Jen Gerson: The greatest weakness in Western democracies is us

“Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me ‘old,’ when I would NEVER call him ‘short and fat?’” Trump wrote in his tweet, referring to the leader of North Korea’s ruling dynasty. “Oh well, I try so hard to be his friend — and maybe someday that will happen!”

Tweeted, sigh, President Donald Trump on Saturday. Proving, yet again, that the leader of the free world is a particularly callow 14-year-old girl trapped in the body of a 70-year-old man. I can foresee a day when all global diplomacy is conducted via silent YouTube video in which world leaders will lay out their narratives on hand- black-and-white cue cards.

It’s tempting to see Trump as exceptional, but, he isn’t. Most U.S. Presidents have had the benefit of weighty biographies, often written by Pulitzer Prize winning academics and authors. Imagine if a president as daft as Andrew Jackson had Twitter? Or someone as vicious and corrupt as Lyndon B. Johnson? As outrageous as Teddy Roosevelt?

Perhaps it would not be so easy to lionize the past if we had access to the real-time unfiltered thoughts of our heroes. But that really gets to the heart of it all, doesn’t it?

Social ruins .

The U.S. Congress seems to be cluing into this very fact. Over the past few weeks, Congress has been grilling lawyers from Facebook and Twitter, scrutinizing the extent to which Russia may have tried to sow social discord, or manipulate the U.S. election with targeted bot and disinformation campaigns that spread unfettered across these . More recently, the hearings have turned their attention to questions of whether Russia is trying to manipulate U.S. energy markets and undermine domestic oil and gas production through these means.

Facebook’s General Counsel Colin Stretch, Twitter’s Acting General Counsel Sean Edgett, and Google’s Senior Vice President and General Counsel Kent Walker, are sworn in for a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Russian election activity and technology, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Whether Russia succeeded in helping Trump get elected will long remain an open debate; but there is now little question that the country certainly tried. It’s American operations were of a piece with similar campaigns in Ukraine, Germany and France.

Congress is now the Honest Ads Act, which ads on social media to the same kinds of transparency requirements now demanded of advertising on traditional mainstream media .

During congressional hearings, the U.S. government released a trove of Russian-backed ads that appeared throughout the election cycle: everything from associating Hillary Clinton with Satan to posts that mimicked the rhetoric coming out of Black Lives Matter movement or Bernie Sanders supporters. Fake news, much of it, but all of it meant, essentially, to broadly undermine public trust in public institutions, including media and the government.

Any attempts to clamp down or censor the way information moves on social media networks will necessarily be met by alarm by free speech critics. Indeed, there are no easy answers here.

One of the things that struck me most about the Russian ads was how similar much of it was to the advertisements, stories and social media posts now routinely displayed by perfectly legitimate political actors — even congressmen and women themselves.

The role of states aside, it’s the platform itself that is atomizing.

No one has to craft largely appealing messages to broad coalitions anymore. Social media allows us to tailor messages down to the narrowest demographic, ideological and geographic blocs.

It allows us to use confirmation bias and the backfire effect to devastating : The who want your vote, your money or your time know very well that you are more likely to reject stories that challenge your ideology and accept, uncritically, the ones that agree with it.

If you think Clinton, for example, is an odious, dodgy creep, you were infinitely more likely to believe there was something to the claim that she was heading up a child sex trafficking ring from the basement of a Washington-area pizza joint.

Cue, here, the letter-writers who are already crafting thoughtful and personal responses to this column explaining that their sense of and outrage is perfectly justified thanks to liberal and/or conservative bias in corporate mainstream media. The better of these writers will even point to entirely fair and legitimate examples of such. They are not wrong. There is always fair criticism to be levelled.

But most can no longer point, exactly, to where this sense of dislocation begins. Rather, they consume media like the Rebel or Breitbart or Occupy Democrats. Or they remember, vaguely, seeing some things on Facebook that stoked the distrust. As long as it’s not mainstream, few seem to apply the level of scrutiny or skepticism that is, rightly, expected of outlets like this one.

Congress is now debating the Honest Ads Act, which would subject ads on social media to the same kinds of transparency requirements now demanded of advertising on traditional mainstream media outlets.

What is happening on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms right now will go down as one of the greatest experiments in mass manipulations in human history.

Not only are these platforms addictive — the social validation they evoke are consciously evocative of slot machines — but the messages, advertisements and posts you see on them are designed to be both viral and influential. Often times, the intent is benign. Sometimes it is not.

Companies, governments, individuals, brands — the whole lot — are fine tuning algorithms and psycho-graphics, using real-time analytics, experimentation and a/b testing to find the psychological triggers of entire groups of people with ever-improving accuracy.

We all imagine ourselves to be great, independent, thinkers. We are lab rats pushing a lever for our daily outrage or humour pellet.

See Donald Trump tweet. 

The profit ain’t in truth. It’s in telling people what they want to hear.

This is the kind of influence that works in inches, over years. And every year, the polarization of the U.S. electorate has become more obvious and more difficult to reconcile.

None of this is Russia’s fault, but one can’t be surprised that Russia would try to exploit it. The greatest weaknesses in Western democracies is us.

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