Preface: I read the interview with Maria Ressa (see below) and began to express my thoughts about social media manipulation during a few days in Bucharest. It turned out not to be an easy-going process, I was struggling with something that I now identify as the question “Can I find an objective truth?” In a way this felt to me like an extension of my thinking which I began with Part 1 – 3 grappling with aspects of “perception”.
The following travel to Toronto, including some severe jetlag, didn’t help me feeling comfortable with the results of my thought processes, so I let the issue lingering in my drafts folder. Now, with some rest and witnessing a beautiful spring morning in Ontario, I’ll try it again.
Maria Ressa has been awarded the Nobel Price for Peace in 2021, together with Dmitry Muratov, for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace. Her journalist work is including 20 years as a correspondent and investigative reporter. The title of this blog entry includes a quote from her.
12.02.2022, the German online portal of the news broadcast “Tagesthemen” carried an interview with Maria Ressa on occasion of the Philippine Presidential elections. The elections were won by Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos jr., son of the late Dictator Ferdinand Marcos sr., who ruled the country between 1965 and 1986, until he was finally ousted. Together with his family and his cronies, he stands for decades of authoritarian reign, massive corruption, and reckless brutality. The family fled their country with an estimated 10bn USD. A good summary on occasion of the 2022 elections can be found in this BBC piece.
For context: The outgoing President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte leaves a reign of shame for history, too. Most remembered will be the wave of extra-judicial killings with which he allowed the Police to mutate into a murderous gang, killing scores of people, pretending that a strong-armed fight against drug kings would necessitate this and that there would not be a need for due judicial process. I remember U.S. President Nr. 45 speaking admirably of Duterte. Which in itself does not make Duterte a likeable person, Nr 45 also fell in love with North-Korea’s dictator, and, well, his docile relationship with Vladimir Putin will never be forgotten either. Pied pipers.
The core message of Maria Ressa in this German article is that memories of decades of history can be erased, if social media is masterfully used. Not only that memory can be changed, that alternate versions of the same historical events can be created, no, Ressa says that corporate memories can be erased by social media manipulation. Disinformation campaigns on an industrial scale allow that, according to her. The BBC article quoted above would also indicate a manipulation aiming at changing the perception of history by “Bongbong” and associates for at least the last ten years.
Of course, an interview shortened for the digestion of the general public can not provide the same evidence as academic research would do. But for my thoughts it appears to be enough to rely both on the journalistic ethics behind two renowned public broadcasters and on the fact that a credible investigative journalist won the World’s most prestigious award.
The past years have established a large body of evidence that social media is used systematically for manipulation of public opinion on a gargantuan scale. Many will remember the impact of such activities in the run-up of U.S. presidential elections, 2016. The litany of actual examples would be too long to read. December 2020 I wrote about one example, explaining a NATO study on aspects of this topic.
The case of the Philippine Presidential elections is frightening. Bongbong Marcos has won in a landslide election, not by a margin. No need for Bongbong even to prepare for challenging an election as being manipulated, and to contest it. According to Ressa, Bongbong’s victory is based on a manipulation of the electorate on an industrial scale. On lies that create a narrative of Ferdinand Marcos sr. being a hero, the greatest leader of the Philippine Nation ever, and that his son, if he will win the elections, will give the money back to the poor. We will see whether he will do that. My experience would tell me that chances are slim if the whole election is already based on an epic manipulation of historical reality.
The overwhelming victory appears, strictly speaking by counting the votes, sound. Yet, the manipulation sits straight in front of our eyes: Democracy has been defeated with a never-ending stream of content on social media re-branding the image of the Marcos’ family. Phillipinos were told that the dictatorial regime was a golden age, free of crime. Which is pretty much the opposite of what is on historical record.
But, is there something like one common repository of historical records? That’s what I am struggling with here: Is there something like an objective truth?
In an Address to the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin on January 27th, 1921 on Geometry and Experience, Albert Einstein elaborates on the relationship between the laws of mathematics and reality: “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” (Project Gutenberg eBooks, “Sidelights on Relativity”, EBook #7333).
