I’ve said on this site, at various places, that Digital Media particularly through interactive platforms like Wikipedia and Social Media, are vehicles of disinformation and political propaganda. Whatever the nature of an online conversation, be it a family’s travel vlogs, pictures, fashion tips, food stories – “dad’s visit to Israel” – when a group identity intersects with a contested territory, say “Palestine” (native lands, indigenous peoples and self-determination claims), one inevitably encounters algorithm manipulation.
It is at this pivotal moment we realise that there are hidden forces online that control what people read and share within their informal circles. Whoever these people are, we can say with certainty that they have vested interests, and they’re not neutral bystanders. They have an agenda to undermine the free circulation of information which otherwise would be uncontroversial in liberal democracies.
By definition, a liberal democracy is an open society with unhindered access to information. Knowledge is accessible to everyone, because the society has determined that everyone is entitled to know the truth, whether it affirms a social or political reality, or negates it, it is not for rulers to censor freedom of thought and expression. In a genuinely free society, expressing truth is not akin to a prison or death sentence. Just because the truth may expose certain interest groups, doesn’t mean it should be hidden from the general populace.
The opposite of a liberal democracy is a ‘closed society’, and knowledge is closely guarded, hidden, and disappeared. The truth frightens those with unaccountable power, and so, they create elaborate systems to manage the flow of information (knowledge).
With the advent of the internet during the late 1960s, access to digital media changed the dynamics of how ordinary people interacted with information. Censorship became a lot more complicated, but the internet also opened up doors to something more sinister.
It gave rise to Fake News and False Narratives.
Today, unsuspecting people are being manipulated into believing claims that are false. Understanding the psychology behind the false messaging is key to understanding why the free flow of information is being curbed and the identities of those who want to control how people think.
We all know what is meant by the popular expression, “don’t shoot the messenger…” There is profound social meaning in that expression, because it captures widespread reluctance to deal with facts when those facts become dangerous, undermining a person’s sense of well-being, safety and security. This is an example of self-censorship.
During the 1930s in Post-World War Germany, a functioning democratic system was subverted from within, and a lot of the claims made against opponents of the then ruling party turned out to be propaganda.
Ordinary people were manipulated through sustained propaganda campaigns to become inadvertent accessaries to war crimes. Germans of Jewish descent became stateless through laws enacted on behalf ‘of the people’. This became the norm throughout the Nazi territories, and was the first legal stage in the dislocation and genocide of 6 million Jews.
There was no collective opprobrium from the general populace, despite cruel and vindictive attacks against Jews, many of whom were friends and neighbours.
Ordinary Germans looked the other way.
“No, no, I don’t want to associate with “Semites”, because everyone around me is a member of the Nationalist Socialist German Worker’s Party.”
In the words of Martin Niemoller, a Christian pastor and poet, who probably didn’t care much for a book deal at the time,
“…then they came for me”.
His full poem reads,
First, they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.
Niemoller’s poem is a powerful indictment of identity politics and the complicit nature of group behaviour.
Mindful of this painful history, what should any of us do in contemporary times, when the message behind a particular cause is disappeared, distorted, contorted, mangled to look ugly and unappealing to our subtle prejudices, and ultimately removed from Google or Microsoft’s search engines?
We must first try to understand the motives of the interest groups doing the manipulation, whether as salaried employees, bots or just random individuals motivated by identity politics. It will allow us to understand the narratives behind the politics. And, wherever you have imposed narratives, top-down, you have counter-narratives, bottom-up. Those already in power want to control ‘the narrative’, at all costs. This control-aspect is very revealing, it exposes the nature of the priorities behind the underhanded tactics;
In today’s world, Authoritarianism and Identity Politics go hand in hand. The internet has made this all the more possible. Digital Media is in everyone’s home. We open that door as soon as we take our smart phones out of our pockets. Without realising, our phones accompany us everywhere.
If we’re unclear about something, we “google” the answers. The word google has become a universal expression – “if you don’t know, google it!” But, there was a time, when we used to say, “if you don’t know, ask the experts”. Google has now assumed that role, returning online content through algorithms it claims to have fine-tuned to our information needs. No one looks at pages 2, 3, 4 and onwards, most people focus on the first page returned by Google. This would hold true for the other search engines.
Authoritarians in the above scenarios know how to manipulate search engine algorithms to push online content off the first page. Google maintains that the process it utilises is neutral of 3rd party interests, unbiased and fair.
But it isn’t fair at all.
This shouldn’t be a problem if you’re searching cosmetic make-up to use on your face, and you want to understand pigmentation, or how light reflects off your face, and perhaps the more disturbing history of skin whitening creams for darker-skinned populations. People are genuinely curious. That’s a good thing. But, the nature of authoritarianism penalises a person asking “prohibited” questions that could otherwise reveal some disturbing truths.
