Even a shallow dip into the subject reveals the extraordinary scale of political manipulation that Twitter permits across its platform. It’s done at such scale, with such efficiency, it’s reasonable to say it doesn’t just challenge democracy, it actively disrupts it. Democracy itself has been hacked; the process gamed, and is now a dangerous system whereby those who can best use social media to influence opinion are able to determine societies’ choice of direction. Half the population feel victorious, the other half feel angry, and the other half, the half that didn’t partake in the binary choice, feel powerless. Welcome to democracy in a post truth age, where social media doesn’t express who we are, it defines who we are in a feedback loop ever magnified and accelerated by technology, software, media, and armies of bots.
A comparison with another more familiar digital misfeasance.
The most simple cyber attack is a distributed denial of service. A perpetrator hacks into a large number of connected devices, and uses those connected devices to simultaneously ‘visit’ a single web address. The effect is like a driving ten thousand sheep into a supermarket. It rams it full. Intended. That’s a DDOS attack. What we see on Twitter with regards to political campaigning is a similar principle. It’s Informational DDOS.
IDDOS works by flooding the media with ‘information’ that supports a particular intention. The ‘information’ does not have to be true. Indeed it can be completely false, incomplete, biased, distorted, intentionally manipulated, and emotionally manipulative. Truth is an almost entirely subjective concept at the best of times. When it comes to politics, it’s never the best of times.
By crowding the ‘debate’ (argument) with vast numbers of voices it creates the appearance of volume support of that position. This creates more support, which in turn creates more noise. On Twitter, any opposing position is not just drowned out, but actively attacked and subjugated.
This would be a passable if not slightly ugly and unsophisticated form of social democracy, not unlike the roaring crowd of the Collosseum baying for the entertainment of blood soaked victory, or the gradual boiling of the German nation in the run up to WW2, whereby it became common knowledge that Jews were parasitical. However, the Trump Hillary election is the first US election where the full effect of concerted, strategic ‘informational digital warfare’ has been blatantly deployed.
Electoral Manipulation as a Service
Within the ‘Twittersphere’ are political bots. There may be thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of them. Some create posts, either automatically or with human assistance, some repost at massive scale, amplifying the messages. Some flood out opponents’ hashtags with opposing messages, and so on. It’s not difficult to imagine a bot army, with specialist divisions fulfilling their designated roles. Some are human assisted, some totally automated. In the recent US elections, both sides used them, but the Pro- Trump side used them 5 times more effectively.
“We find that that political bot activity reached an all- time high for the 2016 campaign. Not only did the pace of highly automated pro-Trump activity increase over time, but the gap between highly automated pro-Trump and pro-Clinton activity widened from 4:1 during the first debate to 5:1 by election day.”
The question of who operates these bots is probably not worth getting excessively tied up in. The official campaigns themselves will use some sorts of scheduling and retweeting software. In addition, pressure groups, lobby groups, and in this particular election, political activists from other nation states may well be participating.
“The use of automated accounts was deliberate and strategic throughout the election, most clearly with pro- Trump campaigners and programmers who carefully adjusted the timing of content production during the debates, strategically colonized pro-Clinton hashtags, and then disabled activities after Election Day.”
“…Trump supporters successfully gamed Twitter’s trending topics algorithm to make the #TrumpWon hashtag trend worldwide after the first US presidential debate. As I was analyzing this data, it was striking for me just how organized this group of supporters seemed to be. They seemed to have been coordinating somewhere, all publishing to Twitter with the same unique keyword at the same time (a known tactic to get something to trend).” – GILAD LOTAN