“A determined plutocrat and a brilliant media strategist can, and have, found a way to mold journalism to their own ends”
Hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer and Trump strategist Steve Bannon have been working with Cambridge Analytica to change the way Americans think. Their strategy includes:
1. A database of almost the entire US voting population, showing, on the basis of their Twitter and Facebook accounts, what motivates each person.
2. Automated “bots” programmed on Twitter to act like people, to change the conversation, and to make topics trend. Before the U.S. election, such bots were five-to-one in favor of Trump.
3. Artificial intelligence that can measure every reaction to every word uttered, and phone messages to maximize their impact.
4. Eventually replacing existing media with sites such as Breitbart and with websites that displace mainstream sources of news and information, like CNSnews.com. Rightwing sites are already dominating sites like YouTube and Google, bound tightly together by millions of links.
5. Using supercomputers to dig up source material Google can’t find. This, Bannon explained, is how they “weaponise” the narrative they want, launching it straight on to the front page of the mainstream media, and diverting the attention of the news cycle.
6. “Strategic drowning” of other messages with the right timing and focus of controversial messages. With the rest of the media cattered, separate, and competing with each other, they can be being picked off like targets in a shooting gallery.
“Politics is war,” said Steve Bannon last year in the Wall Street Journal. And increasingly this looks to be true.
We must fight back. But if we use the same high-tech tools, what happens to the truth? To democracy?
“Many of the techniques were refined in Russia, he says [Oxford Internet Institute’s Unit for Computational Propaganda Director Phil Howard], and then exported everywhere else. ‘You have these incredible propaganda tools developed in an authoritarian regime moving into a free market economy with a complete regulatory vacuum. What you get is a firestorm.’
“This is the world we enter every day, on our laptops and our smartphones. It has become a battleground where the ambitions of nation states and ideologues are being fought – using us. We are the bounty: our social media feeds; our conversations; our hearts and minds. Our votes. Bots influence trending topics and trending topics have a powerful effect on algorithms, Woolley, explains, on Twitter, on Google, on Facebook. Know how to manipulate information structure and you can manipulate reality.
“We’re not quite in the alternative reality where the actual news has become ‘FAKE news!!!’ But we’re almost there. Out on Twitter, the new transnational battleground for the future, someone I follow tweets a quote by Marshall McLuhan, the great information theorist of the 60s. ‘World War III will be a guerrilla information war,’ it says. ‘With no divisions between military and civilian participation.’
“By that definition we’re already there.”
| Robert Mercer in New York in 2014. |
Photograph: DDP USA/Rex Shutterstock