History is full of disturbing facts.
This is not like wanting to buy an eco-car, so you google your options. Inevitably, you will be intersecting with commercial interests that want to attract your custom, whilst growing their own businesses. Your consumer value is understood in monetary terms, you’re not a problem, but an opportunity.
There’s nothing sinister about this, except, perhaps, the curtailing of genuine consumer choice. Google decides which companies sell on its powerful platform. To use an old allegory, it controls the ‘Silk Road’. Google algorithms decide which companies get to sell their wares to you, you don’t have any genuine choice in the matter.
In liberal democracies, your agency to choose is protected by laws. This is why powerful monopolies are constantly broken up, because they start to rig the prices and force smaller competitors out of the market, unfairly. The Free Market is an aspect of Liberal Democracies, and there are ongoing debates about how best to regulate markets without becoming too controlling.
Commercial interests have been around since forever though. Google LLC like Apple and Microsoft are multibillion dollar businesses, and not struggling social welfare projects. They’re ‘in the Market’ to make money, not promote the #BlackLivesMatter Movement, or pick sides with human rights and democracy activists struggling to get their voices heard. They like to present themselves in a positive light – “we’re progressives”, but the history of powerful capitalistic interests tends to morph into horrible political dynamics when left unchecked.
To appreciate this proposition within its proper historical context, one just needs to understand how European colonialism began life as an innocent trading mission to India in the late 1400s. Spain had been reclaimed from the Moors, and the Jews and Muslims were expelled to North Africa. In these cumulative acts of violence, we had the first precursors to the racism and structural inequalities academics have been exploring ever since.
The idea of India and how it entered the European imagination was thus driven by commercial interests, notwithstanding older interactions between Romans and South Indian coastal communities. If you recall from your school days, Columbus wanted to find an alternative sea-route to India, and accidentally discovered the ‘New World’. From this point onwards, we had the subjugation of native peoples and their lands, and their memories were expunged from the historical record. 600 years later, we have countries on the opposite side of the world to India, called the West Indies. Etymologically, India took its name from the River Indus and the River Indus is located in South Asia, and not North America.
The Greeks and Persians were behind the geographical ascription of India. The British were behind the geographical ascription of South Asia to understand the identities of the people giving us the labels we take for granted.
Mistaken identities aren’t innocuous accidents of history though. Native Americans were identified as Indians by Europeans searching for India, because agency was removed from them to deploy their own identity labels, they were identified through another people’s geographical ascription.
Identity labels come with narratives. The terms of reference we use are thus loaded, and there is enormous baggage behind the labels.
Ironically, Native Americans prefer the self-ascription Indian to Native American to capture how they were written out of their lands and memories, whilst non-Natives (to their lands) became the quintessential Americans. The Indians subscribe to a narrative of suffering, and make cause with oppressed peoples everywhere.
This history if correctly understood does not have to be antagonistic, but redemptive of our shared humanity. If understood properly, it will expose how certain groups and unaccountable power come together. Lots of artificial nation states have been founded on the blood, sweat and tears of dispossessed groups, the one thing that connects their rulers with other rulers (native clients) is the obsession to control narratives of oppressed communities. One way to control a narrative, is to silence competing narratives, make them disappear.
As is still the case today, blood diamonds produce profits and misery for ordinary people in unequal measure. They bump up a company’s share price, until an ethical trading company refuses to invest in such ventures, because of how ordinary people become collateral damage. The Directors of Big Business would retort that they’re just being entrepreneurial. They follow the money, a bit like the Cocaine trade in America were recreational drug-takers are unintentionally responsible for the misery blighting entire swathes of Latin American society.
We’ve all heard the excuses.
Someone buying and selling slaves in the 18th century wouldn’t have necessarily considered himself an ‘evil’ person either, after all, African slaves were hardly human. This is how we justify to ourselves that our actions are not necessarily bad.
We create our own ‘false narratives’.
But there’s a troubling history here that produces its own ironies. Ironies are poetic. Take the fictitious size of the “Black” penis? An entire genre of contemporary smut is dedicated to the worship of the sexual prowess of the black male, attitudes that African-American intellectuals find deeply dehumanising. Centuries earlier, this fictitious concoction was intended to dehumanise, demonise and stigmatise “Blacks” as “ape-like creatures”, “sexually-driven”, who wanted to devour virtuous ‘white’ women’.
Decades later, it appeared that the narrative had not produced its desired outcome, so the white elite convinced itself that only working class females would be attracted to Blacks, because of their own impure backgrounds (lack of nobility) and sexual deviance. In Jim Crow America, lynchings were normalised through a narrative that sought to protect white females, paternalistically, from their own debased instincts.
