Extremists fear the Web: politics, liberty and the new Internet of things

Digital media not only kill off propaganda, they let democracy advocates go viral. But there are still dangers

By Philip N. Howard
Published May 30, 2015 2:45PM (EDT)
       (Sina Weibo)
(Sina Weibo)

Excerpted from "Pax Technica: How the Internet of Things May Set Us Free Or Lock Us Up"

Digital Networks Weaken Ideologies

On July 9, 2008, Iran wanted to show the world its new mobile missile launchers. Leaders shared their triumph through high-resolution photos of the test site. The world’s major media outlets carried an image of four missiles blasting into the sky. The image was reproduced the next day, first on the Agence France-Presse webpage, then on the front pages of the Los Angeles Times, the Financial Times, the Chicago Tribune, and several other newspapers, as well as on BBC News, MSNBC, Yahoo News, nytimes.com, and many other major news websites. Somehow, a different image was sent to the Associated Press—an image with only three missiles successfully launching—one missile had actually broken down and failed to launch.

Many of the world’s media outlets published retractions. Journalists wrote apologetic essays about how technology had made it too easy for manipulative regimes—such as Iran’s theocracy— to doctor images. The important lesson here is not that propaganda experts in the regime used Photoshop to make their country look more powerful. The lesson is that the manipulation was caught, by 3 p.m. on the East Coast of the United States, the very next day. Images are powerful because they can bolster or dissolve political authority.

Digital media have not only been useful in killing off ideological propaganda, they have allowed democracy advocates to keep political memes alive and to make their issue go viral. Where ideologues and their ideologies do find traction and audience, it is usually because the messengers have been especially effective at using technology to promote their message and to keep their followers corralled, not because the rhetoric or ideas are compelling or sensible. This means that rival messengers, with better technologies, can get the upper hand in a political battle.

In China, one of the most provocative political images around is still that of a man standing in the way of a tank in Tiananmen Square. The image, taken June 5, 1989, has become one of the most iconic images of political resistance. It has been cropped and retouched many times, but the Chinese have well-developed image analysis software that detects and removes the image whenever it pops up in the country’s digital traffic. Images of Chinese protest events are tough to find on the national search engine, Baidu. Yet careful editing has kept the image alive, most recently by a mash-up that replaces the tanks with large rubber duckies. Other versions involve a Lego figure standing up to Lego tanks. Such visualizations keep the hope and spirit of civil disobedience alive and out of the automated surveillance net.

These are only examples of how digital images can undermine political ideology. The impact of new digital networks on ideology is bigger than just these stories. Indeed, the ideology of technology is trumping all others. There have been no truly new ideologies since the end of the last world order, and the closest thing to a new ideology is the ideology of technology itself.

As a concept, an ideology can be defined many ways. Among the best is the understanding that ideology is “meaning in the service of power.” The dream of a truly wired society, with tech-savvy citizens and responsive e-governments, is part of such an ideological package. But this dream about what an information society should be, widely promoted by government and industry, also serves the interests of the businesses and politicians who deliver on this version of modernity. The internet of things is also becoming a kind of ideological package: internet use and networked devices have become deeply associated with our notions of modernization and economic growth. Popular imagery about the use, speed, and sophistication are pervasive, with some technologies becoming iconic in myth and symbol, and inspiring almost religious fervor.

Manuel Castells has called this “informationalism.” While I have argued that there have been no new ideologies since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the ideology of internet-led growth might be the exception. Our infatuation with the internet drove a dot-com boom in the economy, it inspired a rethinking of global development priorities, and it remains a pervasive Western export: the notion that information technologies can fix most problems. The economic buzz around technology startups has given entrepreneurs clout in culture and politics. In some countries in the Middle East, for example, this has meant that governments are trumpeting entrepreneurship and innovation over traditional Islamic values. Today, information technology is the most important tool for servicing power.

The internet has a strong record of marginalizing partisanship, radicalism, fundamentalism, and extremism in social networks. Increasingly, the outcomes of both domestic and international political battles seem shaped if not determined by patterns of digital media use. Traditional ideologies have lost the power to frame events, and radicals in many countries have either had to soften their message, learn to manipulate the internet, or be socially marginalized. And increasingly, it is through decisions on technology policy that governments reveal the true extent of their commitment to democracy.

