PARIS -- In the endless attempt to undermine the legitimacy of U.S. President Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 election, much has been made of the role of social media. Earlier this year, special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russian citizens for political trolling on social media during the 2016 campaign. If Mueller's indictments imply that these online trolls had any sort of impact in swaying voters, one could conclude that stupidity has become a serious national-security vulnerability.
The perceived risk of catastrophic gullibility apparently isn't limited to America. Here in France, two think tanks associated with the ministries of foreign affairs and defense have released a 207-page report sounding the alarm on "information manipulation," calling it a challenge for democracies.
"Information manipulation is not a new phenomenon," said a press release from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, "but it has taken on an entirely new dimension because of the unprecedented capacity of the internet and social networks to diffuse information and render it viral, and the crisis of confidence that our democracies are currently experiencing."
Social media is often cited as a bete noire in propagating propaganda. This gives such platforms far too much credit. When was the last time someone you know changed their opinion based on a political post on social media? People sign up, follow people who share their worldview and spend most of their time in a bubble of their own making.
In 2016, Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix explained in a corporate presentation that his political consulting firm used social media to target people whom the data suggested would require a little shove to move them squarely into a client's camp. But if someone's social media data profile suggests that they aren't squarely in one camp, is that not an indication that the person is capable of independent and critical thought and therefore unlikely to be swayed by paid agitprop on social media?
Cambridge Analytica is now defunct. The company, co-founded by former Trump White House adviser Steve Bannon and Trump donor Robert Mercer, has been the subject of an investigation by the FBI and the Justice Department, and it was also being investigated by the United Kingdom's Information Commissioner's Office. There were reports earlier this year that U.K.-based Cambridge Analytica improperly used information from millions of Facebook accounts. Cambridge Analytica's assets have reportedly been acquired by a new British entity, Emerdata, whose board of directors includes members of the Mercer family as well as Chinese executives with ties to the Communist Party.
When it was limited to TV and radio, political advertising used to be relevant to specific issues, and a well-crafted attack ad was an art. Nowadays, the bar for entry into political advertising is so low that we're subjected to documentary-style films resembling late-night infomercials, with painfully bad narrators peddling and recycling painfully boring talking points over background music that sounds like it was lifted from a Ridley Scott movie.
Thankfully, this sort of propaganda will not be appearing in your local theater alongside Tom Cruise's latest "Mission Impossible" installment. It's going to be plugged to the hilt on social media, where it will preach only to the converted. An unsuspecting fence-sitter might click on it, but at the first sight of a used-talking-point salesman, the fence-sitter is going to bail in favor of an adjacent cat video.
Nothing has undermined democracy more than people's willingness to abdicate responsibility for thinking for themselves. It used to be that information needed to be aggressively sought out. In doing so, you had little choice but to stumble across tidbits that might have contradicted and shaped your worldview. Now, you can enjoy being digitally force-fed endless bias of your own choosing.
When people abdicate responsibility for critical thought, they're no longer able to adequately assess whether anyone is lying to them -- including their government under the pretext of wanting to "protect" citizens from views that don't adhere to an agenda.