Narratives change, and there is profound wisdom in the ironies that remain. One can see those ironies in the ethnic tokenism we take for granted, when racial inclusion becomes a gimmick, whilst widespread structural inequalities remain intact. One just has to look at British media stereotypes of various ethnic group identities, and how the BME are valorised differently. The people behind the stereotypes have no sense of their own prejudices. One need only look to the humour behind ‘Citizen Khan’ to appreciate how ‘popular’ narratives spread amongst a populace. The ensuing representation is actually very unrepresentative of the population being joked about, but yet in the minds of the BBC, Citizen Khan (‘community leader’) is inclusion for ‘Pakistanis’. Comedy brings people together, we are told, but which groups are the beneficiaries of these socially engineered situations?
The Working Class Pakistanis of Sparkbrook, or the aspirational Middle Class Pakistanis accruing jobs from the British Media?
We all look the other way, when we’re not personally affected by the trials and tribulations of dispossessed groups, especially when our own sense of entitlement is preserved. This dangerous instinct becomes fatal when Authoritarianism rears its ugly head during times of conflict. If ‘Dear Leader’ is on our side, protects our interests, “he” becomes palatable, almost leader-like in his divine virtues, because he is protecting “us” from the outsiders. All other consequences are incidental.
It is the case that most Autocratic Dictators in history were men, that’s just a fact of history. Patriarchy has been more destructive than racism, but the latter seems to be more fashionable as a cause than the former. More women have died at the hands of patriarchy than men have died at the hands of racism.
I’m saying that we shouldn’t be naive to not appreciate what drives interests when they want to control every-day narratives. All of us have vested interests in varying degrees, so we should understand the deplorable instinct to deny others their voice. Some well-intentioned individuals exploit their peers, they don’t think anything of it, because they’re getting ahead in life, they often undermine their own moral compass to justify behaviour that’s highly suspect. It may constitute greed, selfishness, the lack of empathy, or the blatant disregard for a dispossessed people’s natural habitat when a Recycling Company needs land to dump its toxic waste.
We all understand the sinister aspects of the World we’ve inherited, or at least I should qualify this to ‘those who actually matter’ – the critical core in a society that can hold leaders to account. This presupposes human capital (a cognitive elite, we are told) and a willingness to say what others are reluctant to say, whether in private, or public. For lots of people, there is a disconnect between their private lives and their public personas.
In the overwhelming majority of cases, people speaking out against tyranny and inequality have always been a minority within their societies. There is a social cost to holding power to account. When the tide starts to change in favour of the dispossessed, lots of people decide to swim with the tide, because the currents seem to be propelling them forward too. People’s consciences are perturbed by injustice, cruelty and inequality – a proof of our shared humanity, but how many actually decide to do something about it when it doesn’t affect them personally?
Self-preservation to the point of becoming selfish is an evolutionary trait, and so it’s not something that can be easily moralised away. In the olden days, dissenters would use words like cowardice to describe peers reluctant to join the fight, but cowards have a greater longevity than courage-tooting activists, who have been largely extirpated in the majority of resistance-causes. It’s easy to kill dissidents when they’re a few, but how do you silence an entire nation of dissidents?
The politics of fear is understood by everyone, and it exposes the deceit of those lacking a genuine mandate to rule their equals. Authoritarians cannot sanitise their actions except to a dumbed-down population. This is why they bully and intimidate their critics, convincing themselves that they’re actually good people fighting ‘evil’. Through sheer attrition, and allies, dissidents sometimes succeed, so long as they continue to have the courage of their convictions. For instance, it’s very difficult to harass and intimidate people who think God is on their side. God is a bit like the truth. It’s a powerful narrative. Once you think, the truth is on your side, your opponents’ tactics become ineffective, and all of sudden, the numbers in your camp start to swell.
A sense of personal and collective morality is thus essential to any genuine cause. This is the reason why godly dissidents are constantly smeared as irreligious by their secular opponents.
Which brings me back to Digital Media and search engine manipulation. Dissidents from across the world are increasingly resorting to online platforms to get their message heard. Because of how information is stored on millions of servers across the world, search engines retrieve this information for ordinary people through algorithms.
Creating an online presence in one part of the world, does not mean that that content will be accessible in another part of the world. When you type something into a search engine, an algorithm directs you to various search results. Thousands of entries are listed, but only the first results will garner user-interaction.
These algorithms are being manipulated by authoritarian interest groups who want to control the narrative and which online content is returned in the searches. The febrile nature of this enterprise can be best seen in how occupier-narratives are used to silence resistance-narratives, which places a premium on controlling a group’s sense of identity.
The manipulation is driven politically, even though the searches may relate to simple things like food, culture, music, native dress. The lived experience of occupied peoples is made invisible by those controlling the narratives, they don’t want the global reach of the internet to bring the true scale of their crimes into someone else’s home, when a random person decides to google, innocuously, say, for instance, Cashmere shawls, or the Himalayan Mountains.
