Rushkoff’s observation encapsulates the trajectory of political discourse in America in the 11 years since with remarkable precision. The notion of democratic participation was formed in the Renaissance, and founded upon a naive idea of individual participation, which Rushkoff felt worked against the individual by ceding power to central authorities.
Social networks function in the opposite direction: They take power away from central authorities and institutions, and push it to individuals at the edges. Rushkoff saw this power—at least as a tool for democratic gain—only harnessed once people took action, which we’ve witnessed since 2008. This idea predicates both the digital activism that helped elect Barack Obama to the presidency, as well as the mechanism that turned the tables back around to elect our current president. The issues may have changed, but the means to campaign wins are largely one and the same: action.
Machine learning, it turns out, is not galloping toward us on a white horse (or a Tesla) to whisk us away from our decaying public sphere. We’re in Ludicrous Mode. At best, moderation tech only dampens the toxicity that’s visible at the network’s surface. But it leaves the edges of the network, where the worst of harassment and polarization happens, to fend for itself. And, of course, it demands huge capital investments in technology.
The number of real people who are participating, including those who inspire and galvanize others to take political action, like vote, is on the decline. Instead, social platforms are increasingly populated by machines: bots, conversational AI, etc. Their agenda includes silencing real people who voice opposition and support for certain views. They also serve as threat intel—connecting our conversations, discovered through the monitoring of our expressed feelings and shared posts, with political issues.
In our latest study, we found more than half of some 100,000 tweets about two female Muslim congressional candidates in the 2018 midterms (both of whom would eventually win historic victories) involved outright hate speech. What’s more, the bulk of the harassment and provocation came from a small cohort of troll-like accounts. These amplifiers didn’t simply retweet news stories and spam links. Content wasn’t necessarily their primary weapon; connectivity was.
We found a remarkable pattern of these accounts persistently tagging House representatives Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, both Democrats, into threads and replies. This in turn helped funnel hate speech, amplify rumors, and pull others into heated discussion threads. While some of the instigator accounts were stereotypical bots, others represented an upgraded model of troll: They had traces of automation, quickly swarming on a specific post, for example, but were clearly used and supervised by real humans; they were cyborgs. Instead of mass amplifiers, these accounts functioned more like polarization vacuums. To me, this signals a wholesale shift in political distortion tactics.
This is a new twist to electoral politics and democratic participation in 2020 and in the coming decade. Over time, and especially across disparate Twitter communities, groups, and hashtags, these tactics will continue to surface anger and emotional vitriol. They will connect political candidates’ identities to controversial issues, raising them in tandem, and then connecting them in the form of a narrative to real voters. This manufacturing of outrage legitimizes otherwise unsustainable rumors and ideas.
Through Rushkoff’s interpretation, these hostile actors are exploiting fundamental design flaws in Twitter’s social connectivity to galvanize feelings around heated issues—gender, ethnicity, and religion—and convert them into political action: voting.
We’ve moved power away from the center, which isn’t a bad thing. But as it stands—the affordances of online anonymity, the lack of oversight, and the incentive for bad actors to stay two steps ahead of moderation tech at every turn—ensure that the more we participate, the more we dig ourselves into an inequitable system of governance.
We have entered an era where silence is not golden, and our participation is beholden to technology platforms. It’s a rigged game we cannot win. Which means that American voters have but one way out: taking action in 2020.
WIRED Opinion publishes articles by outside contributors representing a wide range of viewpoints. Read more opinions here. Submit an op-ed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More Great WIRED Stories