Category Archives: Trustworthiness

Russian pre-electoral disinformation in Italy

An interesting blog post by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue discusses Russian propaganda in the run-up to the recent Italian general elections.

Basically, the study identifies 500 Twitter accounts of super-sharers of Russian propaganda in Italian and plots their sentiments with regard to party politics, the conflict in Ukraine, and health/pandemic-response policy during the electoral campaign. This is not, therefore, a network of coordinated inauthentic behavior, but rather a bona fide consumption of Russian propaganda.

There are some interesting takeaways from the data, the main one being the catalyst function of coverage of the Covid-19 response: a significant proportion of users in the group began sharing content from Russian propaganda websites in the context of vaccine hesitancy and resistance to public health measures such as the “green pass“, and then stayed on for Ukraine and Italian election news.

What remains unclear, however, is the extent of the influence in question. The examples given of Kremlin-friendly messages hardly suggest viewpoints without grassroots support in the country: it is fairly easy, for instance, to find the same arguments voiced by mainstream news outlets without any suspicion of collusion with Russia. Also, the analysis of candidate valence does not support the conclusion of a successful misinformation campaign: the eventual winner of the election, Giorgia Meloni, comes in for similar amounts of opprobrium as the liberal establishment Partito Democratico, while the two major parties portrayed in a positive light, Matteo Salvini’s Lega and the 5 Star Movement, were punished at the polls. Perhaps the aspect of the political views of the group that was most attuned to the mood of the electorate was a generalized skepticism of the entire process: #iononvoto (#IDontVote) was a prominent hashtag among these users, and in the end more than a third of eligible voters did just that on September 25th (turnout was down 9% from the 2018 elections). But, again, antipolitical sentiment has deep roots in Italian political culture, well beyond what can be ascribed to Russian meddling.

In the end, faced with the evidence presented by the ISD study one is left with some doubt regarding the direction of causation: were RT and the other Kremlin-friendly outlets steering the political beliefs of users and thus influencing Italian public discourse, or were they merely providing content in agreement with what these users already believed, in order to increase their readership?

Conclaves and contention

Michael Den Tandt suggested recently in a CIGI blog post that the international moment called for a high-level mobilization of the best minds in a multilateral venture aimed at guaranteeing a stable information regime at a global level. The parallel Den Tandt mentioned historically is the Bretton Woods conference that set up the postwar international economic order at the end of the Second World War. It is interesting, it should be observed in passing, that contemporary discussions of bold internationalist projects tend to use economic regime creation as an archetype, rather than the arguably more universalist political settlements that bracketed them (you rarely hear calls for a new Dumbarton Oaks…).

There are, prima facie, two fundamental problems with the proposal. The first is that the call for a new round of regime building fundamentally misinterprets the historical moment: Bretton Woods was made possible by the imminence of Allied victory in WWII, while our own time is seeing the rise, not (yet) the dénouement, of fundamental antagonisms and Great Power rivalries. The type of lasting settlement Den Tandt envisions will be up to the victor in these struggles. The second problem concerns the balance of power not among States but between the public and the private sector. The framework of international economic development that was set up by the Bretton Woods system –which has been described by John Gerard Ruggie as embedded liberalism– was decisively smashed by the currency crises of the early 1970s. Many see that passage as the birth of neoliberalism, a new paradigm of public policy that has become hegemonic in the past half century. Under this current dispensation, the State, even the internationally hegemonic State, does not possess the ability to guide macroeconomic development, or to steer technological innovation decisively. Even if the political will for an international consensus at the highest level could be found, it is highly improbable that it could be implemented on a recalcitrant global market.

The disfunctions in the information sphere that Den Tandt decries are undeniable; such problems, however, will not be resolved by simply conjuring into existence a global regulatory regime for which the historical preconditions do not currently exist.

