Filed under: Critique, Peak Civ, Technology
On Descartes’ assumptions, the work of science, if not the destiny of life, was to widen the empire of the machine. Lesser minds seized on this error, enlarged it, and made it fashionable. And as often happened before in the history of slavery, the obedient slave first made himself indispensable to his master, then defied him and dominated him, and finally supplanted him. But now it is the master, not the slave, who must, if he is to survive, devise a scheme to recover his freedom.
– Lewis Mumford, The Pentagon of Power 
Fake news is an insanely stupid story.
At the very least, it should be. But after a narcissistic, anthropomorphized internet troll beat out an old school, textbook neo-liberal for the United States presidency, it has become absolutely and begrudgingly unavoidable. It serves equally as a phrase used to debunk the exposure of true misinformation as well as a term for the misinformation itself. Somewhere in there is the punch line to a joke Marshall McLuhan might have made up.
As exhausting as the 2016 U.S. presidential race, election, and fallout have been, there is a double-edged sword in this heaping dumpster fire of a stone: as depressing as the wide-scale immersion into technology is, it only clarifies the frailty of our modernized, hyper-integrated reality. As our rate of descent accelerates via the always-on intrusion of social networks, the vulnerabilities of civilization become increasingly simplified.
And in that process, the socio-economic fabric of a globalized civilization becomes hackable.
My own knowledge of hacking is exceptionally pedestrian. I tend to find the age-old methods of fighting civilization in real life more palatable, less soul sucking. However, my knowledge or experience, as it turns out, doesn’t really seem to matter too much in this equation. Those with vested interests or those who just want to sow discord alone are enough to get hackers to test their electronic might. When you live in one giant, yet awful, socio-technological experiment, it turns out that these are the conditions that apply.
As is becoming increasingly known, one of those vested interests is Russian president, Vladimir Putin. As a former KGB officer, he is no doubt fluent in the language of counter-intelligence and other assorted forms of covert socio-political disruption. His goal was fairly simple: to sway the 2016 presidential election enough to undermine faith in the electoral system leading to a stumbling of US political hegemony.
The old ‘fox-in-the-henhouse’ approach to undermining a core mythos of government propaganda, the participatory nature of democracy, certainly has its entertainment value from an anarchist perspective. The only winners in this election, like any other, are the 42 percent of eligible voters who opted not to play along with the charade.
Yet from an anti-technological perspective, what is crucial here isn’t what Putin may or may not have wanted, but that it effectively worked.
The entire plot is like a failed reboot of the worst of 1990s excesses. That includes the casting calls. Take Donald Trump, an indisputable moron whose mouthpiece is Twitter, a medium built around quips in 140 characters or less, and put him up for what was recently the highest political office in the world. Trump, who is a convoluted character even for a reality TV star, pumps out Tweets that are as intelligent as Tay, Microsoft’s failed 2016 attempt at an “artificial intelligence” chatbot. Like Tay, Trump does what the medium dictates: quickly echoes a chamber of lies, misinformation, racist-courting, self-serving douchebaggery.
Unlike Trump, however, Tay was quickly taken offline.
For his efforts, Putin effectively renewed Trump for another season. Only this time, he probably even surprised himself when that turned into a four-year contract.
As a patsy, Trump is a time-tested tool. His reality stardom was essentially being an off-color and off-colored face for corporate hierarchy and exclusion, one that writers equally handed scripts to and had to create backstory and logic around the words and actions of the world’s most infamous simpleton.
So what does it take to make an unknowing jester presidential? Doubt. Play on fears. Add a veneer of strength to white men while their hubris cracks. In short: empowerment through negation. Take equal parts populism and cynicism. In a genre-defining move, the internet star creates a defacto position simply by attacking things they don’t like. If the goal is entertainment, the willing spectator can superimpose their backstory.
I’m less interested in the particulars here: Trump was a fitting muse for Putin to push onto the palate of the conservative. He is narcissistic enough to legitimize fragile egos, yet daft enough to float on a seemingly ideological steadfastness without real comprehension. Many have mistakenly imposed intention to Trump: he’s not smart enough for philosophy, he’s just willing to say what it takes to get support that validates his brand at that moment. He may aspire to fascism, but only incidentally.
Ultimately, Trump is a placeholder. Not only did he not win the general election, he certainly didn’t win it because who he is, but his voracity in whom he is not. He played himself as the wrecking ball and that’s looking like a fair analogy. Putin may have ushered him into a horrible spy novel, more Austin Powers than James Bond, but what is important is the platform.
The platform: the truest form of fake media, the social network.
The allure of the social network is its ability to validate who it is you believe you are.
On the internet, no one can see beyond your screen. Its reach is infectious like a virus yet as superficial as a selfie. I have elaborated on that more elsewhere, as has Nicholas Carr elaborated on how Google and social media parasitize our brains’ neuroplasticity. But all of that merely sets our stage here.
