By Andy Hutchinson
If it seems like political life has deteriorated over the last decade or so and that the politicians elected to public office have been getting demonstrably worse, then that's because it has, and they have. The systems that maintained the status quo for hundreds of years are under assault from within. Weaknesses that were always present, but previously unexploited, are now being ruthlessly identified and abused by degenerate mercenaries masquerading as politicians and public officials.
The polarisation of politics and the abuse of benign instruments of public office is a global issue. It is a problem at an international level, a national level, and a regional level. The only thing that protected our society from the abuse of these Victorian-era systems was some sense of decorum and public decency - but those old-fashioned concepts have been unceremoniously drop-kicked into oblivion by the forces of autocracy and neoliberalism.
Wherever an organisation has been created, from the lowliest club committee, through all the tiers of public office - town, council, regional, state, and federal, all the way up to international bodies such as the U.N. and NATO - these self-serving forces of division and hatred are hard at work.
Here in Australia, any moderate voices within the organisations of the right have been cauterised from political bodies and no tactic, no matter how shabby, is off-limits. All concepts of fairness and propriety have been discarded, in favour of outright and bare faced lying, cheating, rorting, manipulating and misconduct.
The unparalleled corruption of the current Australian government is a matter of record. It's not up for debate - it's cold, hard, irrefutable fact. This much we all know. What is not discussed is how we arrived at this unfortunate juncture. Why is it now - in the second decade of the 21st century - that we face these unrelenting attacks on freedom and common decency? And now that we find ourselves in this unfortunate position, what can we do about it?
Happy Little Metamites
There are of course many reasons for the resurgence of far right-wing politics across the globe, but there seems little doubt that the principle enabling force is algorithm-driven social media and the manipulation of that algorithm by people with nothing but bad intentions. Machine-learning systems developed primarily by Facebook and Google, but in evidence everywhere, have all but eradicated balance from our online lives. They may not have been designed specifically to create an adversarial society that is perpetually at war with itself, but that is what they have done.
You will never see a dissenting opinion in your Facebook feed because Mark Zuckerberg wants to keep you on the hook, consuming the content advertisers are paying cold hard cash to push your way. So dead-eyed Mark keeps you in your very own bubble - a feedback loop of self-serving content that reinforces and never, ever challenges your views and your beliefs.
Social media is a cancer on society. It is poison. If it ever had any redeeming qualities, they are long gone - replaced by the ruthless exploitation of our most private thoughts, the normalisation of extreme viewpoints and systematic brainwashing on an unprecedented scale. There is no oversight on Facebook, no fact-checking, no juxtaposition of opinions - just an unrelenting barrage of garbage, hate and advertising. It's easy to see how the algorithm has tipped the scales from a balanced moderate state - to one that is always oppositional.
“Because influence operations are rarely limited to one medium, the defender community should include traditional media, tech platforms, democratic government and international organisations, and civil society voices. We expect this to be most difficult in the absence of strong democratic norms around what constitutes authentic discourse.” Threat Report: The State of Influence Operations 2017-2020 - Facebook
Hook, Line and Sinker
Never in history have private companies, such as the late and unlamented Cambridge Analytica, been able to wield such unaccountable and unsupervised power. The now-defunct British consulting firm delivered Brexit to the right-wing Conservative party in the UK using data illegally harvested from 50 million profiles. They returned Boris Johnson to power. They helped make the Trump presidency possible. They interfered in a staggering 200 elections across the globe. And that's just the one company we know about - how many others have managed to stay off the radar and are, right now, being employed by power-hungry politicians, crooks, and big businesses?
The irony is that the generations that complained that kids were zombie slaves to their iPhones and that they needed to switch off their screens and get outside were the same ones who belly-flopped into the fetid mire of social media from the top diving board. The Boomers always get it in the neck for this and they are certainly a sizeable percentage, but Generation X and, to a lesser extent, the Millennials are well represented too.
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Tik-Tok are the vehicles that have successfully radicalised a whole swathe of society. People who once had relatively benign views have been slowly transformed into cogs in the machinery of hate and division. Anti-democratic, anti-vaxx, climate-change denying, gun-loving, pro-religion and gay and trans-hating is now on view in millions of social media feeds, willingly spread by people who a decade ago couldn't muster up the enthusiasm to complain about potholes in the road, let alone spit insults at left-wing council candidates.
