by Tom Ascott
Without social media, the alt-right would not exist, Donald Trump would not be president, and the UK would not be leaving the European Union. As the American Sociological Association put it ‘the rise of the alt-right would not be possible without the infrastructure built by the tech industry’. Social media is becoming the most important way for political campaigns to reach out to potential voters, and online misinformation campaigns use coordinated inauthentic activity to subtly manipulate citizens. It is the fastest and can also be the cheapest way of targeting an audience, much more so than door to door campaigning or flyering.
The alt-right isn’t simply more popular online than the left. In fact, there are far more left-wing political blogs, and blog readers often skew left-wing. Right-wingers tend to engage less with political discourse online and, when they do, they are more likely to be bi-partisan. Despite that, the alt-right is far more successful online when they do engage.
The Success of Alt-Right Activity
Right-wing political groups have had a significant impact on international affairs through their online activity. By successfully using data harvesting, micro-targeting and meme warfare, they have sent out tailored, political messages to individuals or small groups, which are never seen by others. The messages leverage the data they have mined to be as effective as possible. It may appear unusual that there has been no left-wing equivalent of the Cambridge Analytica scandal – and it could be quite a while before we see the emergence of such – but it will be crucial to understand how the left might channel such activities.
The closest we have seen to a left-wing version of Cambridge Analytica is Project Narwhal, the database that the Obama team built in 2012. Project Narwhal started by slowly and manually joining discrete databases, each with a few data points on a single voter, to build their profile. Years later those profiles had grown, and the project had 4,000– 5,000 data points on each American voter. Looking back at the ways the media fawned over Obama’s data strategy, it is not a surprise that the right took the ball and ran with it.
It is an anomaly that the alt-right thrives online. Identification can be risky for the alt-right. Those who are seen and identified attending rallies can lose their jobs or face other repercussions. Extreme-right opinions that are clearly racist, sexist or xenophobic can lead to users being blocked on mainstream platforms, so these users begin to ‘join smaller, more focused platforms’. Alt-right figures Alex Jones and Milo Yiannopoulos were banned from Facebook because they ‘promote or engage in violence and hate’. Laura Loomer, an alt-right activist, was banned from Twitter for tweeting at Ilhan Omar that Islam is a religion where “homosexuals are oppressed… women are abused and… forced to wear the hijab.” As a result, the alt-right has become more digitally agile, using tools to exploit larger platforms and reshare their views. Platforms like Gab have a much higher rate of hate speech than Twitter. Discord has also been used to radicalise and ‘red pill’ users towards extreme-rightist beliefs.
The tools of the alt-right represent tools for disruption. It is only by disrupting the status-quo that Breitbart founder Steve Bannon believes that the alt-right can break into the political spectrum. These tools can be used to persuade or dissuade; Pro-Publica found that adds targeting liberals often urged them to vote for candidates or parties that did not exist.
The Left’s Slow Response
One reason why left-wing political parties have not used similar tools is exactly that conflation of such activities with the alt-right. Though there is plenty of dissent in left-wing politics over how centered or left-leaning it should continue to be, groups from the left simply do not identify as alt-left. Cambridge Analytica has offered the alt-right a chance to disrupt the right-wing, but there is much less desire to disrupt on the left. Instead of a true alt-left there is only ‘an anti-Alt-Right‘. Bannon believes that Cambridge Analytica, and the chaos it created, was a tool that the right-wing needed in order to survive. The ability to harvest data and use it to target specific individuals with political messaging appears to be a content-neutral process.
Any organisation could have done it, but the first to do so was Cambridge Analytica. It was an act of ‘evil genius’ to find individuals who weren’t motivated enough to engage in politics, target them with personalised messages and convert them to their specific brand of right-wing thinking, or to urge left-wing voters to disengage. It is hard to assess how prevalent online misinformation campaigns are. Groups will use neutral-sounding names, mask the political nature of their ads, or identify as partisan. Their only aim, however, is to confuse or dissuade voters.
Consequences for Social Media Platforms
The first-comer has it the easiest and copying the process will be extremely difficult. Following the scandal, the infrastructure for data harvesting has started to be regulated. The UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) was granted new powers in the Data Protection Act 2018 and the European Union introduced its General Data Protection Regulation in response to the scandal. Facebook has been forced to refine its policies on data sharing and, as a result, new data from the platform is less available now than previously.
After the scandal broke, the platform started to audit data that apps could collect and began blocking apps that continued to take users’ data. As Mark Zuckerberg’s continued appearances in front of Congress show, if Facebook will not regulate itself, then perhaps it will be broken up. Where anti-trust laws may seek to punish companies for harming the consumer, it will be hard to penalise Facebook. Users continue to opt-in, voluntarily hand over data, and enjoy time browsing their personalised, if pyrrhic, feeds.
Tom Ascott is the Digital Communications Manager at the Royal United Services Institute. You can find more of his articles here.