Weapons of Mass Delusion
From Politics to Marketing, the age of Digital Autocracy by AI is here. And the weapons are impossible to detect
In the Spring of 2018 the world woke up to revelations that the UK’s Brexit referendum, as well as numerous presidential elections across the globe, had been influenced by a new version of online marketing that was far more powerful, far more effective than anything that had ever existed. This new method was able to optimize marketing budgets by specifically targeting only the “swing” voters or only the “sure” voters, making sure they actually vote.
It also had the unparalleled capability to persuade people by telling them exactly what they were most likely to resonate with, as if it really knew each person individually. How did it do that? Well, by knowing each person individually. It is believed that at least 87 million of us had their Facebook data stolen: everything we ever said, everything we ever liked. AI technology could then easily match each one of us with the most appropriate version of a political campaign: one that matches our ideals, the issues we most care about, even our social status, life stage or the style of language that we tend to use. The rest was history.
Personalised, customized online campaigning had just taken a big leap into the future, with a stride that was the equivalent of the invention of the atomic bomb. The new buzzword was microtargeting.
Dark Web, Dark Money, Dark Interests
Along with the Facebook data breach, it emerged that dark money had been behind the sponsoring of these online political messages: money that had not been registered as part of any campaign spend, money whose trace faded behind news organisations no one had ever heard of before, which were mere cover ups funded by powerful people we will never know.
The perpetrators were invisible, lost in the vastness of digital algorithms that will never be retrieved.
Moreover, it is known that part of the information contained in these campaigns was lies and distorted facts aimed to polarize and push peoples’ views to the extreme.
Our political campaign stage had suddenly been moved online, in a dark place with no rules, no transparency and no traceability, where anyone can say what they want and hide their faces. Democracy had been hijacked in ways we will never fully understand the impact of, unless we know exactly which advert every single voter was exposed to, when and how many times.
Illegalities put aside, microtargeting is nothing new and is the product of AI. More benign versions of it are used in retail and entertainment: we are microtargeted on a daily basis by Amazon on what to buy, Spotify on what to listen to, and Instagram on what to “Like”. microtargeting will soon start saving lives, helping our healthcare system select a medicine that is the right one for our specific genotype and even predict what, if any, side effects we might have. What is certain is that microtargeting is here to stay.
Mind Manipulation with no Barriers and no Controls
But microtargeting has already proved that it can also give the “user” unprecedented powers to psychologically manipulate masses of people with misinformation and dogma. The fact that Facebook has so far managed to weather this storm has exposed the complete absence of regulatory and legal systems when it comes to AI applications, dark web money, and social media. We are highly unprepared.
The situation we are in is that we are already sliding towards a Digital Autocracy where many people’s opinions are easily manipulated by the few who control huge budgets and contracts with tech companies.
Only that this time the psychological manipulation is highly sophisticated, resulting in a level of polarisation that, as we witnessed in the UK, US and elsewhere, threatens the very cohesion of our society.
Free your Mind. Socrates is needed more than ever
The solution to protect Democracy is the same one it has always been: we need to encourage voters, more than ever, to develop their critical thinking and to question what they see online. Only then can we expect them to take the most informed decision.
What is increasingly absent from our Democracy is healthy debate. People are increasingly making up their minds on who to vote for based on a tweet they read, a Facebook post they came across, or a political campaign they were microtargeted with.
This is no substitute for debate: a tweet is not a conversation that leads anywhere, it is a one-sided monologue, and voters are increasingly exposed to the monologues of powerful people who want to manipulate them. In the same way that e-mail makes us break with our best friend so easily, online campaigning polarises us and brings us into conflict with others.
Only through old-fashioned debate can we challenge each other’s beliefs and develop a truly informed opinion. In 400 BC the Athenian people wrongly sentenced Socrates to death, having been influenced by the propaganda of those in power. However, Socrates had left behind him just a handful of students who had adopted their teacher’s values: to think for themselves, to fight for what they believe in, and engage in democratic debate. It was this handful of intellectuals than would end up giving birth to some of the most important legacies the world would inherit from Athens: philosophy, the value of individual freedom and democratic debate.
It is not difficult at all to imagine a future not too far in the future where, an intelligent AI program could easily manipulate humans through sophisticated microtargeted online campaigns it has designed itself. We are only in the very beginning of a potentially treacherous age where online information wars will become so convoluted and complex that we wont know whether the messenger is AI or human, and whether the news is real, or fake. The only defence we will have is developing our critical thinking.