I am reproducing a book review by Stephen Collins in this month’s edition of Prospect Magazine, because it needs to be emphasised and tepeated. The book is called “Principled Spying” by David Omand, a former head of GCHQ. (Georgetown University Press):
“Twitter and Facebook have a darker side. I have seen them encourage the growth of radical voices, most worryingly on the far right, where alt-right and other extremist tendencies have in recent years gained ground. These forces are becoming so powerful that they now threaten the foundations of western democracy.
“The internet’s pioneers thought the online world would lead to a mass engagement with global challenges such as conflict, the environment and poverty. But social media use is creating a contrary trend that taps into the deep roots of our tribal instincts. The likeminded gather together. And when this happens, misfortunes tend to be blamed on the “other.” The result is an increasing fragmentation of politics into “us versus them” group.
Anonymity lends the online world an especially nasty flavour. It encourages a vulgarity and crudeness that would not be tolerated face to face. A sense of online disinhibition feeds attacks on those who espouse contrary views and the effect can be powerful.
Access to diverse opinions are an essential part of how voters make up their minds. Increasingly, however, the design of social media encourages users to spend more time in a bubble of advertising and political messaging. When social media spreads information that’s intentionally misleading or false, it undermines the choices that underpin any open society. In the long-run, that flight from rationality in political debate further weakens confidence in public bodies, expertise and leadership which makes us ever-more vulnerable to manipulation.
“These are the characteristics that have left us vulnerable to demagogues and extremists and which bring us to the most worrying point of all: social media enhances the subversive agendas of states like Russia. It is striking that the tactics used to interfere in the US election aimed to polarise US politics, already a feature of the Trump campaign. Russian attempts to interfere in the French election were intended to promote Marine Le Pen’s chances, in the hope that her hard-right agenda – especially on immigration – would destabilise politics in France.
“Different kinds of extremism can feed off one another online. Violent IS propaganda has stoked its counterpart on the extreme right. The interaction of the two has further polarised opinion over immigration, housing and jobs, and put sections of the community at each other’s throats.
For liberal democracies to survive and thrive in the digital age, we have to understand the vulnerability of the modern political process to covert manipulation of public opinion. It can come from without or within the nation. If we fail to see it, we risk becoming agents of our own destruction.”
In a conversation about the state of the world my nearly-17 year old grandson said,”Don’t worry, everything will be alright”. I still don’t know how to process that hope-filled remark, and of course did not argue the point and come across as an old Jonah. But for his sake and for the sake of hopeful young people everywhere, I pray he turns out to be correct.
Free speech and democracy, however imperfect, won through by the skin of their teeth. They are not givens.