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Digital democracy's steep decline

It’s way more than one election.
Illustration by D. Thomas Magee
Illustration by D. Thomas Magee
Violet Blue
Violet Blue|@violetblue|November 17, 2017 3:00 PM

We thought the internet was going to be great for equality, freedom, and maybe even human rights, but now we're not so sure. Turns out, the internet is great for propaganda. And totally unraveling democracy.

If only the people who invented and run everything we use online had thought of this! If only they had imagined someone using their social sites, apps, advertising networks, and comment systems to attack and oppress people of color, women, anyone who wants healthcare, and enemies of the state (the same thing, usually). They didn't think of these things because they were coding, developing, and seeking venture capital in order to make the world a better place. Also licking advertiser bootheels. And lobbying.

They're pretty sure that whole democracy disruption thing isn't real anyway. Until they have to say so to official inquiries. In any case, they're pretty sure it would be against their Terms of Service if it were, and Terms are sort of like laws, but not really, because even enforcing those is hard enough around Silicon Valley. That's because the companies who control the world's internet experience know better how to govern communities than anyone else. I mean, look around! This place is practically a meritocracy.

So we can imagine that the handful of companies with a stranglehold on the dissemination of global discussion and news distribution are going to be pretty surprised when they find out about what's going on. A recent report from democracy watchdog Freedom House shows that governments from at least 30 countries are "mass producing their own content to distort the digital landscape in their favor."

Freedom on the Net 2017: Manipulating Social Media to Undermine Democracy, Freedom examined developments that occurred between June 2016 and May 2017 in 65 countries, accounting for 87 percent of internet users worldwide.

I do hope the hardworking men and five women and one black person working at Silicon Valley's social media companies will be surprised. If they acknowledge it at all. It would really suck for, like, the world if the Facebooks and the Googles ignored Freedom House's report and just went back to buying houses or vapidly monetizing human interactions or only just pretending to give a shit about propaganda (but not really calling it propaganda).

"The watchdog found that these efforts to manipulate information online -- by governments or other forces -- may have affected 18 countries' elections, "damaging citizens' ability to choose their leaders based on factual news and authentic debate," wrote Recode. "That included the U.S., where Russian-sponsored trolls fueled conflict around controversial debates like immigration, gun control and gay rights."

"Governments are now using social media to suppress dissent and advance an anti-democratic agenda," said project director Sanja Kelly in a statement. "Not only is this manipulation difficult to detect, it is more difficult to combat than other types of censorship, such as website blocking because it's dispersed and because of the sheer number of people and bots deployed to do it."

"The fabrication of grassroots support for government policies on social media creates a closed loop in which the regime essentially endorses itself, leaving independent groups and ordinary citizens on the outside," Kelly's statement read.

Freedom on the Net 2017 said that most governments it assessed "targeted public opinion within their own borders, but others sought to expand their interests abroad -- exemplified by a Russian disinformation campaign to influence the American election." Explaining further about our democratic decline it read, "Fake news and aggressive trolling of journalists both during and after the presidential election contributed to a score decline in the United States' otherwise generally free environment."

The report makes it seem like Joseph Goebbels would've loved Reddit. "In the Philippines, members of a 'keyboard army' are tasked with amplifying the impression of widespread support of the government's brutal crackdown on the drug trade," the report said, totally understating the murderous terror of the situation. "Meanwhile, in Turkey, reportedly 6,000 people have been enlisted by the ruling party to counter government opponents on social media."

Freedom House has a nifty interactive map of the 65 countries included in the report. But what the report describes is also happening in countries left out of Freedom on the Net 2017, and in ways Freedom House probably didn't expect, because engineers in Menlo Park were probably still innovating democracy's decline while the report was compiled.