I will never forget reading a review of Dan Egger’s dystopian novel, The Circle. The premise of the book surrounds a social media company as it expands its circle of engagements to become the sole entry and access point for all your social and economic interactions with the world. The reviewer of this 2013 novel (written at a time when Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube were household names and Google was already used as a verb) claimed the unbelievable aspect of the novel was that anyone would go to one corporation to host all of their interactions and information.
Meanwhile, Apple, Google, and Facebook are fighting to see which one of them will get all the way there first. Their business plan centers on getting eyes on the screen and keeping them there. While Apple and Google certainly have done the legwork, Facebook seems to have the advantage. In 2014, Facebook made headlines by intentionally manipulating the feeds of almost 700,000 users to see how it emotionally impacted them.
Not long after, they just started controlling the headlines.
Following Google’s lead, social media channels wanted to give its users what they sought: validation of themselves. That comes in the form of validating the user’s own worldview. To a sociopath like Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, that amounts to algorithms. To the rest of the world, those algorithms are pre-determined and self-selected markets.
With that, information’s role as a commodity gets a serious promotion.
In that world, there’s a simple cycle of legitimacy: the more you use it, the more you need it. The more it validates you and your worldview, the more you want it. The more you interact with it, the more you trust it.
And use it we do.
Come for the conversation, stay for the entertainment. The integration is implicit. With Youtube, the autoplay feature keeps you watching. With Facebook, the news feed scroll never ends. With Instagram, you get notifications for likes one at a time to keep you from even having to refresh. Push notifications, headline alerts:another breaking news flash to light up your phone. The technological glitch: you don’t need to recognize it; it just becomes accepted through practice.
Most could say this is co-dependence. I think parasitic is more appropriate.
From a marketing standpoint, it clearly works. So if your business requires getting clicks on off-site links, why wouldn’t you use this market? If we’re being gracious, a lot of what constitutes “fake news” is hyperbolic and dramatic web content. “News” is a stretch. A lot of it is a complete fabrication. Some of it is taking real news and skewing it. The market for content writers is a quickly expanding one. Search for web-based jobs and you’ll find plenty of $10 per hour content writing positions (tellingly demanding 1,000 or more words per hour). No expertise needed, just an ability to make it look legitimate. It’s fleeting by nature and eventually the users expect the headlines alone to do the heavy lifting. A lot of it is just gossip, but the more it looks like legitimate news, the more likely it is to be shared.
And sharing is capitalizing. The more fantastic, the more shares. The more shares, the more a mere headline can validate your evolving righteousness. While there are certainly long-stemming undercurrents for this kind of infomercial/infotainment by media corporations, the line between verifiable reality and content blurs and distorts.
For the current and coming generations raised on social media, this is a particularly huge problem. Researchers were shocked to find that 80 percent of tested middle school students thought “sponsored content” ads were real news. High school students accepted memes or even just images as truth withoutlooking for verification. When given the option, 75 percent of them didn’t even know or acknowledge if a news agency’s account was marked as verified.
That’s the one that got me. Hearing about the impacts of “fake news” had me picturing elaborate web content: stuff that was meant to truly appear as news coming from a news agency. I was shocked to realize how much it really came down to memes: captioned pictures.
If Twitter’s 140-character limit isn’t bad enough, the meme is the most simplified form of relaying information. And it’s intently stupefying. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a meme is for those who can handle about a dozen, tops. A lot of those memes originate from places like 4Chan, the virtual under-the-bridge for the online trolls. A place where racism, misogyny, and boredom foster apathetic and nihilistic beds of budding shit flowers.
Here I feel compelled to reiterate my opening point: this is all just so insanely stupid.
Yet it completely works. It’s not just kids being manipulated into mindless consumption of the clicks. Adults, people who grew up before cellphones and Snapchat filters existed, take part in this orgy of shares and likes all the same.
And that’s how we get to this election, its aftermath, and its underlying cancer: the validation of a shrinking worldview in an increasingly ever-reaching and intrusive world. Once again, those algorithms turn into economics. Cyber security firm Trend Micro recently evaluated the spread of fake news on social media and figured out how much these services cost. Want to throw an election? $400,000. Discredit a journalist? $55,000. Instigate a street protest based on misinformation? $200,000.
Looking for a bargain? For $5,000, you can get 20,000 comments. For only $2,700, you can get a false story. Considering that the price tag for the 2016 election was $6.8 billion, these costs are relatively negligible.
