Thursday, 6 December 2018

Old Fears, New Terrain: How Political Contestation is Changing!

This address was delivered at the Desmond and Leah Tutu Foundation at the Old Granary building in Cape Town on the 6th of December 2018. The Citizen Dialogue Centre (CDC), The Citizen Research Centre (CRC) and the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change (CABC NPO) held a fundraising event to motivate for a programme to protect the 2019 South African elections – due in May 2019 – from online and social media disruption and interference. The event was kindly hosted by the Desmond and Leah Tutu Foundation and was opened by Dr Mamphele Ramphele.

We are living through an era of profound change. The democratic standards and ethics of the 20th Century – that were developed in the post-war consensus – are being eroded in service of political expediency and short term gain. The very fabric that constituted the post-war consensus; one that took a long term view on how politics is contested and conducted; is being undermined by the technological innovations – mobile phones, the internet and social media – that promised a new era of strengthened democracy, increased transparency and accountability, and active citizen engagement.

In the hyper-connected world of today, no country or region can fully escape the impact of these changes. It has already proven foolish to avoid dealing with them. The notion that tried and tested traditional methods of mobilizing political support will eventually win out has proven desperately wanting. Change is upon us and we have to evolve with the times. The only question around it; is how we choose to do so. Do we choose to descend to the level of cheap populism and inflammatory rhetoric, or do we want to harness change to help build more cohesive societies? Both options are available to us; the real question is whether we are caught up in short term scrambles for power, or whether we remain focused on what we hope to achieve as societies in the long term.

But first we need to correctly diagnose the changes that we are undergoing, as failure to do so will result in remedies that are bound to fail. So what has changed? Why is it so important to rethink how politics is being contested and to embrace the new terrain of political contestation, so to speak?

The first – and key – change to understand is that the internet, social media and new media have fundamentally altered how political messaging is developed and delivered to the public. Whereas in the 20th Century voters were targeted in broad demographic bands (say, white males between the age of 25 and 35, or white females between the ages of 45 and 55), the internet and social media have enabled political campaigners to target individuals and small groups more precisely with messaging that is customized to their personal preferences, biases and fears. Big data has allowed us to develop a more nuanced understanding of individuals and small groups than ever before. Political propaganda can now be delivered to a person or small group in such a manner that it takes into account what they are most likely to respond to on an emotional or affective level, as well as an intellectual level.

Moreover, mobile phones make us both constantly connected and instantly reachable. We now live in a world that is hyper-connected – on many levels – but especially with respect to information. We are inundated by news feeds, video clips, trivia, listicons, motivations, fear-mongering, moral prescriptions, Machiavellian prescriptions, echo-chambers (e.g. WhatsApp groups), and the like. In this information overload we cannot help but feel lost; there is precious little signal to grasp in the endless noise.

And it may seem counter-intuitive, but this seamlessness is precisely what enables political propagandists to weaponise their messaging so effectively. The proliferation of information and opinion today makes it easier for people who feel disempowered by it to retreat into enclaves or “echo-chambers” as they are now being called. Previously that “echo-chamber” might have been a small community, a neighbourhood or a village – nowadays the echo-chambers are online; they reside in the virtual realm as well as in the real world. We are living in the era that is increasingly characterized by an augmented reality.

Moreover, hyperconnectivity and a high-frequency, constant-flow information stream has been coupled with an instant gratification culture; one where clicks and likes lend more weight to a piece of information than its actual veracity. There is less time for contemplation; the ‘post-literate’ world is characterized by the ability to throw a wide net and take in a vast array of inputs, but with little quality insight; we surf everything but have little depth in anything in particular.

There is also a clear history that has fed these developments. This era is preceded by one where political spin, soundbites and the concerted ‘dumbing down’ of political messaging became the norm and fed the news cycles of media that had become driven by advertising revenue rather than sales.

These are the ingredients that have been cooked up to produce the reality we are experiencing in the early 21st Century.  New online media technologies, coupled with advertising driven revenue models, have yielded a new status quo; where the popularity of something is more important than its veracity and its actual value. Throughout history, we have underestimated the impact that new technology has on the propaganda of its time; this goes all the way back to the printing press, with radio and television serving as more recent innovations in the greater historical scheme of things.

The technology-driven terrain of this era is serving as a basis for new contestations of power; not just the occupy styled protests of the Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa, or more currently the ‘yellow vests’ in France – but between nation states and large multinational/commercial interests who are contesting the global political and economic order.

