These are interesting times for democracy. It was 1947 when Winston Churchill said:

“‘Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

… and that was before social media came along and stuck its oar in (so to speak).

Over the last couple of weeks, a number of ideas from various media have passed through my sphere of attention, and they seem to connect. Please indulge me, as we take a rollercoaster ride through the 2016 US election, Brexit, Russia, wildly unethical social psychology experiments, and the coming out of Yuval Noah Harari, to arrive at a tentative conclusion about free will, or our lack thereof.

The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America, a book by Timothy Snyder

Timothy Snyder is a professor of history at Yale, so I assume he knows what he is talking about – even if Mueller doesn’t agree with him. He says that, “Russia works within the West to destroy the West; by supporting the far right in Europe, invading Ukraine in 2014, and waging a cyberwar during the 2016 presidential campaign and the EU referendum. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the creation of Donald Trump, an American failure deployed as a Russian weapon.” He claims that Trump’s failing businesses were propped up by Russian money, which served the useful triple purpose of laundering the money, putting Trump firmly in the pockets of the Russians, and enabling him to apply to himself the label of “VERY successful businessman” for campaigning purposes.

Snippets from the book that support these claims:

“Though bots are less numerous than humans on Twitter, they are more efficient than humans in sending messages. In the weeks before the election, bots accounted for about 20% of the American conversation about politics. An important scholarly study published the day before the polls opened warned that bots could “endanger the integrity of the presidential election.””

“In several hundred cases (at least), the very same bots that worked against the European Union attacked Hillary Clinton. Most of the foreign bot traffic was negative publicity about her. When she fell ill on September 11, 2016, Russian bots massively amplified the scale of the event, creating a trend on Twitter under the hashtag #HillaryDown. Russian trolls and bots also moved to support Trump directly at crucial points. Russian trolls and bots praised Donald Trump and the Republican National Convention over Twitter. When Trump had to debate Clinton, which was a difficult moment for him, Russian trolls and bots filled the ether with claims that he had won or that the debate was somehow rigged against him. In crucial swing states that Trump won, bot activity intensified in the days before the election. On Election Day itself, bots were firing with the hashtag #WarAgainstDemocrats.”

“Americans were not exposed to Russian propaganda randomly, but in accordance with their own susceptibilities, as revealed by their practices on the internet. People trust what sounds right, and trust permits manipulation. In one variation, people are led towards ever more intense outrage about what they already fear or hate.”

The New Yorker: The Chaotic Triumph of Arron Banks, the “Bad Boy of Brexit”

“The Conservative M.P. Damian Collins has demanded a broader inquiry into Russian interference in British affairs. In an interview at his office in the Houses of Parliament, he told me that he had serious concerns about the source of [Arron] Banks’s funds. “The reason the questions persist is that he seems to own a number of businesses that don’t make any money,” Collins said. “There’s never really been a clear explanation from him about the funding of these campaigns.”…

…Late last year, e-mails leaked to the Observer revealed that Leave.EU had misrepresented to British investigators the extent of its ties to Cambridge Analytica, the now disgraced and insolvent British data firm funded by the [conservative] American political donor Robert Mercer to microtarget voters. In “The Bad Boys of Brexit,” Banks flatly states that Leave.EU had “hired Cambridge Analytica.””

Please remind yourself about Cambridge Analytica, euphemistically described by Wikipedia as an “English political consulting firm which combined data mining, data brokerage, and data analysis with strategic communication during the electoral processes”. This means they bought illegally-acquired user data, and how they used it is still the subject of ongoing criminal investigations in the US and UK. Steve Bannon is its former vice-president.

