The University of Cambridge research into what our social media footprints reveal about us caused great anxiety when Cambridge Analytica commercialised its social profiling tool and claimed it could be used to influence elections.
You can judge for yourself how accurate its profiling is – people wishing to have their social horoscope read are still invited to upload their personal information to the University of Cambridge Apply Magic Sauce tool. If Zhenhua’s analysis is as comically off as the Cambridge tool results I have seen, they might find it helpful to hear that I’m an Aquarian.
I don’t mean to belittle the concerns of people who find themselves on the Zhenhua dossier. It is always unnerving to discover you are being watched. It is also legitimate to question the motivation of those compiling the dossier.
But if the Chinese Communist Party thought it needed Zhenhua to spread fake news and sow social discord and extremism in target countries, it missed more than my Instagram of yesterday’s breakfast; it missed what a fine and thorough job Western countries have been doing of polarising themselves.
Anne Applebaum and Matt Taibbi are two journalist-authors who have recently published books on political polarisation. Taibbi’s 2018 book Hate Inc and Appelbaum’s recently published Twilight of Democracy chart a fragmenting public sphere which they see leading to the disintegration of liberal democratic norms.
For Taibbi, polarisation is quite simply a sales tool supporting a new media model. Applebaum believes polarisation serves a more strategic purpose in supporting political power consolidation that could ultimately lead to authoritarianism. They can both be right.
Taibbi argues that the political media has been refining a model of addictive outrage based on insights from sporting competitions, including the carefully crafted and scripted World Wrestling Entertainment juggernaut. Like WWE, once the cameras switch off, pundits and politicians often have no beef with one another – it’s all a show.
That’s heartening in some ways, but the success of the media format depends on concealing that from the public. Nuance doesn’t make for shareable Twitter soundbites. Already engaged in busy lives, many people don’t want the added mental load of navigating uncertainty.
Taibbi traces the rise of media presenting competing world views which create, cater to, and reinforce the world view of partisans. Thanks to the variety and choice available – and the algorithms of social media – partisans need never be troubled by a perspective from the other side.
Any time you care to drop in on social media, you can see how each side is policed by intellectual labradors who attack those they perceive as apostates from their own ideology more ferociously than they engage with their ideological opposites. The crime of being moderate or even centrist on an issue leads to accusations of collusion with the other side.
Applebaum borrows the sarcastic term “clercs” for these labradors. The term comes from French essayist Julien Benda, who observed the promotion of left and right authoritarianism across Europe in 1927 by a sort of clergy of extremist ideas.
These clercs were the writers, journalists and essayists who had morphed into political entrepreneurs and propagandists, and who “would goad whole civilisations into acts of violence”. Six years later Hitler came to power, and 10 years later Stalin’s Great Terror testified to the effectiveness of the clerc-collaborator.
The Zhenhua dossier points to the intentions of the Chinese government, but Western societies don’t need them to turn upon themselves. If we want to protect ourselves against these interfering forces, the best place to start is at home.