Forget for the moment Assange, Snowden and Manning, important as they are, and worth defending at almost any cost. Their revelations have been priceless, in revealing dirty deeds done by governments and other agencies all over the world, but hitherto kept secret in order to prevent public criticism. The hope is that these revelations will enable publics to come to more critical political decisions in the future. That’s all to the good.
The more conventional journalist Carole Cadwalladr, however, has gone a step further. What her painstaking investigations into the world of the internet – too complicated for most of us to understand, especially us oldies – have done is to reveal one important brand-new means by which opinion is being manipulated, usually by the Right, in what purport to be ‘democracies’. It started, so far as the broadsheet-reading public is concerned, with her sensational revelations about ‘Cambridge Analytica’ and its relations with social media engines like Facebook and Google, in connexion with the Brexit referendum of 2016. That has now broadened into an in-depth inquiry into the way democracy itself is being ‘subverted’ by these new magicians of the web. Here’s a good account of this by Cadwalladr herself in today’s Observer: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/apr/21/carole-cadwalladr-ted-tech-google-facebook-zuckerberg-silicon-valley.
In one way this is nothing new. We’ve long known how public opinion can be misled and distorted by ‘propaganda’. ‘Cambridge Analytica’ is just the most recent example. There’s a whole global industry – called ‘advertising’ – that has been founded on this assumption for over a century. (Read Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, 1957; and even before that, HG Wells’s 1909 novel Tono-Bungay.) People are easily fooled, and they don’t need to be stupid to be vulnerable; especially when their manipulators alight on new methods of fooling them as clever and hidden as Cadwalladr has revealed.
Clearly we need to find means of countering this, which may be difficult without encroaching on ‘freedom of opinion’. (That’s what stands in the way of ‘policing’ far Right ‘lies’ on Facebook.) Efforts such as Cadwalladr’s are a beginning, pre-warning us about how modern technological propaganda works. Beyond that, I still think that education could help, if school kids were given lessons or even courses on rational thinking, logic, criticism, the importance of checking sources and so on. Ultimately this will be the only way of keeping the wilful liars and misleaders – Boris is the obvious example – in check.