Why We Must Learn About Political Technology

As we head into this election, I want to make a final statement about the role of misinformation and disinformation, and how it has shaped us.

The goals of information campaigns have never explicitly been about getting you to vote one way or another, though that is a third order side effect. What this has mostly been about is tearing us apart, and importantly, getting you to think less of your neighbors and of your country. The point is to make the American experiment seem failed, and worse, futile. But it is not.

Our myopic exceptionalism and breezy journalistic treatments have made us think that we are unique in being challenged at this moment, and that we are merely “politically polarized.” But we are actually under assault by “political technologists.” And I’m not talking about digital technology; I’m talking about tools for manipulating societies en masse.

We can point to Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, as the father of advertising and influence for one kind of manipulation that we, as Americans, understand well: tell us we stink, and that we are opulent if we drink coffee every morning, and we will buy deodorant and Folger’s. That’s the American way, and that kind of manipulation is the mostly harmless trade that makes our mercantile economy function.

But there are political technologies we are not educated in. Like manipulating protest movements, and controlling their opposition. Or in the development and weaponization of cults in service of political and social fragmentation. Or the development of “digital soldiers” to warp online discourse. We think these things are new — but that is our exceptionalism talking.

Filipinos recognize cult manipulation from the 1980s when several groups there worshipped Ferdinand Marcos as their leader; cults are still a major factor there. In 2007, Malaysians were besieged by “digital soldiers” who promised the arrest of ordinary citizens, in pursuit of free and fair elections. Estonia suffered cyberattacks in 2007 after protests erupted over the removal of Soviet era statues. If this sounds familiar, it’s because these things have been recycled and updated for deployment here, along with tactics from the Cold War era in Eastern Europe.

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“Cybertrooping” was first used in Malaysia before the concept was deployed here.

Disinformation and misinformation are the artifacts of such information operations, which in turn are the mechanisms of political technology. In obsessing on these artifacts, these “quantum packets” if you will, we neglect the bigger picture: the political technologists, their intentions, and their identities.

It takes no more than a few hundred people to manipulate the world into nearly any outcome they desire. Divide the United States; break up the EU; cause a schism in the Catholic Church? All within reach of a dedicated political technology team. Indeed these are all explicit goals being pursued by political technologists today.

The way to stop them is to pull back the curtain and expose them as the antisocial manipulators that they are. Many are actual criminals; all are immoral actors who think they are smarter than everyone else.

Americans need to learn about the nature of this problem, and start fighting the political technologists instead of worrying only about the artifacts they inject into our information bloodstream. While we should not shrink from the fight against bad and divisive information, we must also seek to be fully grounded in the history and reality of political technology.

We must set aside our exceptionalism and recognize we are being played like many other countries before us, and expose the people who are doing this. If they wish to play this game they can do so with a massive amount of sunshine and the imposition of the highest possible financial and social costs.

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