If the world we live in today is already being described as “post-truth,” how will it be described in 10 or 20 years? It’s hard to imagine today’s major social media companies like Facebook and Twitter continuing their roles as our digital linchpins. Given their recent failures to protect democratic information flows, they risk becoming “legacy” social media companies as quickly as they became “new” media.
“Post-post truth” doesn’t exactly have a ring to it, but it’s the most literal moniker for our future communication ecosystem. On the one hand, the digital sphere could become an enforced environment: a realm of constant identity verification, with real-time social bot eradication and digital disinformation police. On the other, it may look like a post-modern spectacle where ground truths are always questioned and confusion reigns supreme. The reality will likely combine features from both, with control oscillating between vindicators and vigilantes.
Any changes to technology or media will have serious consequences for culture and consumers. If the future world is even less grounded in fact than it currently is—more bound up in partisan mythology and a digital marketplace that rewards lies with profit—how will society be affected?
Computational propaganda will be the fake news of the future.
The answer will not be decided democratically, but by computational propagandists. Computational propaganda is the attempt to manipulate public opinion through automation and algorithmic systems. On a basic level, nefarious actors use sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to artificially spread political junk. A lot of this is pure spam, intended to gum-up online conversations among activists or political opposition. During the recent Mexican election, for instance, political bots in the form of automated fake profiles were used to impair communication between activists. Other tactics are targeted and more sophisticated, using coordinated human users alongside automated social media accounts to promote particular ideas to various social groups. We most recently saw these techniques during the Russian and Iranian campaigns built to influence the 2018 US midterms.
Rather than grassroots politics, the future is made…