Technology’s dark side may well be the silent threat to democracy.
A year ago, Americans installed a reality TV star in the White House who doesn’t seem to let the facts get in the way of a good tweet. Trump’s shambolic management style has given America’s enemies a perceived opportunity to drive their country’s agendas. Not long after the last new year firework had disappeared into a wisp of smoke into the Pyongyang sky, Kim Jong Un announced that North Korea’s nuclear missiles are now able to strike US soil. “The button for nuclear weapons,” said the North Korean dictator, “is on my table.”
And how did the leader of the free world respond? By Twitter, of course, boasting that his nuclear button is “much bigger & more powerful”.
It is surreal, not only that the fate of humanity hangs in the balance of what resembles a schoolboys’ pissing match, but that we – the US and the rest of world not under the despotic thumb of a dictator – aren’t doing more about it. Maybe it is the belief that the verbal one-upmanship will not result in actual war: that Pyongyang’s claims of nuclear ability are overblown (excuse the bad pun), and that, push coming to actual shove, there are sufficient checks and balances in the US system to prevent Trump from starting an apocalypse.
Or maybe the more immediate threat of global conflict comes from elsewhere.
The Trojan Horse
First, let’s go back 2,500 years. The Trojan Horse was a large wooden horse built by the Greeks and left outside the walls of Troy during the war between their two kingdoms. The Greeks appeared to retreat, and the Trojans wheeled the horse into their city as a trophy, only to have the soldiers hidden inside open the gates to the victorious Greeks. From this story came Virgil’s phrase “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts”, as well as the label that now describes computer malware disguised as legitimate software.
Technology and the Internet have been a boon to the masses, giving access to information and education, helping to level the playing field between rich and poor, and between advanced and underdeveloped countries. It has made life more convenient, improved individual wellbeing and enhanced community engagement.
But for all its benefits, tech has introduced its own malware into society. The Internet, like any global city, has some murky back alleys. The Dark Web and the untraceability of cryptocurrency facilitate illegal activities, from drug deals to terrorism financing. In a 2017 report, Nato highlighted that access to technology and the global nature of cyberspace would help terrorist networks expand, challenging the current near-monopoly that state actors have on high-tech weapons.
If World War I was started when a gunshot rang out in Sarajevo, and World War II was characterised by wailing air raid sirens, the next global conflict is likely to be launched with a quiet click of a mouse. In a cyberattack, enemy-sponsored hackers could jam defence systems, disrupt key installations, and stall critical facilities. Impromptu auditions have already been held: in 2017, the ransomware WannaCry claimed as its largest victim the UK’s National Health Service, shutting down everything from MRI scanners to blood-storage refrigerators.
There is speculation that governments are pouring resources into state-sponsored hacking. Russia’s hacker army, thought to be 1,000 strong, enjoys an annual budget of US$300 million. China is rumoured to have a hacker army of 50,000 but has consistently denied this. Bloomberg estimates that North Korea employs 1,700 hackers, backed by 5,000 support staff. However, Reuters reports that it is the US that is the world’s most aggressive nation when it comes to cyberspying and cyberwarfare. At home, Singapore’s military is building a specialised core of cyber defenders, a “White Hat” SEAL team if you will, to protect the nation from cyberwarfare.
The scourge of fake news
In a democracy, transparency of information is the lifeblood of free elections. He who informs (or misinforms) the electorate can influence the outcome of the election.
According to a Stanford University study, fake news websites received 159 million visits during the last month of the 2016 US election. Other research states that the most widely shared news stories during the election were fake. Facebook believes 120 fake Russian-backed pages created 80,000 posts that were received by 29 million Americans directly, and far more through sharing of the posts. If, as is believed, the majority of this misinformation was pro-Trump, how much did this fake content influence the outcome of the election?
Unsurprisingly, Singapore has expressed concerns about fake news. A Select Committee of Parliament has been formed, with legislation to follow. But even a hint of media control by the authorities will have the civil rights community up in arms. In combating inaccurate news reports with regulation, the government could de-legitimise news media by the perception of editorial influence. When the authorities clash with fake news, the public will be the losers.
Against this backdrop, a couple of recent developments could have far-reaching effects which have not yet entered our collective consciousness.
Changes in Facebook’s News Feed protocol
Facebook has announced changes to its News Feed algorithm to prioritise content from friends and family, over posts from businesses and news media, explaining that more personal interaction enhances users’ welfare. The upshot of this is that your Facebook feed will show limited updates from news outlets.
Whether you believe that the social media giant’s latest move is prompted by altruism or a more calculated profit motive, or even a desire to pre-empt regulation, what is clear is that this change will result in an echo chamber that is both larger and louder. The user’s own thoughts and opinions will be reinforced by self-selection, as we are more likely to interact with like-minded connections, which will in turn cause Facebook to push more of such similar opinions to our news feed. Our society’s social, political and economic fault lines will be deepened.
If we used social media only to view friends’ travel photos and indulge in their food porn, Facebook’s new policy would not matter. But with an increasing proportion of our news coming from online content (as the decline of printed news indicates), and our opinions inevitably shaped by commentary received from platforms where we spend the most time, Facebook and sites like it will have an outsized impact on how we view global developments. Add to this the rise of fake news, and you have a potentially dangerous combination.
Another thing that has largely escaped our radar: the US Federal Communications Commission announced in 2017 the repeal of the US’s net neutrality policy. This is the principle that Internet service providers must treat all data on the internet equally, and not discriminate against type of content and user. Without this, they could block content, and slow down, restrict or deny access to sites, selectively. Theoretically, a loss of net neutrality could allow those with deeper pockets to influence public perception and opinion, and silence the marginalised and minorities.
Why it matters
Citizens of a modern democracy must have access to accurate news and independent commentary from credible media sources to help them make informed voting choices. Anything that reinforces bias or allows those with greater financial resources and an agenda, to influence the electorate’s views, would be a threat to that freedom. If the information we receive is being filtered or controlled in ways we are not aware of – whether by the net neutrality policies of ISPs or the algorithms of search and social media platforms – then our decisions are being influenced without our knowledge. Tech giants like Facebook and Google, who control arguably the most important commodity in the Internet age – information – have the ability to shape the world. There’s no guarantee that they will do so for the better.
Tech has invaded our lives with the promise of a better lifestyle, and on this it has largely delivered. While we have knowingly relied on its conveniences, it is our unwitting submission to its influences that poses the threat.
Beware Geeks bearing gifts.