Democracy Hacked, Martin Moore. London: Oneworld Publications, 2018.
Summary: An inquiry into the ways individuals and states have influenced democratic governments, how web-based platforms have made it possible, and some of the alternatives for the future.
Much has been made of various ways the 2016 presidential election in the United States was “hacked” or manipulated exploiting various tools and platforms on the internet. In this book, Martin Moore pulls back the curtain on how it was done, the vulnerabilities of our social media platforms, and both the potential for more influence along these lines in the future, and the alternative, which is not becoming societies of Luddites.
He begins with the different individuals and groups that in some way were connected with efforts to manipulate the internet. He begins by exploring those who are the “freextremists.” These are the denizens of image boards like 4chan that generate memes, whose survival on the board depends on how provocative, indeed how offensive, it is as measured by how often it is reposted. Many of the digital natives on these sites were alt-right or neo-Nazi types. Eventually a number became allied with organizations like Breitbart, and became a key asset in the media campaigns of the Trump elections with alliances with Trump operatives. In turn, Moore profiles plutocrats like Robert Mercer, who provided the capital that turned Breitbart into a web powerhouse. Finally, he details the various ways from hacked email accounts of Clinton staff, to various fake news and meme postings through fake Facebook and Twitter accounts, that influence was brought to bear by Russian entities on US citizens to influence the election. The author remains agnostic on whether these played a decisive influence, although he makes it clear that the Republican candidate used these methodologies or benefited from them to a much greater extent than the Democrat candidate.
The second part of the book looks at the social media platforms used to sway potential voters. The Facebook story is insidious, not only because of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but also because Facebook uses an ad and promotional post targeting system utilizing the incredible amounts of information it aggregates on each profile through likes, posts, and clicks on posts. Psychological profiling enables precise targeting of contents to base voters, those who might desert a candidate, and undecided voters. Google’s pursuit of ad revenue also makes it vulnerable for similar reasons. Twitter is different in the ability of this platform to disseminate information, exploited heavily by bots and fake accounts (not to mention then candidate and now President, Donald Trump’s Twitter presence). A common thread is advertising and the use of personal information to increase ad revenues, making these ideal platforms for political exploitation.
The third part of the book explores directions democracy could go. We could move to a platform democracy where platforms deliver everything from places to stay (AirBnB) to transportation (Uber) to healthcare (something Amazon is experimenting with) and schools. There is a possibility of these platforms pervading every aspect of life, to the exclusion of the local, including local news media. More insidious is what Moore calls “surveillance democracy” where a digital identity is mandated by government and becomes necessary for voting, passports and travel, purchasing a home, or even shopping for groceries. He describes the system already in place in India, and how such systems are already being used for social control in China.
The alternative for Moore is not to “unplug” but rather to use technology to serve rather than manipulate democratic processes, including following Estonia’s model of creating policy around the individual and the privacy of their data, rather than large interests. He calls this “democracy re-hacked.”
What Moore seems to be doing is relying on regulation to create and implement policies to protect democracy. What bothers me is that it seems easy to circumvent many such measures, and only those without the resources or the savvy to circumvent such regulation will be shut down. It seems that until there are better limits on the data that can be collected about us (or greater transparency about that collection), targeting ads and promoted stories tailored to our interests will likely continue to find their way into our search results, timelines and Twitter feeds. Perhaps privacy and freedom from manipulative advertising (or even algorithms) might be worth paying for–perhaps a subscription fee to platforms like Facebook or Twitter. In exchange for not harvesting and using our data, we would pay an annual subscription (for example, I pay a certain amount for my identity to not be linked publicly to my URL, and to keep my blog site ad-free). There may be many users who would prefer this option, if private really means private, rather than government imposed regulation.
Whether you think democracy can be “re-hacked” or not, it seems important that a populace educate itself how to avoid becoming unwitting victims of political manipulation through the internet, just as we have to learn to be savvy about viruses, spyware, and other ways hackers attempt to compromise the integrity of our computers and our data. Moore at very least helps us understand both that it is being done, and how, and in doing so already provides us a vital tool in taking back our democracy–personal agency.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers Program in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.