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contributor perspectives

Mar 4, 2017 | 14:30 GMT

The Next Front Line in the Fight for Hearts and Minds

Board of Contributors
Andrew Trabulsi
Board of Contributors
A picture of a smartphone. Powerful handheld devices and social applications are changing the way people communicate, organize and protest.
(THOMAS LOHNES/Getty Images)
Contributor Perspectives offer insight, analysis and commentary from Stratfor’s Board of Contributors and guest contributors who are distinguished leaders in their fields of expertise.
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Over the past few months, a swell of isolationist rhetoric from some of the world's newest leaders has given investors and trade partners across the globe pause. Many have pointed to the newfound rise of populism as evidence of the criticism mounting against globalization. And in some ways they might be right; maybe the world truly is fed up with the style of internationalism that the Bretton Woods system of global finance has promoted for the past half-century or so.

But surely this isn't the whole picture. After all, movements rarely disrupt the modern political order in a vacuum. As we have seen in the past decade — consider the spread of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movement — the ways in which we build communities and share information have begun to fundamentally change, thanks in large part to the rise of social technologies. These technologies have given savvy political actors a means of reaching new audiences in unprecedented ways, and perhaps it is their impact on society's stability and hope that we are now finding difficult to ignore.

A New Kind of Connection

In 1965, Gordon Moore — the co-founder Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel Corp. — realized that the number of transistors on integrated circuits was doubling about once every two years. If the trend continued, as Moore predicted it would, it would mean that computing would increasingly become more powerful and less expensive over time. His theory, known as Moore's Law, sparked massive growth in the personal computer (PC) and microelectronics industries. Since the 1980s, PC sales have exploded, jumping from just 9 million units in 1984 to over 300 million units in 2014. Meanwhile, the price performance of computation has doubled at least 25 times since 1965, dramatically improving the capability of all things digital. 

A graphic showing the rise of digital technology

The smartphone revolution is progressing even more quickly. Whereas it took PC sales three decades to reach their peak at 300 million units, smartphone sales covered the same ground in only five years, achieving that height in 2009. Today, iOS- and Android-based smartphones alone account for over 1.5 billion unit sales a year. Experts predict that by 2020, five billion people will own smartphones.

The miniaturization of devices, coupled with the spread of the internet, has likewise spurred advances in social technologies. Four decades ago, primitive networking tools like Usernet and Bulletin Board Systems gave people a way to virtually interact with one another by dialing into individual computer modems. As online services evolved, companies such as CompuServe and Genie began to offer more chat options to their customers. By the late 1990s, Internet Relay Chat (IRC) and Instant Messaging (IM) services had been designed to allow users to instantly send electronic messages to others, a breakthrough that eventually gave rise to today's avatars, text abbreviations and emoticons. 

Though early social networks generally revolved around online chat forums and dating websites, their more modern counterparts now allow for activities as simple as ordering take-out or as complex as organizing simultaneous communication among tens of thousands of people.

Alongside the rise of cheaper, smaller computing devices, the number of internet users around the world has skyrocketed from less than 1 million in 1993 to over 3.5 billion in 2016. Today, mobile connections account for nearly 60 percent of internet activity, and roughly a quarter of global advertising revenue is funneled into internet ads. (In North America and Western Europe, spending on internet ads actually tops that in television and print.)

In an effort to capitalize on these changes, social networks have begun to adjust their advertising strategies and platform development accordingly. For instance, 52 percent of Facebook's 1.6 billion monthly active users now access the application through mobile devices. Clearly, the ability to communicate cheaply and effectively is making global, instantaneous connections not only possible but also scalable — a new reality that has serious implications for mobilizing political change.

Arming a Revolution

In summer 2010, a 28-year-old Egyptian political activist named Khaled Mohamed Said was brutally murdered by then-President Hosni Mubarak's secret police. Images of his broken body went viral on the country's social networks, and activists built Facebook pages dedicated to voicing dissent over Said's violent death. Two of those pages — "My Name Is Khaled Mohamed Said" and "Kullena Khaled Said" (Arabic for "We Are All Khaled Said") — became rallying points for the social media-driven revolution that would sweep across Egypt in the year that followed.

Wael Ghonim, the administrator of Kullena Khaled Said, saw the opportunity that social technologies had to offer and took it, harnessing and building support for the burgeoning Egyptian uprising. Just weeks after Said's death, Ghonim organized a silent protest on the streets of Cairo from his Facebook page, drawing 8,000 Egyptian youths who had been galvanized by Said's fate. "There was not a master plan. What we saw was that we were connecting people together, and that over time this became very valuable. People could start to work together through these tools," Ghonim said in an interview.

When simmering tensions began to boil over in nearby Tunisia not long after, Ghonim and his allies saw another opening to inspire political action in their own country. "Once Tunisia happened we felt empowered. It made me think that we could make this happen in Egypt. The moment was ripe to present an invitation for those who were once scared to speak out to unite around a cause they believed in," he said. In the weeks that followed, Ghonim helped to orchestrate dozens of protests that culminated in the most influential demonstration of the Arab Spring on Jan. 25, 2011.

"I was not necessarily thinking we could start a revolution or that we could bring down Mubarak, but rather that we could have a series of small wins that empowered people. We could increase the price of tyranny and decrease the price of being an active citizen," Ghonim explained. Reflecting on the experience, he added, "The fact that people believed in this greater cause, and were willing to sacrifice for the greater good of Egypt was inspiring. The walls that were built over years were demolished in one day. The Egyptian people suddenly had a voice."

In the wake of the demonstration, Ghonim — who was largely obscured in the months leading up to the actual uprising — became the public face of the revolution in Egypt. After being arrested and detained by the country's secret police, Ghonim moved to the United States in search of refuge. But the model Ghonim and his peers had provided through social media lived on: Now a computer engineer with a keyboard could summon and organize tens of thousands of citizens, presenting a new avenue for challenging entrenched political figures. 