The evidence of this is everywhere, but it's at its most obvious in that feculent Petri dish of 21st century society - the Facebook community group. By way of example, take a scroll through the posts in the Shoalhaven News community group on Facebook and you'll find myriad examples of these freshly minted bedroom radicals. This group in particular is dominated by a clique of trolls who regularly espouse far-right wing views and bully anyone displaying political tendencies anywhere to the left of Donald Trump.
"Threat actors seek to capitalize on the public’s fear of IO to create the false perception of widespread manipulation of electoral systems, even if there is no evidence." Threat Report: The State of Influence Operations 2017-2020 - Facebook - May 2021
It is impossible to have any kind of measured and sensible conversation on social media and in community groups such as the aforementioned Shoalhaven News. The ability to hide your real name, your real location and any other identifying information gives people free rein to behave in an extreme and often vile way. And even if they are not anonymous, there are no punishments for suggesting that socialists should be hung from the trees or that all Muslims are terrorists. Worst-case scenario they get kicked out of the group, but what's to stop them making a new account and picking up where the left off?
One Born Every Minute
We know that private companies are paid large amounts of money to push public sentiment in their client’s direction - but there is clear evidence that foreign powers are the big players in social media misinformation.
Anyone with enough cash can bend the curve in their favour by feeding the algorithm. With the pandemic slowly transitioning into a 'live with it' phase, the volume of anti-vaxx rhetoric has slowly tailed off. Those people too stupid to get themselves vaccinated have either caught the (much milder) Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 and recovered - or managed to dodge it - or they have died. The days of the parades of halfwits blocking city streets in the name of anti-vaxx conspiracies are probably at an end, but the troll farms of the Russian and Chinese governments are not done with the tinfoil hat brigade yet.
In a report published in May 2021, Facebook themselves admitted that there were, "coordinated efforts [by industry and governments] to manipulate or corrupt public debate for a strategic goal." The level of interference by foreign actors such as Russia is, simply put, the new normal.
Now foreign powers who benefit from the disruption of their international rivals have invested time, money and energy into a new campaign. They have pivoted from a straight anti-vaccine propaganda machine to an umbrella campaign loosely focused on the nebulous concept of 'freedom'. There is clear evidence that the Canadian truck convoy was partially orchestrated by Russians and then cheered on by extreme-right wing neofascists in the USA who benefit from societal disruption just as much as Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.
"When a threat actor conceals their identity through deceptive behaviour, the public will lack sufficient signals to judge who they are, how trustworthy their content is, or what their motivation might be." Threat Report: The State of Influence Operations 2017-2020 - Facebook - May 2021
This narrowing focus was identified by Facebook last year. "Threat actors pivot from widespread, noisy deceptive campaigns to smaller, more targeted operations," they said. This is evident in the so-called 'freedom convoys' which have spread from Ottawa all the way to Canberra. The same loose collective of people who we might more easily identify as anti-left, rather than right-wing - were recruited, incentivised and unleashed via social media platforms such as Facebook and TikTok.
Typically speaking the people who are susceptible to these manufactured conspiracy theories do so partly because they feel a sense of community with other true believers. Your careful intellectual deconstruction of their erroneous beliefs won't replace that sense of community. Nor will your elegant reasoning reinstate the social or economic power they might feel they have lost. Oh, and you can cite all the scientific papers you like, but they've done-their-own-research, so forget about that too.
So what, if anything, can be done? How can the moderates of this world hold back the torrent of bullshit and the hate that usually follows it?
Throw Your Hands Up in the Air
Firstly, we need to give up on the idea of somehow winning over the recently radical. It does not matter what you say or how you say it - you will never get anywhere close to changing their minds. In fact, by arguing with them, no matter how maturely you go about it - you are only further entrenching them in their half-baked beliefs. In their eyes, the pushback is confirmation of the conspiracy.
So don't engage with them. If you're still active on social media and you see some inflammatory statement, ignore it. If it's a particularly nasty comment then you can try using the 'report' tool, but you'll undoubtedly find it's a bit like the pedestrian crossing button - a placebo that does nothing.