Ideologues spend a lot of time thinking about image. While powerful images can support an ideological perspective, the wrong images can deflate ideological claims. So technological resources determine domestic political battles. Political candidates in emerging democracies use digital media to raise funds, rally supporters, and outmaneuver opponents in policy debates. A growing number of upstart leaders and new political parties manage to achieve their political goals by manipulating the internet of things.

In authoritarian regimes, where elections are a farce, such rigged events have become especially sensitive moments. Many of the most violent confrontations between dictators and their opponents have come because civic leaders used digital media to document the depth and scale of electoral corruption. Even in China, where the Communist Party has no tolerance for open dissent at its executive levels, that same Party has been allowing—some would say encouraging—two kinds of political activism in local politics. Communities that use the micro blogging with Sina Weibo or instant messaging service Tencent QQ to rail against local corruption or environmental concerns seem to get the Party’s attention. People can use social media to vent, a little, and at certain authorized targets. Doing so reaffirms that the Communist Party of China is ultimately in charge.

In democracies, smart use of technology increasingly gives a political party the upper hand at election time. At this point, good examples of this go back several years. Student rallies organized rapidly by SMS toppled Philippine president Joseph Estrada in 2001, when protesters gathered en masse. They were summoned together by a single line passed from phone to phone: “Go 2 EDSA [an acronym for a Manila street]. Wear Blck.”

President Roh Moo-hyun ushered in a new era of politics in South Korea, but he would not have been elected without the help of the internet and SMS. Back in December 2002, conservative mainstream media favored his rival Lee Hoi-chang to win the election, especially when a former rival who had endorsed Roh unexpectedly withdrew his support on the eve of election day. Roh’s young supporters launched a massive last-minute campaign, sending off emails and text messages to 800,000 Roh supporters to remind them to vote.

In Spain, the Madrid bombings had direct political consequences as a result of communication newly enabled by technology. The ruling conservative Popular Party had been aggressively defending its close ties to George W. Bush’s war effort. When the terrorist bombs went off in March 2004, a wave of popular dissent cascaded by SMS through the electorate, faster than government spin doctors could handle. The overwhelming viral campaign cost the government its position of power. When public outrage goes viral, leaders in democracies are especially susceptible.

In more and more elections, political victory goes to the most tech-savvy campaigner. Ideological packaging seems secondary. To be a president or a prime minister you still need an impressive party machine, a good smile, and at least a few decent policy ideas. These days, an impressive party machine is one that uses social media to create a bounded news ecology for supporters. It mines data on shared affinity networks, and otherwise mobilizes voters on election day.

Research on elections in Brazil and Malaysia demonstrates that one of the most important statistically significant predictors of actually winning a parliamentary seat—especially in lower houses—is being a tech-savvy candidate. Having a Twitter feed and an interactive website helps connect with voters. And online search habits leading up to an election help predict which candidates will win. Around the world, being a modern politician means more than having a decent website. It means being able to work with the information infrastructure that young citizens are using to form their political identities.

Ideologies, like governments, have lost much of their ability to exclusively and comprehensively frame events. Indeed, the claim of Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” argument is that there will be no more great ideologies because capitalism has triumphed over all of its rivals. While it may be true that there have been no great ideologies since the arrival of the civilian internet, it’s also true that when there are ideological battles, they happen online. What makes an ideology successful is its ability to prevent followers from being aware of the way public issues are being framed. With a worldwide network of watchers, trying to doctor photos or censor unflattering images is quickly met with a corrective from somebody in the network.

High-ranking Chinese officials certainly feel this way. Liu Yazhou, political commissar of the University of National Defense, published an article in the People’s Liberation Army Daily arguing that today’s internet has become the main battlefield for ideological struggle. “Entering the new century,” he wrote recently, “whoever controls the internet, especially micro-blog resources, will have the right to control opinions.” The Party is aware that political conversations over social media have real-world consequences and can provide a metric of public opinion. Senior officials get exclusive access to social media sentiment analysis through the Party’s media research team. One Chinese pollster blames a 10 percent drop in confidence in the Party to the rapid spread of microblogs.

