The vulnerable cyborg. Arguments for humane digital technology, and how to tackle disinformation

This article by Defend Democracy‘s Executive Director Alice Stollmeyer was first published at Protego Press.

When I still was a student in social studies of science and technology, I loved reading and writing about new technologies shaping society and vice versa, about cyborgs blurring boundaries between ‘man and machine’, and about the sociology of things – like catflaps, or chocolate. Yet, what once seemed to be theoretical exercises has, over the past few years, turned frightfully real – impacting not only our work, but also our life, our society, and the liberal world order.

Big tech and big data are being abused by authoritarian state actors – and Russia is leading the way. The KGB first perfected the art of propaganda and disinformation on their own citizens, but now they are using weaponised information to try and undermine our democracies. Russia may not have succeeded in tampering with our voting infrastructure yet, but their information warfare is manipulating our minds, sowing division in our societies and very likely does swing elections. Putin is conducting a hybrid war against democratic countries, with a focus on his biggest enemy: the West.

Being online almost 24/7 due to my work as a digital advocacy strategist, I witnessed many of these hybrid attacks in real time. Be they targeting elections (the 2014 Hungarian election, the 2015 Polish election, the 2016 Bulgarian election, the 2016 US election, the 2017 French election – just to name a few), referenda (the 2016 Dutch referendum on an EU-Ukraine trade agreement, the 2016 British “Brexit” referendum on the EU, the 2016 Italian referendum on constitutional reform, the 2017 Catalan independence referendum), social issues (terrorist activities in Paris and Brussels in 2015 and 2016, refugees in Germany {e.g. the Lisa case, January 2016}, or racial divisions in the US), or their own physical attacks (the illegal annexation of Crimea, the downing of flight MH17, their chemical attacks in Syria and UK, their cyber attacks in e.g. Norway, Poland and Germany) – our thoughts and behaviours are being influenced by malign foreign actors and their domestic enablers.

As I wrote in November 2016, ‘We should be much more concerned about politics in general – and not just in the US. We are seeing a rise of politicians who play the populism card. Helped by hackers, disinformation campaigns, automated propaganda, and opaque algorithms that influence what we see and read on social media and on search engines, we have entered an era of post-fact, post-truth politics. Trust in science is at stake. Trust in public institutions is at stake. Democracy is at stake. We can’t let that happen.’

Make no mistake: Brexit, Trump, Russian information warfare, big tech, big data and dark money are all connected. More details about this increasingly global war on liberal democracy – enabled by dark money, big tech, big data and disinformation – are coming out almost daily, not least by stellar work from investigative journalists.

Waged by opaque algorithms, sophisticated hackers, marketing technologists, troll farms and bot armies, the ability for end users to detect and respond to these attacks is limited. Globally, we must realize that these vulnerabilities are 1) a feature, not a bug, of the current digital ecosystem and 2) not relegated to one country, continent, ethnicity, gender or age – we are all susceptible to the manipulation of our emotions, views and behaviour.

Let’s face an inconvenient truth: we have become cyborgs. Neither the ones fantasized about in movies, nor the ones in theories about science and technology, but real-life and constantly connected man-machines. Yet, rather than being a superhero or having enhanced capabilities, being a cyborg actually makes us vulnerable. We have become the perfect targets for modern day warfare, with easy access through the devices that are in everyone’s palms, eyes – and soon minds. As we are attacked with weaponised information on a daily basis, the ability to manipulate us grows with negative network effects. And unfortunately, we ain’t seen nothing yet.

“Are we doomed?” you may wonder by now. There still is hope. But it is imperative that we acknowledge what is at stake – our national security; the very functioning of our societies; our universal freedoms, dignity and rights; the world order – and act on it, now. The good news is: the EU is working on a plan to secure free and fair elections, with some best practices already in place, US groups are deep into discussions as well, and the G7 member states have committed to defending democracy. The bad news is: we need to do much more than protecting our elections. Not just because democracy is done every day, but because the problem is much more fundamental than that.

Acknowledging we are vulnerable cyborgs in a hybrid war in which everything is at stake, here are a few things that we can and should be doing:

  • Regulate existing digital platforms and co-design new techologies
  • Equip every citizen with digital skills and digital literacy.
  • Strengthen and support civil society and independent media.
  • Adapt electoral laws to the digital era.
  • Introduce a UN bill of digital human rights. We spend one third of our lives in an online world – we’d better make sure all our fundamental rights (including privacy and equality) are protected there too. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is only a tiny and imperfect start.
  • Create (EU? UN? NATO?) public alternatives to internet, browsers, platforms and devices, where transparency, accountability, privacy, security, rights, ethics, checks and balances replace profit- and “access to private data”-driven business models. No need to ban or censor commercial versions, just offer all citizens access to public alternatives.
  • Demand and enforce digital transparency and accountability from big tech and big data, including free access to data for academic researchers and independent watchdogs.
  • Develop and deploy a coherent and all-of-society approach to strengthen and defend democracy, to deter efforts to undermine it, and to retaliate if needed – but respecting the rules- and values based order. Ensure sufficient capability of defence, intelligence, and security services, both at national and international level, including the creation of an international Center for Cognitive Security.
  • Tackle dark money and corruption, both in the online and in the offline world.

These ideas are not original or comprehensive, and that’s part of the point. It’s going to take hard work – around the world, and constantly anticipating and adapting to new developments.

As vulnerable cyborgs, we must strengthen our human resilience and “soften” our nonhuman body parts. Only this way we can hope to ensure a shared reality and future for new generations of free and equal human beings. Or rather: cyborgs.