Who decides which claims made on social media can be fact checked? Where does free expression end and harmful lies start? Is social media fundamentally compatible with free and fair elections? When studying the field of tech and democracy, it is never long before one encounters a philosophical dilemma.
This is part one of a “Philosophy of social media” series where I turn back to some of the greatest philosophers to help make sense of social media, its opportunities and its challenges.
It’s time to stop thinking of hackers as superhuman
In Gay Science and Genealogy of Morality, Nietzsche famously proclaimed God is dead to reject the idea of relying on God for values and meaning. Instead he called for the birth of the Übermensch (“Beyond Man”, “Superman”), whose mythology he poetically depicted in Thus spoke Zarathustra. The Übermensch has rid himself of the restrictions and hypocrisy that come with religion. He believes in and acts according to his own free will. He is confident in his own power and superiority over those who still abide by traditional rules.
The tech wizards of today- Cambridge Analytica type hackers- in some way have become the new Übermensch. Through documentaries like The Great Hack, popular culture depicts them as all powerful, possessing knowledge and know-how the rest of us do not imagine or understand. Most importantly, they seem unbound by the provincial morality- not spreading fake news, not stealing other people’s information- the rest of us continue to abide by.
Whether we despise the power or admire the wits of hackers, we have elevated them to a god-like status. That is where, since Nietzsche, we seem as a society to have gone full circle. With the Internet we transferred power from the old Gods to coders, until we started believing coders were the new Gods.
The fantasy of the superhuman hacker is fundamentally detrimental to democracies grappling with the consequences of social media. Democracy is supposed to be about individuals having the power to express their voices. By subscribing to the myth of the great hack, we not only deny individuals’ ability to think and decide for themselves (the news they read, the stories they believe in). We also deny the deep responsibility we all have to not spread or create misinformation.
By subscribing to the myth of the great hack, we not only deny individuals’ ability to think and decide for themselves (the news they read, the stories they believe in). We also deny the deep responsibility we all have to not spread or create misinformation.
The first step is to recognize the power of the myth we’re feeding. By appealing to people’s deepest fears and writing emotional stories that build up the figure of the hacker, the news industry builds a perception that by itself is the hack. If fake news are the sole responsibility of hackers, there is nothing individuals can do to counter them. If the system is rigged by those who know more, there is no point going to vote. That is perception hacking.
The way we dispel the myth is by choosing the right words. Fake news as a term has been entirely hijacked by President Donald Trump to reject news coverage that contradicts or challenges his views. Technologists and academics have instead turned to the terms misinformation and disinformation. The distinction between the two is the first step in empowering individuals to play their part.
- Disinformation refers to intentional campaigns led by domestic or foreign actors to manipulate public opinion. Since 2016, tech platforms have referred to such tactics as “Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior” or “Information Operations” in an effort to identify them based on the behavior they adopt and not the content they spread (there is nothing abusive about supporting Bloomberg or calling Hillary crooked, unless one does so anonymously and in a coordinated manner).
- On the other hand, misinformation refers to the mostly unintentional spreading of false information, which includes everything from posts first shared by disinformation campaigns to false claims about the coronavirus or fires in Australia. People often share those posts not with the intention to spread lies, but because they believe in them and want other people to know.
While substantial improvements have been made since 2016 by all tech platforms to systematically take down disinformation networks before they cause any harm, public opinion continues to subscribe to the myth of the superhuman hackers and the formidable havoc they can wreak. In contrast, the problem of misinformation which is by far the tougher nut to crack is going largely unnoticed.
For years we believed the great hack was a product of the Übermensch- a handy myth that helped keep a safe distance between a few « bad » men and the majority of « good » people. Let us now proclaim The great hackers are dead to turn our attention to the power of all individuals to protect democracy.