(section taken from my yet unpublished new book »Homo Faber – what holodoxy tells us about the future of man«)
Hardly any thinking person today would still claim that the „progress“ of weapons technology makes the world a better let alone safer place, but this was precisely the prediction made with regard to the internet and the social media. The interconnectedness of all with all appeared to its creators as a promise of worldwide dissemination of truth and knowledge. The fact that everyone could now express their opinions and that these could, in principle, be heard by everyone else on the globe was even hailed as the dawn of a new global democracy.
In the course of our previous philosophical reflections on predictions in history, we did, however, realize that even prophecies that have the weight of the most reasonable arguments on their side often turn out to be spectacularly wrong. This failure of rational “futurology” was most vividly demonstrated by our fictional Stone Age prophet (and his later mouthpiece Marvin Harris), who saw a time of peace and equality dawning with the new agrarian way of life. Subsequent history was indeed to prove the exact opposite.
The same applies to the benefit of the internet with regard to peace, democracy and truth. It turns out that sabotage as a form of cold war weapon became possible by the internet – but now on a global scale. In February 2009, for example, the Americans succeeded in destroying fifty Iranian uranium enrichment centrifuges with the help of the Stuxnet virus.
“Described in the press as ‘the most sophisticated cyber weapon in history’, Stuxnet is the first major offensive in global cyber warfare” (all quotes of this section are taken from David Colon 2023).
What the Americans failed to consider. The new weapon allows for a new type of asymmetric warfare, as its use is incomparably cheaper than researching and developing conventional weapons systems. As a result, it was immediately adopted by the US‘ adversaries such as China, Russia, Iran and North Korea – and with equal success.
“… on May 12, 2017, North Korea launched one of the most massive cyberattacks of all time, infecting 230,000 computers in 150 countries with the WannaCry virus, designed from an NSA tool revealed the previous year by the Russians: „Eternal Blue“, which exploited a vulnerability in older versions of Microsoft Windows… The virus affected numerous hospitals, paralyzed the British healthcare system, and brought production to a halt at several assembly plants of the car manufacturer Renault. Because it affects civilian infrastructures massively and indiscriminately, the North Korean WannaCry virus has emerged as a new form of international terrorism.”
In comparison, it seems almost harmless that modern information highways enable not only sabotage but also espionage on an unprecedented scale. Meanwhile China seems to have surpassed the US in this respect.
“There are two types of large companies in the United States, summarized James Comey, then director of the FBI, in 2014. There are those that have been hacked by the Chinese and those that don’t know they’ve been hacked by the Chinese… Not only is the number of Chinese cyberattacks not decreasing, but they are now affecting some of the US government’s most secret data.”
The Internet crosses all existing borders, provided they are connected by the highways of information (Russia and China have largely severed outward links). It therefore opens up the new perspective of globally influencing people’s minds. This is where optimistic predictions have proven to be particularly wrong. Today, less than half a century after its invention, we already know that the internet does not serve the cause of peace, it does not serve the dissemination of truth nor the consolidation of democracy. On the contrary, it is proving to be one of the most dangerous and effective instruments for destroying truth and weakening democratic nations.
For the same need which, in a world stuck in a Hobbesian state of nature, causes all nations to strive for the ultimate weapons, also causes each of them to spread the best possible image of themselves – the image of a peace-loving, selfless state concerned with the well-being of the rest of the world. As this propagandistic self-portrait rarely corresponds more than partially to the facts, states try to “correct” the facts through their propaganda by embellishing and falsifying them. This observation now applies to all states, even to Western democracies – although to a much lesser degree.
“On April 9, 2003, images of a jubilant crowd dismantling the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Firdos Square went around the world. It was a pseudo-event, organized by the American army with the help of a few dozen militants of Ahmed Chalabi – the head of the Iraqi National Council – in front of journalists gathered for the occasion.”
No doubt the collection and verification of facts is playing an increasingly minor role even in Western democratic states. French historian David Colon draws on relevant scientific studies when he remarks.
“In 2006, the U.S. media as a whole had just 141 foreign correspondents worldwide… And yet, while the number of journalists is falling, the PR industry continues to expand. By 1990, in the United States, the number of employees in the PR industry (162,000) was three times higher than that of journalists (50,900).”
As is well known, the PR industry’s task is to advertise, regardless of whether the advertised product is a washing machine, a car or a state. The more people a national self-image created by the PR machinery reaches abroad, the greater its impact. Such impact is no longer achieved by the traditional disseminators of news, i.e. newspapers, radio or television, but by social media. Social media are used (abused) by all states to crreate in the minds of a global audience an ideal image of themselves and the most negative possible portrait of their enemies.
“In the 21st century,“ observes Joseph Nye /a US-American political scientist/, „conflicts will be less about which army wins than about which narrative prevails.”
Although this kind of war is taking place below the threshold of hot gun battles, history teaches us that contests of words and incitement have always been the prelude to the war of deadly weapons.
Social media, above all Facebook and Twitter (now X), are the active promoters of such a development, because messages that incite hatred and anger have a far greater impact than moderate statements.
“… anger emerged as the most powerful emotion, because it generates the most engagement (likes, shares, comments). The previous year, Chinese scientists had reached the same conclusion by analyzing 70 million messages distributed among 200,000 users: „Anger is more influential than other emotions such as joy.“
In the interests of greater profit, social media CEOs therefore tend to give free rein to calls for distrust and rebellion, even in democratic countries. The right to freedom of expression – a sine qua non of democracy – is, of course, violated when, for the benefit of business, incitement and the distortion of facts are allowed to take on disproportionate weight.
