By Farrukh Khan Pitafi
Since its inception, the key promise of social media was to build a safe and healthy online ecosystem where distances shrank, barriers disappeared, friends got a chance to stay in touch and constructive debate thrived. But that expectation now seems a product of what Nicholas Nassim Taleb calls a ‘ludic fallacy,’ where you assume you know all the rules of the game, but forget to factor in the element of surprise. While social media outlets have grown remarkably in power and outreach (Facebook alone boasts of having over two billion users, a number bigger than the population of any country and greater than the number of Muslims around the world), they have grown susceptible to exploitation by a select few and impervious to traditional modes of state control.
After the end of the Cold War it was expected that the advent of the internet and later, social media, would bring cultures closer, ushering in a new era of rapprochement, tolerance and democratisation. However, the recent US Congressional hearings on the use of social media by foreign actors to meddle in the 2016 US presidential elections is proof that old animosities have survived, flying under the radar for decades. Elsewhere, non-state actors like the Islamic State (IS) and supremacist hate groups like alt-right and neo-Nazis have used these ostensibly democratic tools to spread hatred, fear, terror and as vehicles of recruitment for their reprehensible causes. The soft underbelly of social media, thus exposed, is the very same Achilles heel of democracy that allowed evil mass murderers like Hitler to rise to power through democratic means. In an age where the quality and the innocuousness of content being distributed can neither be ensured, nor is demanded, and distribution across traditional territorial boundaries has become exceptionally easier, the world seems increasingly prone to a major transnational catastrophe.
In countries like Pakistan that have spent a better part of the past two decades fighting terrorism on their own turf, social media has caused its fair share of disruption. In 2013 when a curfew was imposed in Rawalpindi following sectarian violence, disturbing pictures of charred and mutilated corpses of purported victims were distributed on Facebook. It later turned out that those pictures were borrowed from war-torn countries like Syria. Malicious intent can make content virulent and its transmission on open channels can contaminate even the most moderate minds. Such images in tense and chaotic situations can have a ripple effect, exacerbating the chaos, strife and discord.
In each society there exist ample sets of filters to ensure that any outlier extremist view does not get amplified. In mass media they take the shape of journalistic standards where trained professional eyes meticulously weigh the pros and cons of every statement and opinion. In politics, official spokesmen or media advisors invest heavily in the exercise to ensure that their charge’s occasional whimsical views or utterances do not make it to the mainstream media or to the masses. However, with the advent of social media, these filters have disappeared. Now even the most repugnant views that otherwise could never be carried in any publication, can be published on a blog and magnified through social media. Since the social media websites have so far maintained a lenient approach to hate speech, conspiracy theories and downright slander and lies on their platforms, this has worked as a force multiplier for many fringe groups, on occasions including terrorist outfits. Result? Bedlam.
Not everyone in a society has the time, the energy or the brainpower to tell the difference between fake news, conspiracy theories, hate literature and basic fact. That is precisely why so much effort goes into ensuring that extreme views stay where they belong: on the fringes. However, since that cat is out of the bag, the unleashed reactionary content is spreading cognitive dissonance in society. Outliers like Steve Bannon, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, Yogi Adityanath and Khadim Rizvi are getting mainstreamed every day. Molotov cocktails of far left, far right philosophies and false information are prepared daily and lobbed at the politically correct crowds of intellectuals, journalists and policy makers. This does not bode well for the future of democracy around the world.
Since the Treaty of Westphalia, signed in 1648 which underlined the modern international system of nation states, the latter have existed as the most potent force regulating our lives. Multinationals tried to have an impact but could not weaken the state’s grip on the lives of its citizens. However, with the emergence of social media, the traditional state has been taken aback by the surprise rise of the tech giants. Until recently, only authoritarian states were thought to fear social media. And for good reason. As was evident from the Arab spring, a free flow of information and views allowed citizens to rally against autocratic regimes. It proved instrumental in their overthrow or weakening. Democracies were thought to be immune to these outbursts because people already had enough freedoms to voice their concerns and channel their anger. But it has proven to be a flawed assumption. Recently social media was used to weaponise discontent in democracies by stoking old cultural fault-lines and wounds through a mix of fake news, propaganda and hate speech. It worked.
This exploitation of social media is reminiscent of similar exploitation of the internet earlier. However, the only difference this time, and indeed, the most troubling one, is that these platforms are part private fiefdoms of a few rich individuals. Twitter, Facebook, Google and other such behemoths are all private properties. If they can be exploited by hostile agencies and terror outfits, their misuse at the hands of billionaire owners cannot be overruled. Luckily, so far there has been no indication of such exploitation and these companies are managed quite professionally. But imagine what would happen if, say, one day Mark Zuckerberg or any of his counterparts abroad decided to run for a public office or strongly endorsed somebody. This could easily change. This kind of power is frightening, particularly in the age of Trump.
The extent to which your privacy is at risk was made abundantly clear when the details of Trump’s 2016 campaign tactics started emerging. The campaign had hired a company called Cambridge Analytica to launch individually tailored ad campaigns. Cambridge Analytica is known for developing ‘psychographic’ profiling. In other words, through the breadcrumbs of personal information you leave behind on the social media, it develops your psychological profile which is then used to send ads to your account, specifically designed keeping in mind your personal likes and dislikes. Given that the campaign was so successful you can figure out how much voluntary information you must have left behind online already.
Most social media companies offer their services free of charge. In response you volunteer as much information about yourself as possible. This psychographic data, which is quite visible online, can be scooped up by various advertising groups. And that is not all. Through their tracking cookies and all other means possible, many websites keep tabs on your online behaviour and online activity. This information, often referred to as big data, can be sold to prospective buyers. And you unknowingly give them permission to do so by agreeing to the end-user agreements at the time of registration. In his book Who Owns the Future? Jaron Lanier calls these companies siren-servers, because like sirens they lure you to their business, and insist that you do not share your information with them until you are paid to do so because that is how they make money.
A confluence of fake accounts registered for the very purpose, online trolls and bots take computational propaganda to a new level. With the use of often funny memes, bon mots and conjecture, these accounts create enough online noise to misguide even the most well-informed minds. While this activity, in itself, can cause considerable chaos and confusion in society, there is more. These accounts are often used for the purpose of cyber-bullying and to hush-up dissent. In her book, This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, Mercer University professor Whitney Philips shows how online trolling has spilled into mainstream culture and can adversely affect our attitude towards each other.
Georgetown University Professor Haroon Ullah in his recently launched brilliant work Digital World Warhas illustrated how IS and ancillary terror groups have used social media platforms to propagate and recruit new foot soldiers. Using social media vulnerabilities to their advantage, these groups have tailored their narrative in accordance with their audience; dark and apocalyptic in English, hopeful and policy-oriented in Arabic and other local languages. And while these companies often take their sweet time in shutting down such accounts, Dr Ullah points out that the terror groups have shown remarkable platform agility to survive and propagate, switching from one website to another, changing accounts quickly. He proposes an urgent and unified response to these challenges without which the fight against terrorism may become impossible to win.
In conclusion, it is imperative to note that the virtues of social media are not lost on us. But the wild mushrooming of social media and its unregulated growth have overtaken policy imagination with great speed, and without deeper reflection it may prove a recipe for disaster. The presence of monopolies in the sector alone poses a serious threat to democracy and open society. And yet we have not seen any anti-trust proceeding. In more vulnerable developing economies and nascent democracies, this necessitates an immediate policy debate and contingency planning.
(Farrukh Khan Pitafi is a print and electronic media journalist based in Islamabad.)