Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Gaming Democracy

As a girl, Mother was a great reader. She would go to the glass-fronted book cabinet in the cigar-scented study and feel behind the rows for the good stuff father had hidden there, such as Madame Bovary: every system can be gamed.

She would also spend a lot of time in the school library. However, one day, she entered to find big gaps in the shelves: without warning, all the Jewish and socialist writers had been removed. The new government was cleansing the librosphere of ideological pollution: nothing was to seduce impressionable minds away from socially-agreed norms. This was, after all, the clean and progressive East Prussia of the 1930s.

Half a lifetime later, a classical student was in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, researching an incident in the Peloponnesian War. The index occupied a room on its own, full of massive volumes with pasted-in entries giving descriptions and locations of the millions of items. You felt you had arrived as a scholar, just lifting one of these, thumping it on the lectern and turning the crowded pages. Now, where was a map of the ancient harbour at Lesbos? Ah, here, coded with a Greek φ. He filled in the order slip, but was told he would have to wait for the senior librarian to come back from lunch. The time came, and my friend was taken to another room. There was the large brown envelope; the librarian snipped the corner and slid out the contents – “Lesbos: twelve unretouched photographs of lesbian love.” So that’s what the phi was for. Still, it was a publication, so it was stored, and could be consulted on request. That was liberalism in action.

Today, while Crown copyright libraries continue to grow like Topsy, ordinary public libraries are closing and selling off or throwing away their stock - but we have the Internet, accessible at all times. It is so great that more than ever, we need a librarian to guide us through its virtual stacks. But there is no leather-bound index; instead, we have search engines, chiefly Google.

Now, there is no need to destroy information: the trusted guide can bury it like a needle in a near-infinite haystack. In our world that is so very unlike “1984” (or so we are told) the hidden persuaders could – perhaps do - operate by deliberately bringing us envelopes that we didn’t quite ask for.

Twelve months ago, the former editor-in-chief of “Psychology Today” Dr Robert Epstein described a series of experiments in which people were significantly influenced in their political decisions on the basis of surreptitious manipulation of Internet search results. (1) Even with candidates well-known to the sample groups, voting could be swayed by “20% or more.” In a follow-up article last February he says, “we now estimate that Hannon’s old friends [i.e. Google] have the power to drive between 2.6 and 10.4 million votes to Clinton on election day with no one knowing that this is occurring and without leaving a paper trail.” (2) Yesterday, Pamela Geller wrote a piece relaying and developing Julian Assange’s allegation that one way or another, Google is working on behalf of one of the Presidential candidates and against the other. (3)

At this point I must emphasise that I am not American and not only cannot vote for either Trump or Clinton, but should be extremely perplexed if I could. 

 The point is, every system can be gamed. There is no need to burn material if you can hide it in some rarely-visited and unsignposted corner of the Web; there is no need to disappear dissidents if you can shut off their means of communication (imagine if Milo Yiannopoulos had no other outlet than Twitter); for every person moved by attending one of Trump’s mountebank presentations, there must be thousands making up their minds from their private, yet thoroughly-monitored and interactively-tweaked Internet searches.

The socialists have it all wrong. Great power comes not from owning the means of production but, as Rockefeller showed, from controlling its distribution. Social media and search engines are part of the modern Fourth Estate, the gatekeepers and guides of public information. If they cannot be impartial, democracy faces an existential threat from its persuaders.

Remember what happened when Athens listened to Demosthenes.

UPDATE (27 August 2016): Heads have rolled - 

(1) http://www.pnas.org/content/112/33/E4512.full
(2) https://aeon.co/essays/how-the-internet-flips-elections-and-alters-our-thoughts
(3) http://pamelageller.com/2016/08/julian-assange-google-works-with-hillary-clinton.html/ _______________________________________________________________

This post appeared previously on Talkmarkets:


Catherine said...

Very fascinating and thought provoking! It seems then that we take search engines and the internet for absolute truth. A very strange movement of our society.

Paddington said...

Middle managers, in my experience, try to maintain control by controlling the flow of information. My style is to keep everything as open as possible.

Sackerson said...

Google's subtlety is in not lying directly, but just bringing the pages it wants (is paid to) to the top - allegedly.