Experimenter: a movie about Stanley Milgram

A quirky film, this highlights the work of the famed (even notorious) social psychologist who conducted a series of experiments in the 1960s during his professorship at Yale. You may well have heard of them. In his “Behavioural Study of Obedience”, he had subjects come into his lab, where they were instructed to administer a memory test to the “learner”, who was in fact an actor in cahoots with Milgram. The punishment for a wrong answer was an electric shock, and the more wrong answers the learner/actor gave, the stronger the shock became. Although the subject and the learner/actor were in separate rooms so they couldn’t see each other, the learner/actor would emit suitably heart-rending shrieks of pain as the shocks were administered. If the subject questioned the experiment supervisor, a man in a white lab coat (mark of authority) about whether he should continue, he was instructed to do so, even as the shocks reached supposedly potentially fatal levels.

Two thirds of the subjects went all the way to the strongest possible shock. Many of them turned in concern to the supervisor, but when he said, “Please continue”, they meekly returned to the question-answer-shock routine.

To put this into context, Milgram was inspired to conduct this experiment by the Holocaust. He wondered how so many individuals, who before the war had been ordinary people, not homicidal maniacs, commit such atrocities in the name of Hitler. His chilling conclusion was: “the essence of obedience consists in the fact that a person comes to view himself as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes, and he therefore no longer sees himself as responsible for his actions. Once this critical shift of viewpoint has occurred in the person, all of the essential features of obedience follow.”

Solomon Asch’s conformity experiments

This work was also referenced in Experimenter. The experiment consisted of a single subject being introduced into a group between 5 and 7 of Asch’s stooges, who the subject naively understood to be participants just like himself. The group would be shown two pieces of card. On the first card was a single line. On the second card were three lines of varying lengths. Each person had to say which of the lines on the second card was the same length as the line on the first card. The only true subject in the group would answer last or second-to-last.

For the first few runs of the test, the stooges would give the obvious, correct answer. After that they gave a wrong answer in around 12 out of 18 of the subsequent runs. Out of the 123 male subjects who took the test in innocence of the deception, around 1 in 20 caved in completely and agreed with the wrong majority. Around 1 in 4 withstood the peer pressure. The remainder conformed in some runs but not others – in other words, they doubted the evidence of their own eyes, and conformed to the group in giving the wrong answer.

The Big Short – movie

This is another quirky film in which, like The Experimenter, random actors directly address the camera to explain what is going on, so we get Margot Robbie sitting in a bubble bath sipping champagne while she explains “collateralized debt obligations”.

The 2008 financial crash was triggered by the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage bubble, a situation largely created by greed, groupthink (as in Asch), and the invisibility of the consequences from the viewpoint of the perpetrators (as in Milgram). As Brad Pitt’s character points out, when unemployment goes up 1%, 40,000 people will die. The collapse would destroy jobs, homes, and families, but while there was a buck or a billion to be made, bankers were willing to ignore the catastrophic impacts of their activities.

And yet, despite the massive and deliberate fraud going on at the highest levels, to quote the Mark Baum character: “”I have a feeling, in a few years people are going to be doing what they always do when the economy tanks. They will be blaming immigrants and poor people.”

Interview with Yuval Noah Harari (author of Sapiens, Homo Deus, etc) and Tristan Harris, Director of the Centre for Humane Technology

(Notes extracted and paraphrased from the interview)

TH: As a magician and expert on persuasion, I learned there are hacking techniques that work on everyone, regardless of age, nationality, or IQ.

YNH: Democracy is built on the idea that we are rational decision-makers, but now we know our free will is not so free. Corporations and governments now have the technology to hack us. They have been able to progress from understanding our choices, to predicting them, to manipulating them.

TH: Think of your mind like a chess game. When you go to YouTube (or any other social media site) you expose your mind to the Google supercomputer, which has, in effect, run chess simulations billions of times. Whatever you do, it is one step ahead of you, and it will most likely win this game. And the algorithm doesn’t care what you want, or what is good for you – its objective is to keep you on the screen for as long as possible, and it’s really good at it.

70% of videos watched on YouTube are not what you first searched for, they’re from the “Up Next” strip on the right. 1.9 billion people spend an average of 1 hour a day on YouTube. This gives YouTube massive power to sway public opinion.