When moderates and ideologues are given equal access to digital media, people tend to use social media to marginalize extremism, hate speech, and radical ideas. In part, this is because digital networks are ultimately social networks. On a personal level, we often don’t like experiencing “socialization” because it can mean embarrassing correctives to our bad behavior. The pressure to conform is rarely a pleasant thing to experience. Socialization also means that dangerously violent behavior, and the ideas that might foment such behavior, get stigmatized. The problem, of course: not everyone has the same degree of internet access.

The research is growing on how social media marginalizes bad ideas, and it is based on varied levels of analysis. Sociologists have found that digital media have several positive long-term consequences for users. Over time, people develop increasingly sophisticated search skills. They tend to become more omnivorous with their news diets. And there is evidence that they become more tolerant of ideas and opinions that diverge from their own. Research suggests that digital networks moderate political opinion, and this is because the average person is moderate.

The internet has grown up along social networks. For better or worse, socialization works. Over time, people with extreme, radical, and disturbing ideas either moderate their opinions or find themselves marginalized in their networks of family and friends. Unfortunately, the corollary of socialization through digital networks is that extremists may have an easier time finding others like them. So pushing violent extremism out of mainstream political conversations may make some small networks of extremists seem to grow and become more resilient. But as we’ll see, this process also makes it easier to track and disable those networks when they become a threat.

The process of socialization over digital networks doesn’t have a positive impact just on individuals; it can be observed in political discourse as well. For example, experiments with online news rating systems show that social influence accumulates positively. We are social animals who tend to herd positively and create ratings bubbles of approval. The corollary is that negative influences get neutralized by the crowd. We tend to put a little effort into making sure a negative news story is deserved. This is why political parties usually compete for the middle. And not just during election time, either. Even autocrats have to maintain a balance between hegemony and public appeal.

The Arab Spring may be the best recent example of how moderate, digitally activated citizens coalesced into viable opposition movements. Only after several weeks of protest in Tunis and Cairo did Tunisia’s and Egypt’s Islamists decide to join protests against the authoritarian, secular governments. Islamists eventually formed governments in both countries during open and fair elections. But both groups of Islamists had to moderate their messages—they had to give up advocating for polygamy and the traditional punishments mandated by the Koran. When the government formed by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt drifted too far, and excluded too many secular groups, civil disobedience erupted again and the government was tossed from power.

In Egypt, networks of democracy advocates proved their resilience by activating twice: they toppled a secular authoritarian regime that had lasted for thirty years, and then they toppled the government formed by the Muslim Brotherhood after a year. Digital media helped disaffected youth defeat radicalism and push Mubarak out. Then it helped them push the Islamists out.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Tunisia and Egypt are no longer the only viable parties in their reborn countries. Both must continually address concerns about their radical roots. Terrorist groups might find some safe harbor online by claiming tiny corners of the internet for recruiting impressionable members and coordinating activities. Islamists who hope to participate in political life, on the whole, are having a hard time. In Indonesia, Malaysia, and Turkey, Islamist political parties have had to moderate their message, and they often get punished by voters when they try to introduce radical legislation.

Indeed, there is a growing interest in using the network effects of digital media to consolidate radical groups more aggressively: dedicated social-network applications to support ex-neo-Nazis and ex-terrorists, mainstream civic groups and think tanks made up of former members of extreme groups.

When someone in a migrant community comes from overseas and acts badly in the name of his faith or some perceived injustice in his homeland, news headlines tend to blame the internet for allowing radical ideas to spread among immigrants. But research suggests that while immigrant communities do use digital networks to construct new communities and stay in touch with their communities of origin, they tend to use it to defeat nostalgia about the conditions they left behind.

