Attacking the liberal order and our democracy – When technologies are being abused by authoritarian states

Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg stresses at every opportunity the total transparency, he and his company are dedicated to. „We bring the world closer together“ is his motto. In reality, however, Facebook is a covert surveillance company that earns its money by collecting and selling detailed records of our private information. What kind of customer they are selling these to seems to not matter to Facebook. What counts is the money, as we know at the latestsince the data abuse scandal at Cambridge Analytics.

Slowly the whole extent of the abuse becomes clear. The data that we readily provide to Facebook for the hope of emotional gratification through a few „likes“ were not only used to provide us with personalized advertising, but also to influence our voting behavior and thus to manipulate our democracy. Because in addition to the tireless volunteer election campaigners and professional spin doctors in classic election campaigns, more and more computer-generated automated scripts are being used, so-called „bots“. They generate messages and publish them on social media like Twitter and Facebook. And these messages are not just scattered around broadly, but they are tailored to a particular addressee and his political opinion, which in turn are extractedfrom his behavior in social networks. All too often these messages are shameless lies (in today’s jargon: „alternative facts“). Two examples from the last US election campaign: The Pope Trump supports and Hillary Clinton runs a ring of child pornographers. Especially right-wing extremist conspiracy theorists, islamophobics, misogynist and homophobic groups, and other extremist political circles have recognized social networks as an ideal platform for their political propaganda and are generating massive disinformation cascades.

So it is not just about protecting our privacy, it is also about massive repercussions on the liberal constitution of our society as it manifests itself in democratic and constructive debates and correspondingly free elections. Where facts, scientific findings and expert knowledge are fundamentally called into question, the door is open for any kind of propaganda. The compass for right and wrong is lost which attacks our ability for a rational discourse and decision making based on empirical facts and common values. And it is not just the election of Trump as US President, which has become possible only through the manipulation possibilities in the digital world. Rather, digital electoral manipulation also played a major role in the elections in India in 2010, in Kenya in 2013 and 2017, in the Brexit vote in 2016, in Mexico in 2018, as well as in numerous other elections and votes.

Internet propaganda and intervention in elections of other nations has become a new kind of political aggression, which is extensively used by authoritarian regimes in particular. The term „cyberwar“ has long since found its way into military strategies. Indeed, much indicates that behind many of these propaganda tools are Russian sources all the way up into the Kremlin. Donald Trump himself admits that Russia has played a significant role in the 2016 US election campaign. According to experts, this is likely to also be the case in the midterm elections of 2018. In his new book TheRoad to the Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, Americaprominent US historian Timothy Snyder gives a far more comprehensive picture of systematic Russian misinformation campaigns in recent years. And what he describes sounds absolutely scary. Driven by an almost mystical idea of a divine Russia and a strong masculine-sexually driven energy, which largely rely on the fascist ideas of the Russian thinker Ivan Ilyin, Vladimir Putin wants to develop the Russian nation against the democratic West to a new authoritarian world leadership. The new media serve the Kremlin almost perfectly. With the Russian propaganda channel RT, high-tech hackers, and countless propaganda bots Putin systematically manipulates the democratic process in the West, supporting nationalist and right-wing extremist groups such as the Front National in France, the UKIP of Nigel Farage in the UK, the AFD in Germany, or Donald Trump in the US and systematically spreads distrust in the democratic processes and his advocates. His goal: to undermine public trust in facts and expertise. In Donald Trump he has found an ideal companion. Of course, we are still waiting for the complete unbundling of Donald Trump’s complex relations with the Putin government and the many links between his electoral campaign and Russian activists. But for Snyder it is crystal clear: Trump’s election as US President is Putin’s biggest triumph.

In many places in the book, one is tempted to say that Snyder is exaggerating and taking hasty conclusions, e.g. when describing Putin’s irrational reference to religious and racial delusions, outlining his world power fantasies or calling Trump „Russia’s candidate“. Nevertheless, it remains very worrying that it is even within the conceivable that Putin could have such a propaganda machine that could undermine Western democracies. And Snyder is not just any angle historian, but a world-renowned expert on Eastern European autocratic history.

The technologies that enable Putin to lead this war have all been invented and developedin the free and open societies of the West, where people’s creativity can best flourish. But the use of these technologies is also possible for non-free societies such as Russia. And with bad will, this can strongly strike back on their inventors, as Timothy Snyder and Facebook impressively illuminate. The salvation promises of a technological elite from the Silicon Valley could turn out at last be a horror for the open society.

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