed solutions cannot be limited to the technological or economic sphere, but must be political as well. Specifically, Doctorow identifies in trust-busting the main policy tool for reining in Big Tech.
With hindsight of the 2020 election cycle and its aftermath, two points Doctorow made in the presentation stand out most vividly. The first is the link between market power and the devaluing of expert opinion that is a necessary forerunner of disinformation. The argument is that “monopolies turn truth-seeking operations [such as parliamentary committee hearings, expert testimony in court, and so forth] into auctions” (where the deepest pockets buy the most favorable advice), thereby completely discrediting their information content for the general public. The second point is that most all of the grievances currently voiced about Section 230 (the liability shield for online publishers of third-party materials) are at some level grievances about monopoly power.
I am following (just like everyone else) the developing GameStop story. Beyond the financial technicalities, what is interesting for present purposes is that the dynamics of internet virality seem to be finding a close parallel in stock valuation. The term “meme stock” is telling. In other words, at present the online coordination mechanisms, the capital, and the nihilistic boredom are all available to craft an alternative description of reality, which in turn is self-reinforcing (until it isn’t).
With the inauguration of a new Administration, speculation is rife on the chances of moving on from the more toxic aspects of the political media ecosystem of the past half decade. An op-ed by Rob Faris and Joan Donovan of the Shorenstein Center (Harvard Kennedy School) spells out these aspirations concretely: with Biden in the White House, conservative media such as Fox News have the opportunity to distance themselves decisively from the more fringe disinformation beliefs of the conservative base, and return political discussion to a debate of ideas rather than the reinforcement of antagonistic social realities. In their own words,
The only way out of this hole is to rediscover a collective understanding of reality and to reinstall the mechanisms of accountability in media where they are missing, to ensure that accuracy and objectivity are rewarded and disinformation is not given the space to metastasize.
I think there is good reason not to be particularly sanguine about these goals. Faris and Donovan’s proposed solutions read more as a restatement of the intractability of the problem. For one thing, their discussion is very top-down, focusing on what the upper echelons of the Republican Party, the conservative-leaning media, and their financial backers can do. The trouble with US political disinformation, I would argue, is that at this point in the cycle it is largely demand-driven: there is a strong appetite for it in the (GOP) electorate at large, to the point that one could speak of a general social antagonism in search of arguments. Hence, focusing on the infrastructure of production of disinformation is merely going to elicit creative responses, such as the flight to alternative social media platforms, which will be viable given the size, means, capabilities, and diversity of the public involved.
The alternative, however, is equally fraught. Focusing on the transformation of mass beliefs in order to discourage the demand for disinformation amounts, in essence, to a domestic ‘hearts and minds’ mission. The historical record for such attempts is hardly promising. The trouble, of course, is that political adversaries cannot at the same time be treated as respectable dissenters in the common task of running the commonwealth and also as fundamentally wrong in their factual beliefs: respecting and correcting struggle to coexist in the same interpersonal relationship.
One of the problems with such an approach is that it is incomplete to say that the US media ecosystem is fragmented and siloed:
Since its inception, conservative media in America has operated under different rules […] The outcome: a cleavage in the U.S. public sphere and a schism in the marketplace of ideas. The news media of the center and left, with all its flaws and faults, operates in a milieu in which fact checkers have influence and the standards and practices of objectivity and accuracy still hold sway.In other words, conservatives have largely seceded from the traditional, 20th-century unified media sphere of print and broadcast outlets, toward a smaller, insular, homogeneous but culturally dominated one of their own. The rump ‘mainstream media’ has maintained its old ‘fourth estate’ ethos, but not its bipartisan audience. Hence, its loss of cross-party authoritativeness.
The accountability void created by this partisan segregation of US public opinion offers concrete inducements to ambitious populist politicians, which will prove hard to resist. The belief that the system contains self-correcting mechanisms appears ill-founded. Yet, it is unclear that the current administration has the stomach for the protracted effort necessary to change mass beliefs, or that it would be supported consistently by external power centers, especially in the business community, in doing so.
Thom Dunn on Medium really hits it on the head in describing the current crisis surrounding the ejection of the President from major social media platforms. Many have been laboring under the illusion that social media dialogue is akin to public exchange in a town square; in fact, the correct operative analogy is to a private club, and this misunderstanding was decisively cleared up for those thus deluded when the bouncers at their own discretion kicked them out.
Indeed, rather than an assault on unfettered free speech, which was never really on offer in the first place, the move of the social media titans signals a realignment of business interests, which have decided to comprehensively ditch the MAGA movement. This development is wholly compatible with models of delegitimization crises, such as the classic one by Michel Dobry.