Four factors threatening our freedom and democracy

on 13.03.2017

The world is at the crossroads of history and the effects of events that are now happening in Europe and across the Atlantic affect everyone, whether they realize it or not. Series of events that dominated the headlines and public debate in the past year - the migration crisis, Brexit or election of Donald Trump for president of the USA shook the foundations of mechanisms and institutions maintaining stability and security of Europe and the world as we know it. What future lies ahead of the liberal democracy and its institutions? The causes, impacts and possibilities of future development of the current situation have been covered in hundreds of analyses, but it seems that the “wind of change” is blowing in the entire western hemisphere. What kind of change it will be and what will follow next, when the pillars of stability and security would fall, we know very little of.

In the information noise and the small details flooding our daily newsfeeds, some very important facts and trends are lost. What might look from the outside as a spontaneous and natural mood change throughout western societies is actually happening due to several driving factors. I would like to highlight four specific factors: the technological change, the return of Russian superpower ambitions, the use of big data for individualised political marketing and the crisis of traditional media.

Technological change
The first driving factor is the technology revolution related to the massive spread of internet access. Expansion of the Internet coverage combined with the availability of devices (low-cost smartphones) and social networking has radically changed the way of communication between political leaders and their voters. It also fundamentally altered the possibilities for mobilizing and connecting people around themes or interests. When this process began, everyone hoped that immediate mass access to knowledge accumulated by generations of mankind will lead to more informed citizens and better decisions of all. Today we are talking of post-factual reality, fake news and relativisation or even denial of the existence of objective reality.

Gerasimov's doctrine and hybrid threats
"Russia is waging the most amazing information war blitzkrieg, we have ever seen in the history of information warfare" Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO Wales Summit, September 2014.

The second factor, until the presidential elections in the US almost neglected, was a gradual return of superpower ambitions of the Russian Federation and the related systematic measures by Kremlin aimed at weakening and disruption of key institutions of the West. When Valery Gerasimov, Chief of General Staff of the Russian Army published an article on the non-linear war in 2013, later called the Gerasimov's doctrine, it was the only official recognition of what we call hybrid threats today.

According to official estimates, the Russian Federation is spending on such activities 1 billion Euro a year. By comparison, the EEAS (European External activities) which is the only department established to monitor and balance such activities within the EU has not received the promised increase in the budget to 800 thousand Euro. For every € 1,000 spent on Russia as its propaganda effect, the EU spends 0.8 Euro. With few exceptions, there are no capacities at national level dealing with hybrid threats.

Psychometrics and individualised political marketing
The third factor, which only gradually becomes apparent is the use of big data and online profiles for political marketing, customized according to personal characteristics of individuals. “Until the 2016 US presidential elections, political campaigns were based on demographic concepts and candidates attempted to reach comprehensive electoral groups defined by gender, ethnicity, religion, or region,” said Alexander Nix, a man with huge influence, yet almost unknown to the public. He is a man who is the architect behind the success of Brexit, as well as the victory of Donald Trump. His company developed a unique technology that combines personality analysis (Psychometrics) with the individualization of political messages on social networks.

What seemed a few years ago as science fiction, became reality in Brexit and the US presidential elections. Cambridge Analytica has developed and successfully tested in practice a method that allows predicting the personality of each and every individual in the United States. This is possible since many of our personal data are available for sale and are used to establish a basic personality profile. This is then linked to data on voters lists for the Republican or the Democratic Party and those from Facebook and other social networks. The resulting profile is incredibly detailed and precise to permit precisely targeted advertising, including political messages. Cambridge Analytica became famous after supporting a campaign to promote Brexit and later that year was hired by Donald Trump. Among its clients are Eurosceptic political forces in Italy or the National Front in France.

The crisis of the media and the emergence of alternative media
The fourth factor which led us to the current crisis (although, of course, the list is much longer) is the massive change in the way people receive information. Hierarchical model – we (media professionals) create the content, and you (the public) consume it - is increasingly being challenged and replaced by online media. According to the survey by the Pew Research Center, 44% of Americans access the news through Facebook. Facebook thus became the de-facto media with a market share of 44 per cent. According to GLOBSEC Trends opinion poll data, 26% of Czechs, 17% of Slovaks and 16% of Hungarians use so-called alternative media as their primary source of information.

Content of what everybody sees on his Facebook is different and consists of complex algorithms that support our existing opinions (based on past preferences) to display content that is consistent with them. The result is the so-called "filter bubbles" that enclosed us in a virtual bubble into which penetrate only messages, comments, statuses that are largely consistent with how we perceive the world. In practice, this leads to the situation that we are less exposed to different ideas if we do not deliberately seek them. At the same time, discussions in cyberspace degenerated into personal attacks where online lynch squads are mobilised to attack their ideological opponents.

If we add the decline of the traditional media, which are struggling to survive and the boom in so-called fake news content based on lies and misrepresentation of reality, the outcome is the polarization of society never seen in modern history. In the world of social media, where people like and share the headlines and do not read long texts, where emotional video wins over an evidence-based analysis, it is the populists and extremists who thrive. They seized all the opportunities of this new reality and used social media and fake news to make their case for a rearrangement of the society according to their perverted ideas.

Light at the end of the tunnel?
All these factors are also causing the counteraction - people who were previously apathetic are starting to realize what is at stake, create online communities of active citizens, committees to save the Democracy ( KOD in Poland ) and progressive movements of young people. The Russian propaganda and the threat of domestic extremists have awakened the sleeping politicians. At the same time, IT companies are starting to realize their power, position and responsibility they have and slowly fix the holes in their platforms that are being exploited by the enemies of democracy.

The question is who will win this race - forces of progressive change or those who seek to destroy the existing order. It is the role and responsibility of each of us, in our neighbourhood, on our Facebook walls, within our own capacities to contribute to a change that would not lead us to totalitarianism, injustice and conflict.

(Photo: VOA)


Former Senior Advisor, Democracy & Resilience



Former Senior Advisor, Democracy & Resilience