David Omand, former GCHQ chief. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Former spy-chief: extremism on social media could threaten the foundations of western democracy

David Omand, who ran GCHQ, argues that Twitter and Facebook embolden the far Right
June 20, 2018

I still regard it as a higher form of magic that I can use a phone to share my views with 2.8bn other social media users. But Twitter and Facebook have a darker side. I have seen them amplify and encourage the growth of radical voices, most worryingly on the far right, where Alt-Right and other extremist tendencies have in recent years gained ground. These forces are becoming so powerful that they now threaten the very foundations of western democracy. 

The internet’s pioneers thought the online world would lead to a mass engagement with global challenges such as conflict, the environment and poverty. The pooling of personal experiences would lead to a greater tolerance of diversity, and a deeper sense of a shared consciousness. That, at least, was the hope and some of those benefits are apparent, for example in the support networks formed by survivors of disease or disaster. 

But massive social media use is also creating a contrary trend, one that taps into the deep roots of our most tribal instincts. It is comforting to be surrounded by those who share our experiences and reinforce our opinions—and that tends to be how it is on social media. The like-minded gather together. And when that happens, misfortunes tend to be blamed on the other. The result is an increasing fragmentation of politics into “us versus them” group—it is this that creates the very close relationship between the spread of social media and political extremism. 

The commercialisation of social media has always relied on “high-impact” content: the more striking a tweet or a post, the more people will see it. This has elevated the visual over the written, the provocative headline over the nuanced article. Social media feeds off—and amplifies—the passionate expression of beliefs, even to the extent of promoting subversive conspiracy theories with no basis whatsoever. This is a system that encourages a short attention span, the reduction of the complex to the soundbite.

Anonymity lends the online world its especially nasty flavour. It encourages a crudeness that would not be tolerated face to face. A sense of online disinhibition feeds attacks on those who espouse contrary views and the effect can be very powerful. 

Of course, politics will always be a contact sport for those with strong personalities and firm beliefs. But access to diverse ideas and opinions are an essential part of how voters make up their minds. Increasingly, however, the design of social media platforms encourages users to spend more time in a bubble of advertising and political messaging, fed to them by algorithms designed to search out content to fit their views.  

The techniques of social media exploitation and manipulation that are used by businesses to sell us their products are equally available to political organisations who want to sell us their ideas. But when social media spreads information that’s intentionally misleading or false, it undermines the free and informed choices that underpin any open society, which in turn erodes confidence in democratic processes and institutions. In the long-run, that flight from rationality in political debate further weakens voter confidence in public bodies, expertise and leadership which makes us ever-more vulnerable to manipulation, both on- and off-line. 

These are the characteristics that have left us vulnerable to demagogues and extremists and which bring us to the most worrying point of all: that social media enhances the shadowy subversive agendas of foreign states like Russia. It is striking that the tactics used to interfere in the US presidential election were designed to heighten polarisation in US politics, already a feature of the Trump campaign. This included the use of extremist web-sites targeted at the alt-right, which promoted the building of the border wall with Mexico. 

Similarly, Russian attempts to interfere in the French election were intended to promote Marine Le Pen’s chances, in the hope that her hard-right agenda—especially on immigration—would destabilise politics in France and the EU. 

It is not just state actors that have used online technology in this way. Islamic State exploited social media to spread slickly-produced videos which aimed to subvert the world view of young Muslims in Western Europe and encourage them to attack the civilian population. Different kinds of extremism can feed off one another online. Violent IS-type propaganda has stoked its dark counterpart on the extreme far right. The interaction of the two has further polarised opinion over issues such as immigration, housing and jobs, and put sections of the community at each others’ throats. 

For liberal democracies to survive and thrive in the digital age, we have to understand the vulnerability of the modern political process to covert manipulation of public opinion. It can come from without or within the nation. If we fail to see it, we risk becoming agents of our own destruction.