The long-term solution is to cut off the supply of misinformation. But before then the key is isolation. The conspiracy crew's reputation far exceeds their actual numbers. They are in the minority, and we should not lose sight of that. And if you doubt that most people want to do the right thing, then remember that 95 per cent of the people of New South Wales are double-vaccinated. And that of the remaining five per cent there will be a sizeable percentage who cannot be vaccinated for other health-related reasons. Picture that percentage the next time you see these deluded dickheads making arses of themselves on TV.
The cure to the bubble created by social media algorithms is to get off social media. Who knows - the trolls might get bored trolling each other and fade away into obscurity? If you want to keep the algorithm guessing about your own intentions and undermine the laser-like precision (and therefore monetary value) of Facebook and Google advertising, then search for random (but benign) stuff that is no interest to you and watch how your feed changes!
It's possible to cut the haters out of your life online by deleting your social media accounts or restricting your feed entirely to only close friends, but what about traditional media? After all, the algorithm that helped birth these buffoons, sowed the seeds in their minds. But it took Rupert Murdoch and his ilk to fork their bullshit onto those seeds and bring them into full bloom.
Unfortunately, marches, riots and hate-speech make for great telly. This is exacerbated by the fact that most traditional media in Australia - print, radio and TV - is right of centre. Rupert Murdoch's cancerous empire of shite spews forth a never-ending stream of anti-left programming and column inches of hard-right propaganda in print.
The few bastions of moderate (or heaven-forfend left-of-centre) voices, such as the Guardian are under constant assault from the hate-spewing Murdoch empire, from his bought-and-paid-for politicians in the Liberal and National parties and from his relentless foot soldiers on social media who have held the ABC siege for years.
So, if you haven't done so already, excise Murdoch's treacherous output from your life completely. Make certain not one cent of your money finds its way into his labyrinth of companies. Cancel your Foxtel subscription. Steer clear of his websites such as news.com.au and taste.com.au, don't buy his magazines, never dirty your hands on his newspapers. There's a full list of his assets here - boycott them all.
Adapt and Overcome
The moderates of the world could learn a few tricks from the political and social agitators on the right. We have been far too slow to adopt social media ourselves and to leverage the power of the soundbite and the meme. Voices of the left are few and far between on YouTube and if there's no alternative to the neoliberals and autocrats then those who might share our moderate worldview are unrepresented.
The haters love nothing more than shouting over the top of people - so take away their voice. This is easily done on social media - simply turn off the comments. Nothing of value ever appeared in a comments section and, if the post has political or social content, they inevitably turn into a shit-fight of insults and illiterate right-wing talking points anyway. Accept that the kind of people who spend their days hanging out on Facebook waiting for an ABC post to shit on, are a lost cause.
Remember that the attacks on our rights occur in all settings. The Shoalhaven Heads Community Forum was the target for an attack by locals with a right-wing agenda. The Shoalhaven Council has been dominated for years by hard right-wing career politicians such as Greg Watson. We have a right-wing arch-conservative Catholic Premier of New South Wales and a right-wing evangelical Christian as Prime Minister.
The algorithm will not be fixed by the scum who currently govern us, because it benefits them. But with the right government, sufficiently motivated, steps can be taken to wrestle back control. Even Facebook, a company that has benefited financially from entities abusing the algorithm, want things to change:
"We believe there is a need for a regulatory deterrent so we can collectively impose a higher cost on people behind [these coordinated efforts to manipulate or corrupt public debate for a strategic goal]." Threat Report: The State of Influence Operations 2017-2020 - Facebook.
There's an election coming, and our voices can be heard. Morrison, Dutton, Joyce, Frydenberg and the rest of that carnival of clowns in the coalition can be kicked to the kerb. But remember that change only comes when you accept that you are not powerless.
“Since mankind's dawn, a handful of oppressors have accepted the responsibility over our lives that we should have accepted for ourselves. By doing so, they took our power. By doing nothing, we gave it away. We've seen where their way leads, through camps and wars, towards the slaughterhouse.” ― Alan Moore, V for Vendetta
Andy Hutchinson is a regular political contributor. Andy is a socialist, atheist, ADHD, autistic Libran. He is also a local resident, photographer, filmmaker and journalist
Feature image: Street art in London. Photo credit: flickr.com