By Merle Daliah
At least since the Age of Enlightenment, Western societies have gradually been shaped according to the notion of a ‘free will’, meaning a person’s freedom to be independent, autonomous and to possess individual responsibility. This is the case for the development of the modern constitutions and concepts of democracy. However, public intellectuals are warning about the threat that social media and algorithms pose to democratic processes as we know them. This philosophical controversy is not only of theoretical concern but it has real-life implications on our modern societies, as is becoming increasingly evident in the ongoing Indian election. As the historian Yuval Noah Harari claims “Belief in the idea of ‘free will’ has become dangerous”.
For centenaries, humans have ruminated about the concept of a free will. Already Aristotle presented the idea of indeterminism, meaning that a chain of events must not necessarily lead to only one possible outcome. In 400 AD, the Roman African theologist Augustine interpreted the New Testament, saying that humans, similar to angels, are rational beings, defined by their possession of a free will. However, roughly 1000 years later the British philosopher Thomas Hobbes argued that there is no option of choice within the mechanisms of the world. The progression of neuroscientific experiments seems to indicate how the brain has already decided upon an option before we are conscious of it – or as professor Wolfgang Prinz suggests “We don’t do what we want but want what we do.” Technologies, such as predictive algorithms, have been programmed following a similar notion of determinism. These can be used to predict the success of advertisement, the likelihood of suicide or for the programming of self-driving cars. However, algorithms are also used to regulate and to re-engineer behaviour. This technique is not merely used to sell products, but also in the political contexts to promote ideologies. This could mean the end of the Age of Enlightenment and a turnover into an era of cybernetic dictatorships, as it ends autonomy and the repeal of separation between the private and public sphere.
As professor Vincent Hendricks explains, the number one asset of social media, such as Facebook and Google, is attention, whereby every social media user is a product, rather than a customer. The data collected through the users can then be sold to target specific groups, as small as 20 users. This is achieved through an intensified confirmation bias by creating filter bubbles and supplying users with content matching their algorithms. Algorithms mainly react upon what stimulates strong positive or negative emotions, thus hijacking extreme content, whether it is cute puppies or hateful conspiracy theories. This can further be accelerated by social bots which are basically computer programs created to enhance the reach of certain content in order to influence the public discourse. In combination with the increase of fake news, this creates a serious problem. According to the World Economic Forum, the misinformation of the web has become one of the major global challenges, as it composes a threat to democratic processes such as deliberate discussions, political interaction and has increased polarization.
The gravity of the issue has become apparent after the United States election 2016 and during the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2017, as it was exposed how Facebook has sold data from more than 87 million users in order to prevent people to vote for candidate Hillary Clinton. However, the phenomenon of sponsors on social media undermining democracy is a global one, starting at least five years prior to the scandal. Facebook has, for example, been instrumental during the Brexit referendum, the Filipino, Mexican and Indian elections. The 2014 Modi campaign in India pioneered in the use of and cooperation with Facebook to directly target voters – either to sway or dissuade people to vote. After PM Narendra Modi’s election, Mark Zuckerberg came to celebrate him as one of Facebook’s most connected candidates ever.
There are more than 250 million people who regularly use Facebook in India. As professor Siva Vaidhyanathan argues “the present [and future] of Facebook is in India”, where Facebook has increasingly become a media monopoly. The Indian right-wing nationalist prime minister has over 46 million Twitter and 43 million Facebook followers, meaning he is the most interconnected politician on the platform. Additionally, WhatsApp, owned by Facebook, is India’s most popular messaging service. Apart from personal communication, it has increasingly been instrumental to fuel vigilante mob violence against minorities, just as similar cases in Myanmar, Burma and Sri Lanka. PM Modi has taken the tool to his full advantage by flooding the online discourse with propaganda, drowning all other discussions and undermining opponents and critics. While additionally generating harassment through WhatsApp to silence NGOs, journalists and human right activists. The same mechanisms have later inspired other authoritarian and national leaders globally, such as Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines.
For the ongoing Indian general elections of 2019, the CNN reporter Rishi Iyengar warns “[in the] last election, social media was used as a tool. This time it could become a weapon.” India is the world’s biggest democracy, with 900 million eligible voters. The voting period started on April 11th and is counted on May 23rd. Rahul Gandhi, in the opposition, has slowly been catching up with virtual followers, though coming nowhere near Modi. The tactics of parties have been to generate counter-fake news as a defense. “You could say that Indian political parties are very good at interfering with their own elections,” professor Gilles Verniers argues. The Facebook public policy director in India and Twitter’s counterpart ensured it would be on their top priority to protect this election, by cracking down on ‘bad-faith’ actors, fake accounts and ‘problematic content’. However, it is a huge challenge, as internet users have more than doubled since the last elections to almost 600 million. Other fact-checking websites, such as Alt News, have been launched and are now cooperating with election authorities and online platforms, revealing among others fake news concerning the recent military clashes with Pakistan.
Politicians, such as PM Modi, have become today’s mega social media influencers – being able to literally affect election outcomes by hacking their citizens at the cost of the democratic system. India faces networks that have been weaponized, causing a fatal digital epidemic. New control systems are being established in a quest to control the causes affecting billions of masses globally. While democracy has been established on the concept of free will, other, newer systems such as algorithms are rather created upon the notion of predictability. In cases such as India’s election, these two systems compose a paradox. But while philosophers have time to discuss the paradox of free will for thousands of years, politicians have no such patience. Following professor Michael Egnor, although the belief in a free will might be a dangerous myth, not believing in it and giving up on it, especially in the wake of totalitarianism, might be even more disastrous.
Merle Daliah has throughout her life been mixing up her three languages German, Swedish and English, failed French classes in school and is now taking an “easy path” in studying Arabic at Uppsala University. Well, relatively speaking, she still has more hope for her future Arabic than in her plans of changing the world.
Illustration: Merle Daliah