We know the effect of hatred and anger. They paralyze reason and the pursuit of truth. It is therefore not surprising that such feelings serve as preferred vehicles for spreading misinformation.
“By studying the lifecycle of 126,000 rumors spread by 3 million people on Twitter between 2006 and 2017, American researchers at MIT established that fake news spread six times faster than real news and reached far more people: ‘Fake news is spread significantly farther, faster, deeper and wider than truth, across all news categories,’ they conclude.”
The most effective instrument of state propaganda benefitting itself but harming others, is the tactic of sowing doubt about the government and institutions of competing or hostile states. Authoritarian states such as Russia and China are using this tactic with great success because – unlike Western democracies – they are not hindered by an independent press and research institutions or by legal requirements.
Russian propaganda gives a sounding board to all centrifugal forces, to all critical voices, as well as the greatest possible resonance to social tensions and terrorist attacks… Russian propaganda seeks to undermine the European Union from within, devalue the West and turn democracy against itself. In 2014, it supported the proponents of Scottish independence in the referendum, and when the „no“ vote won, Russian media and trolls broadcast videos purporting to show electoral fraud. In the Netherlands, it interfered in the April 2016 referendum campaign on the association agreement between Ukraine and the European Union, notably by broadcasting fake videos claiming to show Ukrainian terrorists wreaking havoc in Dutch cities. In Spain, the Kremlin supported Catalan secessionists in the referendums of 2014 and 2017… Across Europe, Russia actively supports far-right parties, including Bulgaria’s Ataka Party, Austria’s Freedom Party, Belgium’s Vlaams Belang, the Finnish Party, France’s Front National, Italy’s Northern League, Greece’s Aube Dorée and Hungary’s Jobbik Party. In Germany, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has been financed and media-supported by Russia since its creation in 2013… In 2020, the Russian propaganda machine is engaged in a worldwide disinformation campaign about the Covid-19 pandemic. At the same time as Vladimir Putin is encouraging his population to protect themselves and vaccinate, he is spreading covidoskeptic and vaccinoskeptic theories in the West. RT propagates the thesis of an imaginary pandemic conceived by Bill Gates to extend his influence.
In the meantime, China has developed its own social platform, TikTok, to influence minds worldwide.
„Today, the spread of TikTok around the world appears to be China’s historic revenge, weakening the great Western powers by massively capturing the attention of their youth and diverting them from more useful activities. In many ways, the hypnotic, dreamlike state of some TikTok users evokes that of opium-addicted Chinese as described by numerous 19th-century writers.“
No wonder that the Party prohibits ist use within China itself.
„If you’re under 14, they’ll show you scientific experiments to reproduce at home, museum visits, patriotic or educational videos. And they limit usage to 40 minutes a day. They don’t release this version of TikTok to the rest of the world. They know that technology influences the development of young people. For their domestic market, they sell an impoverished form, while exporting opium to the rest of the world.“
Meanwhile the effects of TikTok consumption are well proven.
„In December 2022, an IFOP study showed that daily TikTok users were far more likely than the rest of the population to subscribe to false information and conspiracy theories.“
Nevertheless, TikTok has proved to be a resounding success.
“…when it comes to addiction, TikTok far outstrips its American competitors, resulting in unprecedented and spectacular growth in the number of users worldwide. Just five years after its launch, the app has 1.7 billion monthly active users worldwide, including 100 million in the U.S., where 30% of adults and 67% of teenagers are using it by 2022.”
There is no need to emphasize that the Communist Party, true to the best Stalinist tradition, does, of course, deny its own citizens the right to think freely and express their own opinions.
“The CCP’s document 972 published the same year lists ‘seven taboo subjects’, deemed disruptive, that Internet users are forbidden to discuss: universal values, freedom of expression, civil society, civil rights, the CCP’s historical errors, crony capitalism and the independence of the judiciary.”
For the time being, however, the Russian dictatorship goes even further than the Chinese one, because the Putin regime is keen to present the facts themselves as arbitrary, as if they had always been the mere inventions of certain opinion-makers.
“The disinformation campaigns of Russia’s external intelligence services systematically attack the guardians of factual authority, whether journalists or scientists, with the aim of blurring the line between fact and falsehood… ‘Objectivity’, says Dmitri Kisselev in 2013, ‘is a myth that is proposed to us and imposed on us.’ Challenging the very idea of an ‘objective truth’ enables Russia, through the massive dissemination of contingent alternative truths, to gradually erode the confidence of Western public opinion in all sources of information… In 2015, one of Russia’s leading disinformation specialists, Ben Nimmo, summed up the Kremlin’s strategy with the „4 Ds“ formula: dismiss the critic, distort the facts, distract from the main issue, and dismay the audience…The advent of social media has thus enabled the Kremlin to accelerate the abolition of any distinction between truth and falsehood, hacking into freedom of expression, public space, digital platforms, destroying in the process the very possibility of conceiving of the Internet as a democratic space and a source of reliable information. ‘Today,’ exclaims Russian nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky triumphantly, ‘we’re succeeding in what we’ve been trying unsuccessfully to do for five hundred years! We’re changing the Occident.’”