In 2018, whistleblower Christopher Wylie released a cache of documents to The Guardian detailing the dirty work of data-mining and political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica and its role, alongside Facebook, in manipulating the 2016 elections. It revealed Analytica’s alleged unauthorized possession of personal data from 87 million Facebook user accounts which were used to deploy targeted political advertising for the Trump campaign. Cambridge Analytica liquidated itself in May 2019. In the aftermath, we learned the frightening capacity with which faceless shape-shifters on social media can manipulate and mobilize public opinion, as well as the role that the internet has in shaping modern public discourse.
In an interview with the podcast “Think Again” last October, Wylie explains why entrusting social media with our public discourse actually renders it useless. He invokes the old notion of public discourse in the town square. In this image, there is a colonial-American town square with a soapbox where “it’s John Adam’s turn to speak, or whatever.” People, prepared to listen, crowd together, discuss and subsequently vote.
There are important things happening here. There are people, many of whom know each other, standing together hearing the same things, aware that other people are hearing the same things. Within that audience, you have opposing candidates, experts and journalists that can write about what’s going on and critical citizens that weigh in on the relative truth of what is being said. Everyone is aware of what is going on. In this simplified model, the words of John Stuart Mill remain pure: “The clearer perception and livelier impression of truth” is “produced by its collision with error.” This is a liberal political dialogue.
Wylie goes further to show that the internet has made possible the phenomenon of the ‘phantom candidate’ in the town square. The audience believes what it and everyone else are hearing is coming from the person on the soapbox. In truth, what they hear is a phantom presence that drifts throughout the crowd, whispering in people’s ears. The phantom tells each person a different set of personalized facts and has the ability to present itself as anything it wants: a newspaper, a friend, a scientist. The rapture of self-confirmation keeps people in the square longer, and the phantom specter waxes in power by trapping more and more people in the town square.
The phantom specter is the algorithm that Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and all other social platforms of modern public discourse use to curate your increasingly addicting content. It bears the semblance of real discourse, ever more persuasive in the idea that you are connected and engaged. All the while, it becomes ever more isolating, uniform, compartmentalized and anxiously reluctant to difference.
I’m usually convinced that everyone on my Facebook or Twitter feed is hilariously and accurately responding to what is really going on in the world. There is nothing within my sphere of influence that infringes on the idea that I am entirely and utterly correct in my belief system. But sometimes the simulation cracks.
Recently I let my curiosity click its way into a corner of the web that I’m not used to being in. I ended up scrolling down a Facebook profile littered with headlines like “Ben Shapiro destroys libtard with facts and logic” or “What the Left won’t tell you about climate change” or “Why Trump is the best president since Lincoln.” There were some less abhorrent things too, like inspirational quotes about love and family, perseverance and loyalty to one’s country. At one point, I found myself fully immersed in the performance of a thirty-something, evangelical priest with the cleanest fade, Yeezys and a hoodie jumping on what looked like a glass stage in an auditorium that more appropriately belonged in the Battlestar Galactica than in a church. I sat there with all of this content for some time.
I can tell you safely that I’m not convinced. It is not at all my intention to appease a political faction I believe holds paranoid, racist ideologies, nor is it my goal to make the moral relativism argument. But the algorithmic apparatus that informs the “other side” of the internet is fed and manufactured by the same apparatus that informs “us.” Social media thrives off of the death of liberal discourse and allows certain fanaticisms to find a home. It has allowed right-wing billionaires and think tanks to act as the phantom specter and mass-produce an entire industry of alternative truth.
It contains its own scholarship, theology, media, culture, thought-leadership, universities, publications and celebrities, all with their own self-perpetuating internal logic. I, therefore, submit that these people are not uninformed. Some of them are probably more informed than you are. The town square is forever altered, and the reality of multiple truth-industries is too profitable for Big Tech to reverse. The internet has opened up a Pandora’s box inside which we may have to choose: death to the technology or death to us all.