Geopolitical splintering, decentralization, impartiality

Meta and Twitter have discovered and dismantled a network of coordinated inauthentic behavior spreading pro-US (and anti-China/Russia/Iran) narratives in Central Asia and the Middle East (Al Jazeera, Axios stories). Undoubtedly, this kind of intervention bolsters the platforms’ image as neutral purveyors of information and entertainment, determined to enforce the rules of the game no matter what the ideological flavor of the transgression may be. In a way, paradoxically, such impartiality may even play well in Washington, where the companies would certainly welcome the support, given the current unfavorable political climate.

The type of universalism on display in this instance harkens back to an earlier era of the internet, the techno-libertarian heyday of the 1990s. Arguably, however, that early globalist vision of the world-wide web has already been eviscerated at the infrastructural level, with the growth of distinctive national versions of online life, in a long-term process that has only been made more visible by the conflict in Ukraine. Hence, the impartiality and universality of Meta and Twitter can be seen ultimately as an internal claim by and for the West, since users in countries like Russia, China, or Iran are unable to access these platforms in the first place. Of course, geopolitical splintering was one of the ills the web3 movement set out to counter. How much decentralization can resist the prevailing ideological headwinds, however, is increasingly unclear. Imperfect universalisms will have to suffice for the foreseeable future.

Spyware as diplomatic agenda item

Commercial spyware has become a mainstream news item: Politico this week profiled a story about NSO Group in the context of President Biden’s official visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia. Both Middle Eastern countries have ties with this private company, the former as the seat of its headquarters, the second as a customer of its services. The general context of the trip is broadly defensive for the US Administration, as it seeks help to stem the runaway growth in oil prices triggered by the Ukraine war, while emerging from under the shadow of its predecessor’s regional policies, from Jerusalem to Iran to the Abraham Accords. Given Biden’s objectively weak hand, raising the issue of NSO Group and the misuse of their spyware with two strategic partners is particularly complicated. At the same time, many domestic forces, from major companies damaged by Pegasus breaches (Apple, Meta…) to liberals in Congress (such as Oregon Senator Ron Wyden), are clamoring for an assertive stance. Naturally, the agencies of the US National Security State are also in the business of developing functionally similar spyware capabilities. Hence, the couching of the international policy problem follows the pattern of nonproliferation, with all the attendant rhetorical risks of special pleading and hypocrisy. The issue, however, is unlikely to fade away as an agenda item in the near future, a clear illustration of the risks to conventional diplomatic strategy of a situation in which military-grade cryptanalysis is made available on the open market.

Tropes of the Techlash

A review by Paul Dicken published online a week ago in The New Atlantis is representative of a certain kind of argument in contemporary social critiques of high tech. The piece discusses a book by Ben Schneiderman entitled Human-Centered AI, which came out earlier this year for Oxford UP, and mainly reads as an exposé of a benighted scientism that at best is hopelessly naïve about its potential to effect meaningful emancipatory social change and at worst is disingenuous about the extractive and exploitative agendas that underwrite its deployment.

One would not wish to deny that Schneiderman makes for a good target: computer scientists as a sociological class are hardly more self-reflexive or engagé than any other similarly-defined professional group, and divulgative AI-and-management texts seldom present incisive and counterintuitive social commentary. Nonetheless, it is hard to miss a certain symmetry between the attacks on the political self-awareness of the author in question (how could he have missed the damning social implications??) and the peans to progress through techno-solutionism which characterized public debate on Web2.0 before the techlash.

The fact itself that Dicken refers back to Charles Babbage as a precursor of contemporary AI research and its dark side should suggest that the entwinement of technological advancement with political economy might be a long-run phenomenon. What is different is that in the present conjuncture would-be social critics seem to harbor absolutely no faith that the political and social ills upstream from technological development can be righted, and no plan to do so. New technology changes affordances, and this shift makes certain social dynamics more visible. But in the absence of specifically political work, such visibility is ephemeral, irrelevant. Hence, the exposé of political cluelessness risks becoming the master trope of the techlash, essentially a declaration of social impotence.