The ‘perfect storm’ is a phrase that has entered our common vocabulary; that coming together of events to create a maelstrom of change and, often, terror – the terrorist attack of ‘9/11’ was a vivid example. These events change our world. We need a new word that describes the way we can look back at catastrophes and dissect them with great insight, yet seem unable to react in time to change them when they are happening.
The fact that our societies cannot fend off these ‘attacks’ in time to change them is part of a bundle of risk calculations made by the perpetrators. They rely on the ‘attack’ being something new, something of a different order to what has gone before, and which therefore will escape the safety mechanisms already in place. By following this plan, they calculate that the plurality and slowness of the response (of democracy) will dilute any ability to frustrate what they are carrying out.
They also rely on poor education; the inability to see through over-simplification of important and life-changing decisions. Few things are black and white, but we have to work to distinguish things in colour…
Politically, we could dispense with the slow and measured response of democracy and instigate a small or very small group of controllers – this would be fascism. Fascism always seems to be attractive in the face of a crisis; that’s why generating a false crisis is usually the first move of the proto-fascist. Decisions with depth need the kind of thinking through that makes things slow, and depends upon the goodwill of the people and the maturity of the judiciary.
Fascism is not a political party. It’s a state of mind that preys upon the under-educated. It follows a well-tested curve to power; something I will write about in the final blog of this series. It is a mistake to think that the snake of fascism ever dies. Its mechanisms are always funded by the super-rich, who need to damage the power of ‘reasonableness’ in order to get the sweeping changes they need for yet more power. This is key: while a society’s centre of reasonableness holds, the extremists cannot gain traction.
The year 2016 saw two examples of a dynamic and decisive use of a new technology for the manipulation of political power: the US presidential elections, and what has become known as the ‘Brexit’ referendum in the UK- though, at the time, ‘Brexit’ was the name of the well-funded camp that wanted a second national referendum on the issue – the first was in 1975, which confirmed that the British nation wanted to stay in Europe.
I am not writing here about the results; the winners of the elections. The idea of democracy is that people vote for what they want. I am discussing the advanced methods by which democracy is manipulated; and the step-change in power of those who now control mass opinion. Historically, newspapers and television have done this, but the massive growth of social media has changed the playing field across the world – particularly the use of Facebook data, something acknowledged by Facebook itself.
During the start of the second UK referendum, I was first alerted to what was going on when a full-screen image appeared on my Mac over my morning coffee. There, in an exact match of the colours and fonts used by the UK’s Labour Party, was a political advert saying that Jeremy Corbin, the leader of the Labour Party, was against Britain staying in the European Union. The content of the Facebook ad was subtly worded, such that it was the right side of the law, but the inference: that Corbin had endorsed the ‘Brexit’ campaign, was entirely false. Subsequently, it was discovered that there were hundreds of variants of each advert, each specially tuned to the exact political parameters of the recipient. Ask any psychologist: people give a lot away about themselves when they fill in the boxes on fun surveys like ‘What kind of avenging princess are you?’
Surprisingly few people know the full story of how Facebook data was used during that period in the UK and in America. It was estimated that the personal social-political media profiles of over 50 million Americans were held by Facebook and legally (though deviously) extracted by an English firm – Cambridge Analytica – to be used in the election that brought Donald Trump to power. Exactly the same process was used to sway the million and a half voters needed to tip Britain into the present chaos of ‘Brexit’, as per my Labour Party example, above.
Cambridge Analytica ceased trading following the exposure of its methods by journalists not politicians. It was a runaway business success to that point. Only social pressure and the refusal of other companies to be seen to be customers drove it out of existence. In the end, much of that boils down to the pressure exerted by institutional shareholders, which points to one effective way of tacking such abuses.
It would be a mistake to assume that the methods developed by Cambridge Analytica have faded away in the aftermath. Facebook did nothing illegal, but – particularly in the US – is deeply fearful of new laws that would classify its screen-based output as ‘publishing’ and bring its content under the same legal and political scrutiny as conventional publishers. Such a move would dramatically affect the growth and share price of the ‘Tech’ giants in the social media world. Just as significantly, it would give them a task that they were, technically, not yet able to perform. The sheer volume of content means that even an army of human monitors could not deliver the control needed. Only advanced AI methods can do this – coupled with much faster follow-on response than they have shown previously.
The recent teen suicide scandal in the UK, where the Google subsidiary Instagram was seen to be hosting videos that promoted the practice, has highlighted the slow response to present crises, despite a stated willingness on the part of the Tech giants.
Personally, I think both Google and Facebook offer excellent products. But both face a barrage of ‘social responsibility’ issues, the response to which could bring them into a societal maturity they currently lack. But they have deep pockets… very deep pockets. We can hope that such money will be used in the development of automated ‘cleansing’ systems, rather than fighting off the need for society to protect itself – and the integrity of the political process of government.
All of what is happening may be inevitable. This ‘Face of Shiva’ may be characteristic of the destruction of a way of life that comes at the end of an age. The shift of power into the hands of very few people and corporations is a frightening thing. Plurality protects; the US lawmakers who are now looking at anti-trust legislation against their own companies face a difficult dilemma, but one that must be solved if we are to feel that the individual human has any value at all.
Is there a spiritual dimension to this? There is certainly one of consciousness. The most destructive forces at work are those creating the ‘polarity of hate’ across the western world. However much we feel ‘our side’ has been wronged, our only hope for the future is to re-discover the middle ground from which the extremists have pushed our collective centre of gravity- and that is a personal, not a political, action.
Other parts in the Faces of Shiva series:
These are my personal views. I respect those of others who may not agree with them. If there is a way through these things we need to share opinions and ideas in a non-polemic way. Currently, hatred reigns. As Stephen Hawking said, “All we have to do it to keep talking”.
If we don’t there may not be a future…
Please free to add your own comments.
Stephen Tanham is a director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit organisation that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.
The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.
Images: The opening montage is by the author. The underlying image of Shiva is from Wikipedia under the licence detailed below.