Activists around the world had discovered a set of tools with which to wage political war — or stoke incipient political movements, as Euromaidan protesters and Donald Trump supporters quickly came to realize.

Electioneering in the Internet Age

At the dawn of the Arab Spring, social technologies were largely seen as a tool of political activists. Today, however, they have been widely adopted as an everyday norm among average citizens. As more people have begun to incorporate social technologies into their daily lives, their ever-evolving capabilities have begun to have a discernible impact on politics.

One of these capabilities is an automation tool known as a bot. Bots, in this context, are automated social media accounts used for the purposes of autonomously spreading messaging. Sam Woolley, a researcher at Oxford University, explains, "We were first introduced to this activity after the Arab Spring — how bots were used both for good and for manipulation — but they're playing a much more pronounced role today." According to Woolley, social bots can be handy for several reasons. For one, they can be used to amplify allies' messages or dampen the opposition's, allowing support or resistance to a political movement to be gamed out from afar. In the runup to the United States' midterm elections in 2010, bots were used on a small scale to promote Republican candidates and smear their Democratic rivals. A little over three years later, bots were deployed to delegitimize Ukrainian protesters who were using hashtags to organize the Euromaidan demonstrations in Kiev. Now, social bots account for as many as 20 percent of all Twitter accounts that mention Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, and they have been employed during major election cycles in Ecuador, Turkey and Mexico.

The most recent U.S. presidential campaign was no exception. According to researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago, bots generated approximately 20 percent of all political tweets released throughout the campaign season. "It's fairly easy to enlist these bots into Facebook groups or launch them through the Twitter API (Application Programmable Interface) to circumvent the mechanisms for detection that those sites have, and allow them to work for whatever the cause du jour is," Woolley pointed out.

In the world of politics, social bots serve three major functions: spreading propaganda, roadblocking and astroturfing.

The first type, propaganda bots, are primarily used to share messages that support views in favor of a particular government, candidate or policy — or against its competitors. Their purpose is simple: to shape the perception of someone's (or something's) popularity and authenticity on platforms like Twitter, Google and Facebook, gaming algorithms to surface content that supports certain targets. For example, the Oxford Internet Institute found that bots generated about one-third and one-fifth of the Twitter activity supporting Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, respectively, during the first and second presidential debates last year. Furthermore, while both candidates' social media campaigns were highly automated, the institute also found that pro-Trump bots outpaced their pro-Clinton peers 5-to-1 between the final debate and Election Day.

If the purpose of propaganda bots is to promote certain viewpoints, roadblocking bots are designed to suppress them. Today's opposition campaigns often use these bots to counter the messaging of their political rivals and spam trending hashtags or keywords. With this tactic, people can both downrank messaging within social networks and search algorithms as well as pollute the content of messages tagged with the hashtags or keywords in question, making it more difficult for readers — and journalists hoping to report on the subject — to decipher their meaning. Throughout the Syrian civil war, for instance, President Bashar al Assad's administration has used roadblocking bots to dampen the rebels' Twitter communications during periods of heightened violence, such as the attacks on Houla, Damascus and Aleppo.

Finally, astroturfing bots autonomously retweet, like or share content to give the impression of authentic grassroots support for a particular cause or candidate. "In Brexit, we saw one per cent of the profiles on Twitter accounting for seventy per cent of the traffic in support of the Leave campaign. Most of these accounts were highly automated, tweeting hundreds of thousands of times," Woolley noted. In nearly every case, the accounts were designed to seem as though they were owned and operated by real people. By generating what appears to be a legitimate support base, campaigns can confirm biases and amplify rhetoric, helping their messaging to spread and take root within social networks, media outlets and broader public discourse. During the U.S. presidential race, Trump's team frequently retweeted social bots designed to portray Hispanic or African-American voters in an effort to inflate the appearance of his support base among those demographic groups. (In reality, Trump's popularity among these constituencies was much lower than Clinton's.)

A New Political Battlefield

On its own, the advent of autonomous technologies like bots doesn't pose a challenge to today's political institutions. They are simply a tool, like any other. But when they are used with the express purpose of spreading misinformation, these technologies can severely undermine democratic processes and governance.

"At the time we used social media in Egypt, it was just a tool. Today it's just a tool. It can be used however you like. Today, governmental regimes can use this to their own advantages, just like activists can, just like companies can," says Ghonim. It's the pace of change, however, that Ghonim predicts will continue to catch governments off-guard. "There will be some sort of evolution that changes these technologies in the future. As we understand more and more, people are realizing our social technologies and the narratives we share through them can be weaponized."

Woolley sees a similar future unfolding, particularly as advances in machine learning become more salient. "As machine learning becomes better, and barriers for learning how to use these tactics are lowered, politically oriented bots will continue to manipulate public opinion. They'll be a powerful tool to shape perception and alter civil discourse," he says.

Moreover, though automation tools and bots seem mostly relegated to the periphery at the moment, they probably won't stay there for long. "The advent of new platforms that have bots built directly into them will mean bots will have a major impact in how people relate to politics and how people engage with politicians," Woolley pointed out. "They won't only be negative," he added. "A number of bots will be used by companies like Slack, the New York Times, Google, Facebook, and so on, to help people engage with the world in new and more productive ways."

Still, these tools won't be the only means of manipulation that political actors employ. "I think that it's never going to be a matter of zero or one; we won't live in a world entirely of control, and we won't live in a world free of external influence," says Ghonim. Rather, what we will see is this technology increasingly underpinning a new political order. And on the polarized political battlegrounds ahead, technology will offer a new front line in the fight for the public's hearts and minds. 

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