Cambridge Analytica’s harnessing of data from Facebook is a shocking reminder of an ever present fact. Our online lives make us secretly vulnerable. Social media has successfully become a place where countless friendships and communities are made and maintained. It’s also a place where people share their anger, anxieties and resentment, in search of validation and motivation from their friends.
But of course our friends are not the only ones looking to validate and motivate us, and there are people willing to exploit weaknesses in the social networks where we spend our time. Companies like Cambridge Analytica (CA) appear to be skilled and useful servants especially to the authoritarian right, ready to spread misinformation, scandals and manufactured anxiety. Like all good propagandists, CA’s currency is emotion: not only hopes and dreams, but fear and loathing.
Just before the video broke on Monday, we spent time talking about how this fear and loathing has spread in rural areas. The ERPI conference ‘Authoritarian Populism and the Rural World’ heard from activists and researchers working in far flung places, from Myanmar, Kenya, the USA, Indonesia, Russia, Colombia and elsewhere.
Authoritarian populism works from above and below. It feeds off the resentment of masses, and theatrically opposes elites; it steals from leftist and democratic politics to promise redistribution and the realising of the will of the people. Many different stories were aired at the conference, but some common themes emerged. Authoritarian populism steals from leftist and democratic politics to promise redistribution and the realising of the will of the people.
Although the commentary around Cambridge Analytica’s shady work practices has focused on elections and votes, the story is wider than that. The online debate doesn’t stop when a president takes power. If anything, it takes on new forms, hydra-like. Even when the favoured candidate wins, or fails to win, the fight goes on. Data companies, talkshow hosts, back-office politicians, street activists, military operators, YouTubers and political figureheads all have a role to play. For populists, power once gained must be reinforced with ever more extravagant claims.
To say this isn’t to suggest a grand masterplan with a single goal. It is the work of reinforcement and strategic alignments of many people, from powerful elites to vocal campaigners and ordinary citizens, of painstaking and careful work to nurture a base, test messages, build communities, form alliances, and sow seeds of stories and fictions that live on much longer than an electoral cycle.
One participant from rural Germany at the ERPI conference described how rightwing activists had moved into her community and set up clubs, services and activities for young people in the absence of government provision. Slowly but surely, over years, they had spread beliefs hostile to immigrants among the young people in their care. Now the far-right party Alternative für Deutschland is shoring up support in the area. The internet is a battleground, but much of the work is taking place live and direct in communities. Anyone beginning now to combat anti-immigration sentiment in these young people is ten years behind. Anyone beginning now to combat anti-immigration sentiment in these young people is ten years behind.
In Myanmar, where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people have been forced to flee their homes, and been subject to intimidation and brutal violence at the hands of the state, online propaganda also forms an important part of attempts to justify the government’s actions.
According to the UN Fact-Finding Mission to Myanmar, “Hate speech and incitement to violence on social media is rampant, particularly on Facebook. To a large extent, it goes unchecked.” It appears that Facebook’s own community moderation and efforts to curb hate speech in the country are not keeping up. Criticism of the government on social media can result in arrest. The vocal support among some citizens of the military’s actions, reinforced through images and words online, is an important weapon in reinforcing the campaign of violence. It is not only authoritarianism, but populist rhetoric and mass campaigns which make these crimes work as a way of validating the military’s power.
What can be done? The focus on data and Facebook may make this seem like just a story about particular technologies. But it also might make us question how we know things in general. Fear, othering and objectification all benefit from distance. The internet might bring us together in some ways, but it allows us to put the people we fear beyond arm’s length. Empathy and care for others not like us – the state which far-right authoritarians abhor above all else – thrive in face-to-face encounters. Empathy and care for others not like us – the state which far-right authoritarians abhor above all else – thrive in face-to-face encounters.
But our lives are unlikely to stop being shared online, even as some of us grow more cautious. It’s also important to become sensitive to what is going on – to shed light on the shadows where Cambridge Analytica and their kind like to dwell; to expose and understand the ways that propaganda gets into our heads.
Finally, this is also a story about not losing hope. Amid the stereotypes and endless features about Trump-supporting rural populations in the USA, there is a strong tradition of left-wing solidarity that has not been lost. Authoritarian populist regimes rely on public support, and that can fail, even despite their best efforts.
But keeping faith that things can change is hard. As John Gaventa pointed out at the conference, it feels in many places as if democratic spaces are closing down.
Quoting Myles Horton, the co-founder of the Highlander Center in Tennessee, he said: “It’s really important to distinguish between what you can do in the peaks and in the valleys… In those valleys, emancipation means preparing the ground for the next political opening. It means prefiguring those alternative economies. It means developing new forms of leadership. It means developing and recovering popular knowledge. It means developing alliances informally between actors across institutions and sectors.”
This is work that requires long term engagement, and attention to specific places and contexts, which challenges the impatience of many people – including academics – in a world where we have come to expect instant gratification and easy answers to difficult questions.