What do you do when the metaphors, stories, and premises that hold together a society are rendered meaningless? When things that you imbibe with your earliest thoughts as beyond question crumple? That’s the stage we are at with the once seemingly permanent principles meant to guarantee the culture of common deliberation and debate on which democracy depends, and to stave off manipulative propaganda. Foundational notions—for example, that in “a marketplace of ideas” the best quality information eventually wins out; that truth can hold power to account; that “accuracy, objectivity and balance” are things journalists should strive for; that media pluralism leads to more productive debate—have all been rendered near-meaningless by new breeds of manipulation and by a radically changed informational playing field. Problems were already evident in the revolutionary year of 2016. But as we approach the 2020 election in the United States, and one even sooner in the UK, virtually nothing has been done to fix things. As a consequence the credibility of democracy is under threat as our ability to reach decisions and trust each other enough to constructively disagree is whittled away.
In my new book This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality, I try to diagnose the difficulties—and what is to be done.
The metaphor of a “marketplace of ideas,” where some sort of rational choice theory means the eventual selection of the best quality information, looks naive in an environment where junk news driven by bots and trolls and other forms of non-transparent amplification floods the web, spreading faster than any byte of truth. Nowadays one doesn’t use censorship in the old way to constrict speech; instead, political campaigns douse us with so much disinformation you can’t tell the real from the unreal any more. In 2019 the “marketplace of ideas” looks as corrupt as the “free market” did in 2008, with junk news playing the malign role of junk stocks.
And manipulation has changed in another important way too, one that questions the fundamental premises of the ideals of freedom of expression. In the pro-democracy battles of the 20th century self-expression was seen as a way to stand up for your rights. The powerful would try to stifle speech to assert control. Now social media allows you to express yourself all you want. But all that self-expression is then handed over to data brokers and from them to political spin doctors who use your self-expression to find new and non-transparent ways to influence you all the more effectively. As I return to a little later: I don’t think freedom of expression should be jettisoned or censorship imposed, but I do think we need to consider what freedom of expression means in this new game.
Meanwhile the seemingly solid premise that media pluralism leads to better debate has been undermined by the extreme polarization and partisanship that began with cable news and talk radio, and has been mercilessly catalyzed by the fragmentation of social media. Instead of deliberation we are seeing partisanship and polarization to an extent where there is no sense of shared reality anymore to debate over. It is telling that today illiberal politicians, even authoritarian ones, don’t seek total ideological control, but instead play on sharpening polarization, on dividing societies both at home and abroad.
The notion that was designed to heal such fractures—namely, that we could have a common, impartial, “balanced” space where we could have an objective debate about competing ideas—has been undermined by a philosophy that, in the words of Putin’s most famous propagandist Dmitry Kiselev, “objectivity is a myth imposed upon us.” Public service broadcasters such as the BBC have often been criticized for not being objective and impartial enough, but now it is the very notion of objectivity that is under attack, and that has opened up the floodgates for politicians such as Trump, Putin, and Boris Johnson to throw factuality out the window altogether. If there is no objective reality, if all facts are simply interpretations, then why should a politician bother with fealty to the truth? This in turn disarms the great journalistic credo that we could hold power accountable with facts. Putin, Trump, and Johnson simply don’t care if they are caught lying, as they weren’t trying to make factual arguments in the first place.
So what is to be done?