Algorithms? Facebook has theirs; “click farms” have their own ones, too. A click farm is a service, you pay them money and they use an elaborate network of cellphones, SIM cards, and seemingly real social media accounts to boost and support content or to attack and troll it. To the average social media user, the accounts and interactions with these contrived accounts are indiscernible from real ones. Thrown into a virtual world of strangers, it either feeds confirmation bias, granting legitimacy through contrived popularity, or can serve to just overwhelm the holdouts until they feel pressured into giving in. Or they use the arguments to solidify their own positions, regardless of how absurd they might be.
It helps to be untouchable.
Seemingly devoid of consequence, that’s how a group like ISIS can recruit disgruntled and indifferent teens and millenials. They’re using high technology to make a more predatory variation of sending military recruiters to high school cafeterias. Likewise, the Alt-Right surge can rise simply by offensively playing the victim, using resistance to racist, xenophobic, and misogynistic dogma as an assault on their right to freedom of speech. The anarchist world isn’t even immune: where indifference and apathy let a potentially fake group of self-proclaimed “wild serial killers,” the “eco-extremist” tendency, to gain traction solely by appearing to respond persistently to “moralistic” attacks against them.
All this happens because these corporations got you to try them out and then found a way to make you stay. It’s a vicious form of bait and switch. Try to get off of it and you’ll find friends and family members thinking your absence could have meant physical death.
If Putin wanted to undermine an election, he was granted the perfect platform, one readily being used by corporations and politicians to manipulate people and segments of societies wholesale. Again, why would anyone have access to that kind of technological power and think there’s a good reason or use for it? For what other reason does this technology and predatory data exist? The government and corporations don’t get to complain just because it wasn’t given their paid-for application or because it undermined their interests.
It’s ultimately an allegory for all of technology, but the application, since this can’t be overstated, is really, really fucking stupid. If you need a barometer for just how crazy it is, take a look at the president.
Better yet, put down your phone. Shut down the social network. Then take a look around.
So I promised a silver lining at the outset. At this point, it has to be hard to imagine there is one. The reality and the degree to which all of us are impacted by social media’s pull upon ourselves and those around us are pretty damn depressing.
It’s a kind of confirmation bias for those selling negation only. A fairly effective one, too.
That silver lining is this: it is likely that the hacking of the 2016 election went well beyond just money funneled to click farms and sending likes to a megalomaniac willing to rant on a stage. The same hubris that led to all of our interactions and exchanges taking place online? It might have resulted in overextending the accessibility of something that is still believed to be untouchable (for no clear reason): physical voting machines and their networks.
I can trust that more will come of this over the coming months, years, possibly decade, but we know that in the case of the 2016 election that hackers tried to access the databases of at least 39 states in the US. It is thought that they didn’t get that far, but the confidence here has to be waning. Even on the day of the election, PBS gave a rundown on how those voting machines and their networks could be hacked. It’s plausible, if not likely. But what we do know for sure is that hackers tried and it would be hard, if not impossible, to know if they did succeed.
This is where it gets better: what we know is that there is little reason why people are going to willingly exit social media. The line for virtual persona suicides are short. But the more we become dependent on so few technologies, the more likely it is that they are both vulnerable to and likely to be targeted by hackers.
The most recent rounds included cyberattacks from North Korea on personal computers using ransomware. The malicious software takes over the machine, releasing data only once its owner has paid, otherwise deleting or rendering the data all unusable. The Petya cyberattack,which hit Ukraine, Britain, and Spain hard, specifically targeted banks and airports. British Parliament was frozen after being hit by another cyberattack.
These kinds of cyberattacks include everything from petty extortion of movie studios to clearly political affronts. The more we rely on a singular device and service for all of our information, the more we solidify the likelihood that it could be hacked to pieces.
And in that regard, the nihilistic urges can be truly terrifying. Attempts to hack nuclear power plants have occurred. That’s just a reminder that building such lethal technology was and is an insane idea and worse reality. On the other hand, hackers are actively attempting to hack the grid itself, proving, in the process, that such an effort could actually work. Considering the ways that this civilization is likely to play out, it’s hard to imagine that this could really be the worst ending.
Of all the ways that civilizations have collapsed, there’s still the chance for a nerd and their machine to be a first and last on that list.
What we see is that no matter how absorbed we become by the machine, the more fragile that substitute for reality actually is. As technocrats dream of smart homes and smarter programs, hackers have militarized household appliances with factory-default passwords. When control through convenience is the explicit goal of rampant and aggressive networking, access to and manipulation of that data is up for grabs. Be it boredom, resistance, or maliciousness, the tools aren’t just there: they’re centralizing and connecting on an absolutely unprecedented scale.
Blind faith resulted in willingly, yet unknowingly, lining the lifelines of this civilization in a row.
And to those looking to undermine this factory-default technocracy? Thanks for hacking.
 Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine: Pentagon of Power. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1970. Pg 98.
 For more on this hilarity, check out Cliff Hayes’ ‘Zero Chill,’ Black and Green Review no 3. Spring 2016.