In September 1943, Sir Winston Churchill told the commencement assembly at Harvard University that the “empires of the future are the empires of the mind.” While clearly not referring to cyberspace, his words were prophetic. Our language is now littered with words and phrases that reflect this shift such as ‘fake news’, ‘post-truth politics’, ‘mockumentary’ and ‘infotainment.’ To control modern empires requires a focus on the mind. On the one hand, totalitarian regimes such as Russia and China are doing what they have always done and attempting this by coercing their people. Ironically, they and other groups are employing much more subtle and ultimately more effective persuasive techniques in the west.
We live in a time of information abundance. However, this has the associated consequence of attention deficit. There is so much information available that we simply can’t pay attention to it all. Those who create information-based products, such as common social media platforms, have a primary goal of keeping your attention as long as possible and a range of psychological techniques are employed to achieve this. More time spent with a particular product means greater opportunity to learn more about you and to target you with tailored advertising. The monetization of you as a commodity – an audience of one – is the priority in this age of industrial scale advertising. This isn’t benign or friendly use of technology. Few, if any, of us wake in the morning with the goal of spending 30% of our day on news websites, social media or responding to online ‘offers.’ This battle for attention and ultimately our freedom is well-addressed in the open source book “Stand Out Of Our Light” by James Williams.
What if the goal was more sinister than selling frozen yoghurt? What if the massive amount of data you have freely given the digital media companies was used to convince you to vote a certain way, to not go to the polls or to build a distrust of a certain individual, religious or ethnic group? What if you didn’t give permission for it to be used but your data was taken anyway? Every time you logged in, you saw ads that were designed specifically for you (although you didn’t know so) and links led you to groups of people like you so that you were effectively in an echo chamber while believing the majority of people agreed with your opinion. Couldn’t happen? It did and for a simple understanding of how, watch the Netflix documentary “The Great Hack” or read any of the thousands of articles on the now defunct company Cambridge Analytica (a subsidiary of a Defence contractor) and its role in campaigns from Brexit to Trump’s 2016 campaign. In the words of one of its former directors the psychological techniques they employed were ‘weapons-grade.’
It would be naïve to think that Cambridge Analytica was the first or only company to conduct such operations. They were just the one that got caught. It is still going on today and is the greatest threat to freedom the world faces. Think about it this way – The primary role of government is to protect the people. Governments only govern through the will of the people. Through the use of manipulative digital techniques, specific governments that are favourable to an opponent are installed. All the while, the voters believe they have a free democracy while thumbing their way through an endless flow of kitten pictures and following clickbait links such as ‘Everything You Need to Know About Sugar’ and ‘7 Secret Relationships Going on in New Zealand Elite Sports Circles Right Now!’
New Zealand property investor, author and former politician, Sir Bob Jones, wrote a 2003 satirical book called “True Facts” in which a formerly honourable British newspaper editor is directed by his new global media bosses to create a tabloid for ‘Homo Degeneratus.’ These people can only comprehend words of one syllable. Worse still, the editor has to write three months’ worth of articles in advance. Although it is satire, it’s a timely reminder to us all of our reading habits and how they shape our opinions and lives. Neil Postman wrote a serious work in 1987 covering similar themes – “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” As one actor wisely observed – ‘the battle between news and entertainment has been fought. Entertainment won.’ We are swamped with reality TV, cooking and renovation shows and ‘news’ about self-declared celebrities. It’s hard work to find quality news.
Not all threats in this space come from nation states and non-state actors interested in controlling our country. We have begun to see the use of some of these techniques by New Zealand political parties and their support partners and, in the 2020 general election campaign, we will see many more. The spawning of new terms such as neo-socialism (as a counter to neo-liberalism), deep fake video and an array of increasingly edgy attack ads will be front and centre in the drive to capture your vote.
In the fifth gradient of warfare, we are all combatants. While defence, intelligence and security agencies can spend their day employing the latest tool to sniff out and defeat malware, trojans, phishing scams and other online attacks they can never protect your mind nor guarantee you free will. You have to do that yourself. Like so many things, that begins with admitting you have a problem and taking steps to change your online behaviour and the way in which you gather and verify your news. It takes effort but few would hesitate to respond appropriately if their home and family were under physical attack. Be in no doubt that we are under psycho-cyber attack now and it will not stop.
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