‘Postmodern totalitarianism’? Towards digital unfreedom


Shane Huntley and his team have tracked Iranian hackers as they spread disinformation in the U.S., unmasked North Korea’s responsibility for a crippling global computer virus and probed Russians linked to the 2016 hack of the Democratic National Committee, the Wall Street Journal reports:

Mr. Huntley doesn’t work for the National Security Agency or another government spy shop. He heads Google’s in-house counterespionage group, the Threat Analysis Group, which has emerged as an important force in the battle against hackers and a leading example of tech giants building up powerful cybersecurity defenses in an age of rising nation-state hacks.…..

Last summer, Mr. Huntley’s team stopped an allegedly Iranian-backed disinformation campaign by pulling dozens of YouTube channels that were using fake accounts to push misleading political stories primarily about the Middle East. Disinformation, especially around elections, is a new focus for Mr. Huntley’s team.

“Google probably has the most useful data set available to any private company for tracking state adversaries and intelligence services,” said Alex Stamos, former chief security officer at Facebook and now an adjunct professor at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute. He likens Google’s efforts to those of a small intelligence agency. “You put that all together, and they are probably second only to the intelligence community” in terms of useful data, he said.

Based on a deeply problematic business model, social-media platforms are showing the potential to exacerbate hazards that range from authoritarian privacy violations to partisan echo chambers to the spread of malign disinformation, notes Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

In democracies, the deleterious political effects of social media are making themselves felt through three broad mechanisms, he writes for the Journal of Democracy:

  • First, while social scientists debate whether politics is really more polarized online than offline, people clearly tend to gather into social-media echo chambers (what Deibert calls “filter bubbles”) that reinforce their points of view.
  • Second, while many print publications and cable-television stations (and even radio networks) build echo chambers of their own with hard-edged, polarizing points of view, they at least tend to exercise some degree of editorial control over the tone and substance of their content. Online, however, anything goes; anyone can become a publisher or editorialist—or claim to be a journalist…..
  • Third, social-media platforms lacking robust editorial filters—or at least struggling to figure out how to implement them—do not just give people wide scope to post hateful language, absurd rumors, and outrageous lies. Worse still, organized actors, including foreign governments, may manipulate information flows for carefully targeted political and social ends, as the Kremlin and its affiliated Internet Research Agency have done in elections in the United States and much of Europe.

Authoritarian forces are also profiting from a series of other advances in digital technology, notably including the revolution in artificial intelligence (AI), Diamond adds. These developments have the potential to fuel a “postmodern totalitarianism” vividly illustrated by China’s rapidly expanding projects of digital surveillance and social control. They also pose a series of challenges for contemporary democracies.

The symposium “Democracy in a Digital Society – Trust, Evidence and Public Discourse in a Changing Media Environment” (above) addresses the impact of digital transformations on democratic institutions in Europe and beyond. The event is organised by ALLEA and Re-Imagine Europa and hosted by the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities.

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