And how do they achieve this? More recent investigations have shown that it is not just “fake news” that is instrumental in these information warfare styled strategies but sowing discord in the ranks of the enemy – a divide and conquer strategy, so to speak. This is the exertion of soft power through asymmetric information (and psychological) warfare. When unity and cohesion within a group is lost they become more vulnerable and open to manipulation.

We know that state actors are active in this space. For example, the Russian government has invested heavily in creating well staffed capabilities that focus on sowing division in countries that they seek to manipulate. Other actors such as Breitbart news – the news media darling of the ‘alt right’ in North America, who are now making moves into Europe – have also been very successful at this.

But some skeptics still ask, “why South Africa?” Who would seek to manipulate our elections, and why?

In our provincialism we often fail to adequately appreciate our critical role in the world and on the continent in particular.

First, South Africa is of great geo-strategic interest to countries and multinationals that are looking to exploit the next, most significant, emerging class of consumers in the world; a market that is essential for global growth. Let me read you a short quote from the State of the African Cities Report 2014 by UN HABITAT. 

“By 2020, 128 million African households are projected to have transited to “middle class” (see also Box 1.1), boosting consumption and spending potentials; and by 2030 Africa’s highest-performing 18 cities might reach a combined purchasing power of USD 1.3 trillion. Projections over the longer term include growth of the middle class from 355 million people in 2010 (34 per cent of the total population) to 1.1 billion (42 per cent) in 2060, exceeding that of China today.”

South Africa is uniquely positioned to help access these opportunities, particularly because of its stable, reliable tertiary sector capacity (e.g. Finance, Insurance, Real-Estate, Banking), and could very well become the financial capital of Africa; so to speak.  

In addition, South Africa’s resources are of global import and significance. For example, we have the second largest uranium reserves in the world. Any country that has invested heavily in nuclear power offerings (e.g. Russia and France) would naturally have an interest in being able to influence how our uranium resources are administered. Moreover, we have globally significant coal reserves, platinum group metal reserves, rare earth metals, phosphates, and so forth. This is before we even consider the natural resources we possess above the ground, as well as the many other sectors in which we play a key role.

And perhaps most importantly, there is precedent for us to be wary of the use of social media to influence the public political discourse in South Africa. We need only look to the Bell-Pottinger debacle that unfolded towards the end of Jacob Zuma’s second term (they were hired by the Gupta family and Jacob Zuma’s son Duduzane). The African Network of Centres for Investigative Reporting found that between July 2016 and July 2017 220,000 tweets and hundreds of facebook posts[1] were put out by Bell-Pottinger in a deliberate attempt to manipulate and divide public opinion.

Narratives such as that of “white monopoly capital”, “radical economic transformation” and “land reform” were artificially amplified and – in an environment that was ripe for populist sloganeering and divisive rhetoric – were quickly taken up and became normative. It soon felt like these terms had been around for a long time when in reality they had moved from the fringes of the public political discourse to the centre very quickly. This is precisely the objective of propaganda, and social media and new media have made it easier to deliver messaging more precisely, and amplify it more successfully at the same time; a dangerous combination.

More recently – according to the Digital Forensic Research Lab – during the December 2017 ANC presidential elections a host of automated ‘bots’ numbering “in the low hundreds” were mobilized out of the US to influence it[2]. Although it is doubtful that it actually played a role in swaying the election, it serves as an important warning of what may come next. Indeed, it may have actually been a ‘test run’, to help calibrate their approach.

What this tells us is that South Africa is already on the radar for those who would meddle with our political discourse and electoral processes. It would be deeply ignorant to imagine that we can wish these threats away; or simply hope that they will not prove significant.  

Further afield, organisations such as Cambridge Analytica have been deeply involved in sowing discord and spreading dangerous, polarizing rhetoric in elections at home, as well as around the world; they were involved in Brexit, the 2016 US elections, the most recent Kenyan elections, and many others around the world. Cambridge Analytica even leveraged its network of retired intelligence operatives to support political campaigns and safeguard the interests of nefarious individuals and leaders, and were prepared to use devious, old traditional means as well.

Recently, reports of heavily staffed Russian government funded operations to leverage social media to influence the 2016 US elections have surfaced. While the Russian government denies it, it is clear that Russia has taken the gap provided by both Brexit and Trump to exert soft power and position itself more prominently in the global political order.

And you can be sure that China is already well equipped in this arena as well, as they already possess extensive capabilities to monitor online conversations in China.

There are also internal threats to consider.

Just last month a UNISA employee was exposed – along with his sister – of creating several fake news websites and distributing them via a series of Facebook pages. Apparently, the pair had been operating similar websites from at least early 2016.

