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  • Writer's pictureFiona Prior

Lie Machines

Updated: Jun 1, 2020

'Lie Machines: How to Save Democracy from Troll Armies, Deceitful Robots, Junk News Operations, and Political Operatives' by Philip N. Howard

“... Any framework for understanding politics that is simply about elections, political parties, and government, or that assigns technology (only) a minor role in explaining current affairs ..." is completely naive.

I think we are all switched on to the implications of social media and technology in our political and social realms. We only have to think of the Hong Kong protests, the Arab Spring uprising, and even our very recent Australian bushfires, to find examples of social media being used to mobilise people; in the last example, used in a very practical manner to keep people informed and safe in life-and-death situations. Howard’s book ‘Lie Machines’ takes the evolution of technology into our social and political realms much farther than this, and I’ll give a little context before I continue about his tome.

Way back in 2004 I reviewed Robert Greenwald’s ‘OutFoxed: How Rupert Murdoch is Destroying American Journalism’. ‘Outfoxed’ was a mockumentary about Fox News, a national 24/7 channel, which offered outrageously right-wing “infotainment” and was blitzing American television cable ratings at the time. ‘Outfoxed’ itself was hardly impartial, a guerrilla-type documentary in the style of Michael Moore’s 'Fahrenheit 9/11'. In his documentary Greenwald argued that those living under a totalitarian regime are constantly aware of being manipulated by the media and are “on guard”, whereas members of a democracy are not psychologically prepared for subliminal brainwashing techniques and are therefore far more vulnerable. I’d hasten to add, as I did when writing the review that is linked above, that many people choose a news channel or platform to simply have their life-views affirmed, and I do wonder what Mr Greenwald thinks marketing campaigns are trying to do to our psyches when they attempt to sell us outrageously expensive gadgets that we don’t need, by implying that our lives are incomplete without them. Subliminal brainwashing is certainly alive and kicking in non-totalitarian regimes.

This little reach back in history is by way of showing how much more insidious the propaganda machine has become in only 15 years, the overt messaging of Fox News almost like the innocent good old days.

Howard’s ‘Lie Machines’ delves into our era of bot writers, junk news sites (as opposed to just overtly biased ones), fake identity manufacturing and trolling, and an astonishing amount of collected data that can anticipate and ‘uniquely use’ our moods, preferences, attitudes and behaviours even months in advance of such things as national and international elections, referendums, celebrations, the list goes on ... In short, our data and knowledge of our behaviours can be monitored and used to manipulate us.

Howard outlines how technological terrorism tactics previously used by extremist groups have been taken up by varied Governments and Government consultancies to infiltrate and influence the opinions of the constituents of their own and other nations, discussing the effects of these tools of influence by using many examples, possibly Brexit and the last US elections being the most high profile cases put under the microscope. Howard’s premise is that this evolutionary stage of technology the web, social media platforms, the apps we use may be seen as far more valuable by those who seek to manipulate us when put to political use rather than just commercial use.

We all know that social media platforms and data collection can be used both positively and negatively – we just have to think of the immediate hesitancy some of us experienced to download the COVID-19 app in Australia, even though we were very aware of the benefits it could provide. We are all aware that the infiltration of technology into our daily habits is as potentially sinister as it is convenient and/or efficient.

As if you haven’t got enough to worry about, do read Philip Howard’s ‘Lie Machines: How to Save Democracy from Troll Armies, Deceitful Robots, Junk News Operations, and Political Operatives’ to take you to a whole new level of paranoia :) I must add that Howard also offers ways to avoid being brainwashed and manipulated, some tricks and tactics that will become invaluable to all 21st century girls and boys.

Author Philip N. Howard is director of the Oxford Internet Institute

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