The AI algorithm has no conscience: it just maps the most common patterns of behaviour. If it knows that watching a video on dieting is often followed by watching a video on anorexia, it will recommend it, without caring that it could be leading a vulnerable teenager towards an eating disorder.

And picture this: a government setting up hundreds or thousands of “bots” to “watch” a very popular video, then “watching” a video extolling the virtues of Vladimir Putin. This pattern will become engrained in the algorithm, pushing the Putin propaganda – and hence Putin – up the rankings.

Even more creepy, your personal technology could be spying on you. The camera could be scanning your face to detect when you show signs of emotional arousal, such as dilated pupils or a raised heartbeat (yes, it really can do that). So even as you’re watching a video, it can “know” how you’re responding, probably better than you know yourself. YNH illustrated this point thus: he didn’t acknowledge until he was 21 that he’s gay. A camera scanning his face could have told him sooner – for example, by observing whether he was paying more attention to David Hasselhoff or to Pamela Anderson. And when technology knows you better than you know yourself, you’re vulnerable.


To put all this into a nutshell, I will re-quote from The Road to Unfreedom:

“Americans were not exposed to Russian propaganda randomly, but in accordance with their own susceptibilities, as revealed by their practices on the internet. People trust what sounds right, and trust permits manipulation.”

This is at the heart of what ails us at the moment, in so many ways. Confirmation bias research tells us unequivocally that we filter information to reinforce what we already “know”, while ignoring contradictory evidence. The brain favours coherence over accuracy, so a nice, neat, coherent story will prevail over truth, which is often messier.

And, by definition, we can’t see our blind spots. Put another way, we can’t see the water we’re swimming in, and while we’re in the water we are susceptible to peer pressure, propaganda, manipulation, obedience to authority, even to advertising. We are not free.

Asked how we can protect ourselves against hacking, Yuval Noah Harari strongly suggests, “know thyself”. Only when we know our own prejudices, susceptibilities, and preferences, can we notice when all our inputs seem to be agreeing with us just a bit too much.

Heck – this whole blog post is a prime example! I’ve read and watched various things, and have picked out the elements that reflect my pre-existing concerns, and have now offered them to you as something approaching “truth”.

I trust that the difference is that I am sincerely not trying to manipulate you, I am trying to warn you. We are all being hacked, it is just a question of how much. At least, once we’re aware of it, we can take precautions against it – and I don’t just mean by putting a piece of sticky tape over your laptop camera.

We need to be alert, to maintain a stance of critical thinking, to check in on the independence of our views, to notice when others disagree with us and get curious about what they may know that we don’t. We can’t rely on our digital newsfeeds to give us an objective view of the world, and this really, really matters.

Exactly at the time when we need our leaders to be making smart decisions, our ability to choose the right leaders is being undermined. We need to be vigilant, as never before. Truth and freedom – even our perception of reality – are under threat. Ultimately, we may need a new kind of democracy, but for now, those of us who care about the future have a duty to stay alert, and to be aware that the waters in which we swim are increasingly murky.

One Comment

  • Jeepers… conspiracy makes the World go round !
    Lets remove the Daily Wail, Farcebook, et al and pull up the drawbridge. !
    Actually, I agree that we are most certainly in a time of increased “blind” belief that if it says so in the news/ internet et al , it must be “right”.
    I can also imagine that those of evil intent certainly do have an easier time interfering in the business of others given that most matters are conducted via the internet. (I must get some thicker tape for my laptop camera)
    I am surprised that , for example, some folks would refuse to travel today (29th March) in case being “abroad” on the original “Brexit” day meant they might be stranded!…. Why?. (sorry about the “B” word)
    Indeed, it is time to stay alert and remind ourselves we have the important right to ask “why” on a more regular basis.
    To be sure lemmings get it wrong

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