We have also seen a dramatic increase in Trump-styled disinformation campaigns being carried out by political actors in South Africa. The EFF, in particular, have made use of twitter to make accusations against other politicians, their families and businesspeople; a few facts are often strung together to arrive at completely spurious conclusions. But they are not alone in their ‘shoot from the hip’ tactics; irresponsible rhetoric and spin has come to characterize our political realm.

And to be sure, South Africa is currently fertile territory for divisive rhetoric and misinformation campaigns. The reasons are simple. Even though South Africans now enjoy democratic freedom, South Africa endures that highest inequality in the world. And that inequality is even higher in our major cities. When viewed through a historical lens, this inequality is easily construed as a continuation of Apartheid era forms of exclusion. Rampant inequality, historical racial cleavages and the slow pace of land reform are but a handful of the broader issues that can and are being used to manipulate the political sphere in South Africa.

There is also massive frustration among ordinary South Africans with the political establishment; they are largely viewed as elites who are out of touch with the everyday realities that ordinary people face.  Among poor and marginal communities, major ‘service delivery’ protests have risen exponentially over the past decade or so; it is now convention to take to the streets and make localities ungovernable in order to draw government’s attention to the pressing issues that these communities endure. We are a society that is balanced on a knife edge; we are acutely aware that our current condition is not sustainable. This renders our body politic extremely vulnerable to populist actors – who may occupy the fringes at first – but can quickly move to the centre if tipping points are breached.

And to be sure; the internet and social media are the key avenues through which they can amplify their public voice and tip the scales one way or another. It is cheap, easy to use, and the damage it wreaks is difficult to undo once it has been done. Its fundamental asymmetry makes it attractive to those who are currently outliers or outriders, but aspire to greater power.

So to the point of why we are gathered here today; what can we do about it?

Well firstly, we need to understand that this problem cannot be ‘regulated away’. Regulations simply cannot keep up with the rapid changes occurring in the technologies and innovations that govern this space.

What we need to do is to begin building the capabilities that can actively engage and counter fake news and polarizing and incendiary rhetoric online. We need dedicated organizations that are well staffed, and possess the right intellectual capital, as well as the software and hardware they need to be effective. We also need to test and establish the methodologies that have been developed to counter online interference.

We need to become better at countering online interference through two key avenues; (1) through directly crippling the online ‘nodes’ through which messaging is artificially amplified, and (2) drawing on the self-organising capability of the internet to boost engagement by reasonable, level-headed people and key influencers who can help dampen out the loud and irresponsible actions of online ‘trolls’.

And importantly, we need to make sure that we share all the information about how to set up these capabilities and make them effective; so that other groups across the world can set up similar capabilities in their local contexts. Over time, a broad network of such organizations will become a ‘learning network’; sharing case studies, methods, techniques and the like to improve each other’s success rates at countering interference.

To reiterate, the strategy for dealing with online interference will not be successful if a purely regulatory stance is adopted. We need to be embedded within the new terrain and evolve with it. This asymmetric threat can be fought asymmetrically; and this is good news for us, as we can leverage knowledge based resources and bring them to bear on this nascent threat. And to be sure, as it is with any threat, measures and countermeasures will co-evolve in response to each other into perpetuity. We need active capabilities to be effective in our efforts to safeguard social cohesion and democratic politics. Our electoral integrity will increasingly be defined by our ability to be effective – in real time – in this new terrain of political contestation.

Having heard this talk, you may feel that it would be easy to convince those who can help establish such a capability to throw their support behind it. But we are faced with a situation where people are so overwhelmed by the multiple ‘threats’ they are constantly bombarded with, that they have become somewhat numbed, unable to clearly assess the threat before them.

We know that the internet, social media and mobile phones are changing society, but we are in deep denial about the extent to which its reach has rapidly grown. This is a very real threat. And as it is with elections; once they are over and the winners and losers have been announced, it is extremely difficult to roll back. There are no second chances, and the organizations who have come before you here today are not merely interested in studying how these political disasters occur retrospectively. Our central objective is to insert ourselves into this space in real-time so that we can play a meaningful role in actively protecting our democracy.

After many years of sacrifice, struggle and strife we emerged with a hard won democracy; and we have seen – in recent years – what it takes to safeguard it. What we must recognize, at this crucial point in history, is that the terrain of contestation has changed, and we must adapt with it, or face the consequences of lagging behind it.

Thank you!

Note: The author and speaker of this piece is the Executive Head of the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change (CABC NPO).


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