Cashmere is a highly prized commodity, a bit like Caviar or Persian Rugs. But there’s also a country called Kashmir, which has been at the centre of conflict between two countries for over 70 years. Kashmiris are an ethnically and religiously diverse people, and in their midst are enormous populations that refuse to accept the narratives of their oppressors, perceived or real. Whatever the identity labels and origin myths, Kashmiris are saying that they have their own memories and stories. They are saying the ‘Military Occupiers’ have no legitimacy to speak for them.
Kashmiris have their own narratives.
An otherwise innocuous search that would have bought you into contact with these narratives are being manipulated to silence the voice of ordinary Kashmiris looking for an outlet. This online content is being actively removed from search results. Kashmiris have been made invisible, there is a powerful indictment here on two successor States of British India, a colonial project that’s constantly thrashed by the stakeholders of the corresponding nationalisms.
Modern Britain is demonstrably more democratic, more fair and racially inclusive than India or Pakistan. I can say that with a straight face because no minority is persecuted in Britain. Minorities, particularly ethnic minorities, are endangered in Pakistan and India.
Foreign occupation of native lands is a feature of our modern world. To be an effective Occupier, you have to be a seasoned ‘bullshitter’ – I use that term analytically; see my related article, “Propaganda and Digital Media, the curious case of Authoritarianism and Online Bullshit”. Tyrants cannot obtain social respectability with the rest of the world when everyone knows they are unjustly occupying endangered minorities through military force and ingenious fictions like laws.
One way to counteract resistance-narratives is to smear the ensuing claims as Fake News, whilst rubbishing the integrity of the dissidents exposing the Occupier, “they’re criminals. They’ve got mental health problems. They’re liars. They’re immoral. They don’t believe in God; they’re agents of our enemies”, and on and on.
But this would mean, at one point or another, having to deal with the truth of occupation and the corresponding claims, running the risk of exposing one’s own False Narrative. It’s more effective silencing dissidents, and this is exactly how authoritarian regimes used to behave before the advent of the internet.
An Authoritarian Regime, by definition, is a Security State that uses surveillance to monitor citizens. Dissidents are disappeared in lots of countries with appalling human rights record. NGOs have produced an enormous body of knowledge that shows how Security States operate, and the climate of fear they create amongst nationals.
With Digital Media, dissidents had anonymity to promote their causes without risk of reprisals, but now modern surveillance technologies are being used to uncover the identities of the dissidents through malware (malicious software). Clicking on the wrong links, or answering a random phone call, can infect a device through malware. Wherever we go, our smartphones go, and they are tracking our every movement.
Authoritarian regimes are investing huge sums of money in this technology, and they are actively infecting devices across the world through the relative simplicity of spreading malware. Without people even realising, smartphones are listening to conversations, hidden software is tracking which websites they visit, cameras are being remotely operated. Just as someone uploads data onto a virtual cloud, others can download that data onto their own devices within seconds. Security features on devices are easily by-passed, entire Wifi Networks are infiltrated with ease.
Still, this doesn’t reassure the Authoritarian actors.
They need legitimacy. So, they create Fake Accounts to bolster the supposed appeal of their own legitimacy, spreading Fake News across the internet manipulating Google’s algorithms to return preferential online content at the top of every search result. The content of the dissidents curiously disappears. They also mimic the social media accounts of the dissidents to undermine the message, creating doubt and suspicion, by injecting toxicity into conversations. They do this to drown resistance-narratives through a cacophony of innuendo, slurs and irrelevant talking points.
Because they have access to power, they frequently leverage the State they own exclusively against the dissidents, shutting down online platforms that otherwise create their own talking points. Google is frequently receptive to demands to remove online content from search results, because without cordial relations with authoritarian regimes, Google wouldn’t be able to sell its products to millions of consumers.
This is how Big Business operates, note my earlier reference to ‘Blood Diamonds’.
This is the sad reality of 21st century Authoritarianism. Democracy and human rights are being eroded in favour of an Authoritarianism that should have been relegated to the dustbin of history. Today, online manipulation has the capacity to subvert genuine democracies from within their own societies, whilst the attackers are sitting at terminals thousands of miles away. They don’t need armies and native clients anymore. Fake news and False Narratives are powerful weapons, silencing dissent amongst people desperately fighting for their freedoms and liberties.
It is a 21st century irony that the internet was one of the triumphs of a free and open society when it first emerged 50 years ago. Online platforms are now subverting democracy within liberal democracies, with the ease of a button, algorithms and search engine manipulation churn out lies, innuendo and hatred.
Entire populations believe that Covid19 is a hoax to appreciate what I am saying. Tens of millions of dollars are being spent to counteract the deadly messaging, whilst western governments are slow to react to the pernicious use of the internet as a tool of authoritarian propaganda.