Is democracy around the world perishing before our eyes? Is it the point where the narrator’s voice in dulcet tones marks the end of freedom as a reality? Is it that time when free choice becomes all but an illusion for our kind? These questions are of critical import in the age of growing infestation of strongmen and borderline authoritarian demagogues. Two shocking developments in recent weeks are already hinting heavily in favour of such a possibility. If you failed to notice them, you need to pay more attention to these lines for whether you appreciate or not they have a lot to do with your lives, your country and your future.
These questions are also important because they pertain to the changing nature of our societies owing to technological breakthroughs. And while in the following lines I will try to limit myself to a cursory glance at the technological advancements, make no mistakes, we are firmly on the turf of those I call prophets of science and you know them as science fiction writers like Asimov, Philip K Dick and why, even Orwell.
When Karl Popper wrote Open Society and Its Enemies he certainly wasn’t thinking of Cambridge Analytica or Sinclair Broadcast Group. Popper died in 1992, in the infant years of the public internet. Likewise, when Nobel laureate Milton Friedman penned his acclaimed book Free to Choose he had no means to foresee how personal data generated on Facebook or other social media apps would compromise the very personal freedoms they professed to represent. He died in 2006 when Facebook was learning to crawl.
On 16th March, Facebook announced it was suspending the accounts of Cambridge Analytica (CA), a London-based firm meant to “to deliver data-driven behavioral change”. The move was intended to preempt the damage done by a New York Times report claiming that despite its pledge otherwise CA had retained private data of some 50 million US citizens obtained through a 3rd party app ‘thisisyourdigitallife’ developed by Cambridge Professor Aleksandr Kogan. CA is accused of generating psychographs predicting the choice patterns of each individual and then generating targeted Facebook ads for the Trump campaign which exploited his/her personal fears, likes and dislikes and ensured Trump victory in 2016. But this is not the end of it all.
In a 5-part series of exposes aptly titled ‘Data, democracy and dirty tricks’ British Channel-4 revealed the true extent of CA’s nefarious activities. The undercover reporting is available online (https://www.channel4.com/news/data-democracy-and-dirty-tricks-cambridge-analytica-uncovered-investigation-expose) and I absolutely insist you watch the small video clips made available. Using a free range of dirty tricks (data harvesting being a small part of them) the company’s various office-bearers claim to have influenced various elections around the world from Africa to India.
The second shock came when a video cleverly edited by sports news site Deadspin (https://theconcourse.deadspin.com/how-americas-largest-local-tv-owner-turned-its-news-anc-1824233490) revealed how dozens of TV anchors belonging to America’s largest network of local stations Sinclair Broadcast Group were made to read the same scripted editorial verbatim as their own opinion. The ostensible purpose of this piece-to-camera was to discredit Trump’s critics in media as ‘fake news’. It is Sinclair which is credited to help Trump win the 2016 election by passing his campaign generated content as news. The overall impact of the Deadspin video is quite chilling. Here is the largest network of US local stations which currently owns 192 outlets and may soon increase that number to 233 using its on-air talent to brainwash its conservative audience. Such attempts to curb and undermine free flow of ideas and information were quite visible elsewhere in the world simultaneously. Malaysia recently passed a law to punish ‘fake news’.
The Indian government very nearly passed a similar order seeking to punish journalists found guilty of spreading ‘fake news’, which was hurriedly withdrawn after a media backlash. Who gets to decide which news report is fake and which is not in these countries would reveal the true purpose of such misguided efforts. We are seeing the partisan political elite of these countries leading the efforts to curb dissent.
The story of Cambridge Analytica, the company acquired by Robert Mercer, a billionaire backer of both Trump campaign and alt-right news website Breitbart News, when viewed together with that of Sinclair reveals the perils to democracy right now. Add to it the controversies surrounding online platforms like Facebook (which incidentally also owns Instagram & WhatsApp), Google (also owns YouTube & operating system of most of your smartphones), Amazon and Apple and you start believing that there is no hope left for democracy. These companies have become a critical part of your lives and the information you gift them for free can be used to influence your choices. And with traditional media outlets like Sinclair joining the fray, can you be sure that your own country’s networks are not silently being bought by the same interests?
In his celebrated book Political Order and Political Decay, Francis Fukuyama introduces a term called repatrimonialisation, representing the ascendency of lobbyists, special interest groups and big business that leads to political decay or deinstitutionalisation. Now such groups have new tools to exploit. In his work Thank You for Being Late, Thomas Friedman highlights the significance of year 2007 when iPhone was launched, Twitter grew, Airbnb was born. Using Moore’s Law, which states processing capacity of microchips will double every two years he shows how this revolution will affect our lives. An incorrigible optimist, Friedman sees great hope in these technologies and the future of human civilisation.
The truth is we still have to see if it all will lead to a crash of democracy and the civilisation. If an enduring pushback against the above-mentioned totalitarian tendencies emerges democracy may prove to be what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls antifragile or the things that gain from disorder. But for now there is a clear and present danger to democracy. If you want to know how things can unfold you need to read first chapter of Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence by Max Tegmark.
For a nascent democracy like Pakistan the challenges are only piling. The trouble is that democracy has left the realm of political science and has become an inextricable part of the world of algorithms. But since we lack in basic understanding of technology, our elite refuses to partake in what Stephen Covey once called sharpening the saw future of democracy here looks bleak. The elite here somehow believes that acquiring a degree from a prestigious institution ends their quest for knowledge. This ludic fallacy can lead to great disruption. Malcolm Turnbull of CA after all claimed that elections are won on emotions not on logic. Companies like CA are pretty adept at exploiting emotions and our polity has known only emotions in the past decade.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 5th, 2018.
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