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Manipulative technology just the latest threat to democracy, our humanity

Beyond being filled with real fake news and manipulative efforts, some more blatant that others, the Internet is generally a fairly hostile environment for political and other forms of social intercourse. The anonymity of the technology made it so long before the intrigues of widespread Russian meddling, social media propaganda and psychological warfare techniques.

As individuals interacting with others, most of us are generally polite. We don’t intentionally do great harm to those around us. We might be indifferent to those we encounter, but we’re not often hostile in person. Collectively, however, we’re capable of some unthinkable things.

That’s very evident online, where the discourse can be hateful, and often is.

As a whole, we’ve contrived a political and economic system that in essence encourages us to be selfish and not to take into consideration what we can do for each other as a community – to forego our humanity. The political and economic systems we live under are both manmade constructs. We devised them, and they’ve evolved into something that no longer meets the needs of the majority of us.

We’re all somewhat complicit in a system that we’ve allowed to be hijacked by a small group who make the most gains, the very group that bought and paid for politicians ever eager to destroy our rights while bolstering police-state powers that they hope will ensure their continued grip on power – a model that’s played out through history’s worst dictators and their descendants at the helm today.

Only the most naive still adhere to the notion that our system of government – our democracy – is based on the consent of the governed. Government policies that run contrary to the public interest – an increasing proportion of its actions – surely are the opposite of what we’d consent to. Who is responsible for that? Certainly those who’ve benefited have fostered an unending propaganda campaign that’s been every bit as effective in sweeping aside citizenship as the corporate marketing has been in turning us into consumers. We’ve happily abdicated power and responsibility for the comforts of our lives. Excuses about being busy are just that. Still, we’ve opted for the distractions, and can’t even be bothered to show up at the voting booth for five minutes every four years. As a result, we’ve got the government we deserve, one that acts against our interests and against the common good.

We’ve tuned out, bought into consumerism and the ideal of rugged individualism while enjoying the fruits of what years of community-minded spirit and policies brought us.

Today, it’s our differences that politicians and those pulling their strings play on. It’s a divide-and-conquer strategy. In the short-term, politicians buy votes with promises (most of which will be broken), tailored policies and boutique tax credits. That these moves have drained government coffers and helped erode the national ethos is secondary to their only goal: retain power at all costs.

The same sell-out mentality and short-term re-election strategy is on display at Queen’s Park, where profligacy and conflating public sector demands with the public interest is the norm – the opposite is true, as the goals of that special interest group erode the public good.

But that’s a global trend, as governments and the corporate state become more authoritarian, using technology to bolster their position and weaken democracy.

Such is the thesis of Yale historian Timothy Snyder, who studies totalitarian regimes, in his latest book, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe and America. In it, he looks at how online propaganda in particular is being used by authoritarians domestically and abroad.

“As seen by what’s on Twitter [faked profiles, robot driven shares] I think that more and more the internet is a realm where humans are in the minority and they’re getting overwhelmed,” he says in a recent interview. “There was this old idea in science fiction about … not just in science fiction, the Turing Test in computer science. When are computers going to actually be artificially intelligent? The test was, ‘will they be able to persuade us that they’re human?’ What’s actually happened is it’s not that the computers are competing with us to be more human, it’s that the computers are making us less human. That’s how they’re winning. They’re breaking us down into little pieces so that we’re less human and more tribal, and more angry and more emotional. That’s the way this competition is actually shaking down.”

The Internet and other technology is being used to manipulate us by breaking things down in small pieces and tasks, the way machines do, rather than as an aid to our humanity. And that’s being done by a few to benefit not the many, but the few – the same ones doing the manipulating.

The long game is to promote self-interest ahead of all else, a course that not only allows for ever-grasping power to go unchecked – why should we care what’s happening when the TV is on? – but keeps us isolated lest we ever compare notes. It’s no coincidence that one of the first steps taken by governments experiencing any pushback from the public is to implement controls over how and where people may get together as a group.

Divided and distracted, we are conquered. And we’re repeatedly told it’s a dog-eat-dog world, so we’ve got to get ours before someone else grabs it, as if life is a zero-sum game. It’s not, of course. You finding happiness in life in no way diminishes my happiness, or your neighbour’s … or anyone else’s, for that matter.

There are, however, some underlying elements to our shared humanity – there’s that word again – that make it much easier for each of us to find that happiness. It’s that foundation that’s crumbling from the onslaught of corporatism, poor governance and security paranoia we’re seeing in ever-growing abundance. That’s intentional, and a big threat to our way of life, analysts such as Snyder argue.

“We’re never going to have a democracy that way. We’re never going to have the rule of law that way. We’re not going to have happy populations that way. When people end up voting because they’re motivated by messages that are false, that means that they’re basically unhappy because A) their vote cannot lead to a productive result because they’re voting in unreality; and B) they then have to come up with human reasons to explain why they did this thing, even if the reason why they did it, the cause wasn’t human. Then they use their human intelligence to rationalize what they did before. That also makes them unhappy, and it makes other people unhappy as well,” he says.

What we need is an open, participatory system, just the opposite of what is being built today, principally through the worst elements of the online world. The lack of transparency is a real danger.

“That’s one of the things that the Greeks had right. They thought that democracy was public. Democracy is public. If we all end up sitting in our basements liking and unliking [things online], we’re definitely not going to have democracy.”

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