I'm talking about the damage done by its very recent "Explore" tab experiment in a handful of countries. In Hey, Mark Zuckerberg: My Democracy Isn't Your Laboratory, Serbian independent investigative journalist Stevan Dojcinovic writes, for the New York Times, about Facebook's devastating experiment on his county's news media. "Last month," he wrote, "I noticed that our stories had stopped appearing on Facebook as usual. I was stunned. Our largest single source of traffic, accounting for more than half of our monthly page views, had been crippled ... Facebook had made a small but devastating change. Posts made by "pages" — including those of organizations like mine — had been removed from the regular News Feed."

Facebook had shuffled them off to the "Explore" tab, which no one uses. Paid posts are still in the News Feed, of course. Dojcinovic elaborated:

Serbia is a perfect example of why the political context of Facebook's experimentation matters. ... One party, led by President Aleksandar Vucic, controls not only the Parliament but also the whole political system. Our country has no tradition of checks and balances. Mr. Vucic now presents himself as progressive and pro-European, but as minister of information in the Milosevic government, he was responsible for censoring news coverage.

Today, censorship in Serbia takes a softer form. Pliant outlets loyal to the government receive preferential treatment and better funding from local and central budgets. Those that stray out of line find themselves receiving unexpected visits from the tax inspectors.

This isn't an easy place to be an independent journalist. Since 2015, my investigative nonprofit, KRIK, has covered stories the mainstream media won't touch. In return, we have been spied on and threatened, and have had lurid fabrications about our private lives splashed on the front page of national tabloids.

For Dojcinovic, the company's so-called experiment poisons an entire population's access to democracy. "Facebook allowed us to bypass mainstream channels and bring our stories to hundreds of thousands of readers. But now, even as the social network claims to be cracking down on "fake news," it is on the verge of ruining us." To him, the company is a threat "not only to my organization and others like it but also to the ability of citizens in all of the countries subject to Facebook's experimentation to discover the truth about their societies and their leaders."

Freedom House president Michael Abramowitz said in a statement that "the use of paid commentators and political bots to spread government propaganda was pioneered by China and Russia but has now gone global. The effects of these rapidly spreading techniques on democracy and civic activism are potentially devastating."

Abramowitz makes a point that's important here: What these countries are doing inside and out to influence opinion and undermine factual reporting isn't new. Historically it's old. Online it's old news too, it's just that now we're more aware of it than ever in light of Russia's recent activities. Oh, and apparently Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Reddit never heard of it before. But the use of social media for propaganda has been around as long as trolling.

So on one hand, we might be inclined to shrug and say, huh. We can't do anything about it. Our current administration sure as hell doesn't stand to gain from doing anything to fix it. In fact, it even looks like the FCC has more than openly embraced fraudulent opinion influence campaigns if its welcoming stance on anti-net neutrality bots is any example.

Displays showing social media posts are seen during a House Intelligence Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017. The top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee berated lawyers today for social media giants Facebook, Twitter and Google for a lethargic response to Russian interference in U.S. politics, as the companies' lawyers faced a second day of grilling in Congress. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The four companies that control online opinion and news aren't going to do anything about it. In fact, they can barely contain their perpetual amazement that their services are being used this way, and continue to remind us that they're just bad at their jobs in general. Avoiding accountability for one's actions isn't just a job in Silicon Valley. It's a way of life.

Thus, their cluelessness, whether real or a fabricated PR shield, is weaponized.

In which case, allow me to make a shocking proposal: That the media outlets whose fortunes are slowly being bled out by the companies facilitating democracy's suffocation stop printing company PR statements as unquestioned fact.

Whenever these companies try to spin yet another defense of the indefensible, that reporters, bloggers, journalists of all stripes stop saying whatever Facebook and Google and Twitter and Reddit want them to, in hopes of access or pageviews. There will be no access when your media outlet is dead.

Stop running the PR recovery campaigns of the companies that are killing you. And question the comfort out of any company that thinks censorship is a solution.

Question these companies like they're Roy Moore. Don't agree with unverified claims, and fight to get to the truth of what their company is doing as if your life depended on it.

Or, as if your democracy depended on it.

Images: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images (Fake ads); Freedom House (Map)