There is a role for regulation—but in their panic to respond to this crisis policymakers are on the verge of committing crass errors that will only make matters worse. The political push in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere has been to police and take down “fake news” and disinformation. Though often well-meaning, this is a censorious logic that rolls back the victories that democracies secured in their battle against dictatorships. Instead we need more information—in order to grapple with the deluge of manipulative online campaigns we need to be able to understand how the information environment is being shaped, who is pushing what content at us and how, what bits of our own data are being used to target us, how algorithms order information. The lack of transparency is itself a form of censorship, as it means that a citizen simply can’t engage with the information forces around them as an equal. We don’t understand how we have come to make decisions as societies—if we can’t see who has been targeting which messages at whom in an election, for example, we don’t understand the reasons behind a certain vote. In the UK the Brexit campaign used so many different, targeted social media messages to win the 2016 referendum no one can now tell what was the main reason for the vote, what on earth the “people’s will” actually was. At least with television and newspapers we could make an informed decision about who was trying to influence us, how and why. Now we are utterly in the dark. And this murk is leading to a breakdown in the trust necessary for us to live together despite all our differences of opinion. We already see the Trump campaign preparing the ground for the 2020 election with claims that democracy is rigged because Google algorithms are designed to be biased against “conservatives.” And the problem is, without the necessary algorithmic transparency, who’s to say that this isn’t so? The black box of the tech companies has to be broken open and public oversight enforced. And this, in turn, is the sort of regulation that autocratic regimes loathe—the Putins of this world want to keep the internet dark for their troll farms and algorithmic manipulations to run at will. A regulation founded on transparency is still steeped in the principles of freedom of expression and the right to receive information, but updates them for a new world.
Such wise regulation, however, won’t be a cure-all—it will just even out the playing field so that those of us who want to save deliberative democracy can start to compete with the forces that seek to sow mistrust and extreme polarization. But we should at least have the 20-20 vision to promote a new type of media and communication whose job is to smooth polarization, to build bridges and dialogue. Sadly, media itself has failed in this task— either because it is still stuck in a broadcast model, as with most public service media, and hasn’t learnt to really work the internet, or, as in the case of most other media, because it has opted to play into the polarization. This is understandable, as the ad-tech through which much media is funded rewards polarization and partisanship—that’s what drives likes and shares and makes things go viral.
A new approach to social media would need to be able to ignore such immediate financial demands. It would need to work with another set of metrics: Does a piece of content improve trust, and does it generate a constructive conversation? Indeed, how can one move beyond mere content production into a more hybrid approach to foster sustained online and offline engagement? There are small, interesting experiments in this field, but they need to be replicated at scale. A new approach will need a new iteration of civil society whose dedicated mission this is. It will need to utilize the audience analysis and data mining that the manipulators use, but to do so in a transparent way, and with the opposite aims. We are in a race with the propagandists as to who can understand and engage audiences best—but at the moment we are not even on the tracks.
But what exactly do I mean by “deliberation” and “engagement”—if factuality has been jettisoned, then how are people to build a conversation? Though it’s tempting to blame tech for everything, the cultural malaise that has lead to our “post-truth” moment goes much deeper. For those of us who follow Russia, politicians who stopped caring whether they were caught lying were already popping up in the early 1990s. This was a time when all faith had been lost in Russia, as Communism and botched democratic capitalism led to disaster. Factual political discourse is necessary as long as there is a rational, practical future you are trying to prove, with evidence, that you are establishing. Now, I’ve argued before that the sense that there is no future has reached the West. What unites Trump, Putin, Johnson, and the rest is not ideology, but that they have no coherent ideas about the future and all peddle warped nostalgias. Fact-checking won’t change this. We need to generate a political discourse that focuses on an achievable future where evidence and facts become necessary again. That will mean turning away from the reality show-style debates we are seeing on TV as America gears up for the next elections, whose logic will only help reality show politicians. As Ezra Klein pointed out to me, the television debates are designed to reward petty confrontation: If you attack someone in your comment, then they are given time to respond, and if they then mention you then you get time to respond as well. Instead we need to force candidates to engage with each other to solve actual policy problems, to lock them into a conversation where evidence becomes necessary, to hold them to account on their promises over time.
All of the above are practical steps to take. Together they constitute the first parts of democratizing information in the new environment. We urgently need to update and reimagine the metaphors and formulas when the old ones have withered. Sadly the opposite is happening. And as we tumble into the next elections one has the sense of being in one of those awful dreams where one knows exactly what the adversary will do, what the consequences will be, but looks on, as if in slow motion, unable to stop the inevitable.