In the case of historical truths I would transfrom this sentence into “As far as a historical record refers to reality, it is not certain; and as far as such a record is certain, it does not refer to reality.”
This leaves many people very confused. In my belonging to a group of people, I do establish and participate in a historical context about what happened which is based on a common framework through which the members of this group identify. If the framework is very different between two or several different groups of people, their interpretation of what happened in the past can have little or no common grounds. And always when two or several different explanations clash in a discourse, we try to identify an objective yardstick against which we construct our argument why we believe we hold the truth. And we fail on agreeing on the same yardstick, the same objective measuring rod. The results can include so many divergent views, like two different groups entirely disagreeing on whether historical events were constituting a genocide, or not. The result being that the shared reality of such different groups differs in so fundamental ways that coexistence is the best option, always with the threat of violent discourse looming.
There is nothing new in the above. The new aspect, insofar as my writing goes, relates to the claim that systematic social media manipulation can entirely change the public record of history. Again, the past is filled with examples how systematic disinformation campaigns can establish new perceived realities within a group. Being a German national, I like to refer to disinformation campaigns undertaken by the ilk surrounding Hitler. Goebbels for sure is an example of masterful application of deceit and the use of manipulation in order to control the German populace.
But is there something new stemming from the ubiquity of social media of these days? If the general method of manipulation through disinformation is a tool which has been used for millenia in order to control populations for the benefit of a ruling elite, what is the new dimension which comes from social media?
Maria Ressa, in that “Tagesthemen” interview, also refers to the manipulation machine used by Russia in relation to the situation on the Krim, and in the Ukraine: She claims that the first step is about oppression, and the second step is about extinguishing memory. Based upon the experiences she has made in her home country, the Phillipines, she anticipates the same method being utilised in the context of Russias intent to aggressively usurp the Ukraine. She claims that social media have the effect to divide and to radicalise. Thus, she challenges the argument that social media is a tool vital for guaranteeing the freedom of speech. Instead of being used to allow free speech, according to her the algorithms used by Twitter, FaceBook, Tic Toc, and so many more, they make sure that priority will be given to content which is distributed broadly, preferably even virally. Of course, this is the ad-driven business-model behind social media enterprises. According to Ressa, therefore the distribution of facts will always loose against the distribution of lies, hate, and resentment. Drowning the news related to factual reporting, Ressa then states that the result is an entire loss of a shared reality.
The yardstick of a common historical record has unalterably changed, the division has been established, power can be exerted by controlling the perceived reality. Ressa makes the case for a global threat for values including democracy, but she also hints at, perhaps in my view, the biggest threat of our contemporary times: That we will disagree about the climate crisis as a consequence of global warming.
Which is, probably, on top of the list of global challenges which require a joint reality framework holding true for all people and nations on this globe.
As so often, I have no simple answer. Because there simply is no simple answer at all. We tend to simplify, and to go to extremes. Which always amplifies the problem once a complex system is brought out of its previous delicate state of balance, whilst we do not know how to create a new balance, instead of the entire system collapsing.
So, who is right? Maria Ressa with claiming that social media has the potential to destroy realities, and the underlying framework allowing for democracy, or Elon Musk, who has repeatedly tweeted that taking Nr 45 off Twitter has been one of the biggest mistakes, and that this is all about guaranteeing the freedom of speech?
I am still navigating through the depths of this question, and personal consequences. Should I maintain my Twitter account (which is a microscopic grain of sand in the Twitterverse) once Musk owns Twitter? What I know is that I would be extremely careful about listening to a person who happens to be the richest person in the world, who is able to just buy a social media firm in a snap, take it off from the stock market in order to make the changes of his liking, and then to put it back on the stock market. Why should I trust somebody who has one single intention: Using things for a business model based on profitmaking? Why should I believe that a statement about freedom of opinion is unbiased, if the motivation behind is purely enterprise-driven, and the methodology being used is taking every single accountability mechanism offline?
Also not new. But for me, the new thing is that one person has the potential to make a decision that has global implications on a level unheard of in history, whilst any mechanisms of public accountability appear to be on national level, and to some extent on a level of international organisations, but where the credibility of these international organisations is under massive systematic attack.
I will tell you if I stay on Twitter.