Blame the bots all you want, but that isn’t the issue

There has been lots of discussion this past week about a company called  Cambridge Analytica and Facebook and how they’ve influenced recent elections.

Mostly it has been left-wing angst about how they was robbed. Of course, after blaming stupid voters they now have a real target, or two, to blame but, as a recent Guardian article points out, the blame lies within their own parties and within society, not with data companies or Facebook.

The still unfolding story of how personal information was leveraged for financial profit and political gain lays bare the vulnerability of democracy to new technology. The situation was bad enough. With social media lies can spread far faster than scrutiny can ever travel because people are now able to curate both their own news and the communities in which they distribute it. This is, partly, why 12 years after the start of the Iraq war, half of Republicans still believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (it didn’t) and two years ago 59% of Trump supporters still thought Barack Obama was not born in America (he was). Ignorance and bigotry need no help: in the fetid pit of prejudice and presumption they can breed and disperse freely. So to have private contractors harvesting personal information and using it to target the people they think are most susceptible to certain political messages, all for electoral gain and corporate profit, is disturbing. Facebook, which stands accused of failing to monitor how data collected from the platform was being used, should be held to account; Cambridge Analytica, which was allegedly linked to the leave side in the Brexit referendum , should also be investigated.

The questions raised in the past week about the harvesting of data, and the targeting of voters based on personal information that they may have parted with unknowingly, are serious. And yet to accept the claim that outside intervention was primarily responsible for Trump’s victory or the Brexit vote feels like an even more serious transgression.

It is a serious transgression because, for all of those things listed above, social media did not cause those beliefs. Mostly they were caused by self-serving politicians spinning lines. Those lines became accepted and social media allowed them to be amplified.

There is a desire among some liberals, many even, to dismiss the events of recent years as something other than what they were – a massive political defeat. Some of this dismissiveness comes from a deeply illiberal place, that effectively insists people are too stupid to understand what they want or what is best for them. There is also a wish to avoid responsibility for failing to connect politically in the decades since the financial crisis with a message that resonated, and to seek instead a legal remedy or technical reprieve by impeaching the president or annulling the referendum.

This is almost entirely the preserve of the left wing.

There is no contradiction between accepting that the Russians, Facebook, ignorance, Cambridge Analytica or stupidity played a role and understanding that a far larger drama, which has been under way for far longer, makes sense of the role they were able to play. If Trump is removed by impeachment, so be it. But that will be an inadequate salve for the long-running sores that made him possible.

Cambridge Analytica didn’t invent the racism, misogyny and xenophobia that have corroded American political culture and made Trump possible. These social pathologies were eating away at our democracies long before social media was invented. Their roots are deeper, their reach farther and their influence greater than any algorithm could conjure.

Removing Trump won’t solve any issues, and neither would have electing Hillary Clinton.

The Russians did not tell Hillary Clinton to send surrogates to Arizona shortly before the election, when they would have been far more helpful in Michigan or Wisconsin. They didn’t tell her to give a speech at Goldman Sachs for $225,000 in the wake of a huge bank bailoutor call half Trump’s supporters a “basket of deplorables”.Facebook hadn’t been invented when she was for the Iraq war before she was against it, or when she was against gay marriage before she was for it.

Nope, she did all that by herself. A deeply flawed candidate with an equally flawed strategy, based on the presumptive arrogance of the left.

Social media platforms, nefarious botsand dodgy data companies can amplify views that are already out there and distort perspectives that already exist – but they cannot invent them. In short they can manipulate the supply of ideas, but they cannot create the demand for those ideas from thin air.

Trump’s victory and Brexit came in a time of growing economic inequality, wage stagnation, mass migration, rising xenophobia and racial tension. Bill Clinton was right – there was a mood out there. That mood emerged from material conditions that mainstream parties had made possible over the past few decades, through, among other things, illegal war, deregulation, trade liberalisation and vile rhetoric on immigration. And on both sides of the Atlantic liberals failed to either take responsibility for this or adequately respond to its consequences. Now they are paying the price.

But blaming everyone but themselves.

None of this excuses the actions of those who have sought to mislead us nor denies the power of the memes, messages and misinformation that they have produced. With some help, what begins life as received wisdom can graduate to common knowledge and mature into a full-blown script that people recite without knowing where it came from or what, precisely, it means. “We just put information [like ‘crooked Hillary’] into the bloodstream of the internet and watch it grow,” claimed Cambridge Analytica’s CEO, Alexander Nix, who has since been suspended. “Give it a little push every now and again over time to watch it take shape … So this stuff infiltrates the online community with no branding, so it’s unattributable, untrackable.”

We know these things made a difference. Given the narrow margins of defeat in both the Brexit referendum and the 2016 presidential election, it is an open question whether they made the difference that tipped us over the edge. That matters.

But either way, the question remains: what were we doing so close to the edge? And how do we get out of the pit we are now in? We do not yet have the answer to the second question. But we can be fairly sure we won’t find it in an algorithm.

Politics has been homogenised, dumbed down, and is now at the lowest common denominator. Few politicians these days have had real jobs, and they don’t meet normal, ordinary people. They exist in the rarified atmoshpere of a bubble of their own making.

Little wonder they are out of touch with reality… and act all surprised when that reality bites them on the arse.


-The Guardian

Do you want:

  • Ad-free access?
  • Access to our very popular daily crossword?
  • Access to daily sudoku?
  • Access to Incite Politics magazine articles?
  • Access to podcasts?
  • Access to political polls?

Our subscribers’ financial support is the reason why we have been able to offer our latest service; Audio blogs. 

Click Here  to support us and watch the number of services grow.