Even more than declared ideology, a country’s technology policies reveal its true political values. While political scientists wrestle over the meaning of democracy and authoritarianism— and which countries are the best examples of each—technology policy has come to be the most revealing aspect of a regime’s priorities. When a government spends money on technology initiatives that make the business of governance more transparent, we celebrate. When a government decides that it needs to be doing more censorship and surveillance, we rightfully worry. In recent years, we find authoritarian regimes doing the former and democracies doing the latter.

Democracies don’t always get information policy right either. A powerful mobile-phone surveillance tool, the Stingray device allows a user to spoof a mobile-phone tower. Such technologies can be used to track terrorists in India, or drug dealers in Los Angeles. Warrantless wiretapping is a more high-profile concern in the United States, so the country’s civil liberties groups quickly linked the use of the Stingray to privacy issues.

Singapore controls its journalists at election time so as to ensure the governing party returns to power, but puts its taxation and spending records online. Canada aggressively surveils its citizens—even travelers using airport wifi. Which country is more open?

Videos from abusive dictatorships consistently expose the attitudes of ruling elites, and we might expect these countries to have active surveillance and censorship programs. Even liberal democracies have been running aggressive programs with relaxed public oversight. Google transparency reports show that requests for information are on the rise, and most of the requests come from within democracies.

For modern dictatorships, all the new devices being connected to the internet present a real challenge. Some authoritarian regimes may run honest elections administratively but invest in social-media strategies that guarantee electoral victories. Russia makes significant investments in video equipment for its polling stations during referenda and elections. Their leaders decided that video evidence of fraud is not admissible in fraud complaints.

Today, democracy is a form of open society in which people in authority use the internet for public goods and human security in ways that have been widely reviewed and publicly approved. Democracy occurs when the rules and norms of mass surveillance have been developed openly, and state practices are acknowledged by the government.

Information policy has not only come to define what kind of government a country has; the political decision to disconnect information infrastructure now delineates a regime on the edge of collapse. Net watchers report instantly when packet switching through a nation’s digital switches stops and the country “goes dark.” Public protests in an authoritarian regime can be a sign of political instability. A defining feature of political, military, and security crisis is the moment when a ruler orders the mobile-phone company and internet-service providers to shut down. Going dark has become the modern mark of a regime in crisis, and the indicator that a state is close to collapse. Contemporary authoritarianism, democracy, and state failure are now defined by technology use.

Moreover, the way a political group treats digital infrastructure has also come to define serious insurgency. Nigeria’s Boko Haram figured out that digital media were being used to track its members, so it began taking down cell phone towers. Afghanistan’s Taliban takes down cell towers for fear that they help unmanned probes track their leaders. Lebanon’s Hamas has its own hard lines, which it defends in times of chaos. Even the Zapatistas knew that the first step in their insurgency was to disconnect the information infrastructure leading out of Chiapas. Now, Hezbollah owns its own cyberinfrastructure in Lebanon. Mobile phones made the Arab Spring possible. Before the Arab Spring, the most successful anti-Mubarak street protests in Cairo either had been organized by bloggers or were about the persecution of bloggers. In times of crisis, troops are sent to defend the one hotel in the port city where the digital switches that connect the country to the global economy are kept cool in the air-conditioning.

While digital media have made it harder for radical ideologies to captivate the imagination of large numbers of people, information technologies themselves have captured the public imagination. Perhaps most surprising is how technology standards themselves have become a civic issue: an important one—an issue that has an impact on how all other policy issues play out.

Most extremist groups never succeed because their ideologies fail to resonate with enough of the people they claim to be fighting for. Social media make it much easier for people to check facts and figures and sources, and to see how the meaning of words and images have been put into the service of political power. Not everyone checks all the facts all the time when radicals try to use digital media. But it takes only a few people to do this and provide the needed corrections and counterclaims.

Excerpted from "Pax Technica: How the Internet of Things May Set Us Free Or Lock Us Up" by Philip N. Howard. Published by Yale University Press. Copyright 2015 Philip N. Howard. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Philip N. Howard

Philip N. Howard is a professor and author of seven books, including Democracy’s Fourth Wave? and The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. He is a frequent commentator on the impact of technology on political life, contributing to Slate.com, TheAtlantic.com and other media outlets.

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