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Book Review- Democracy Hacked: Political Turmoil and Information Warfare in the Digital Age

Much has been written in recent years about social media’s capacity to influence contemporary politics and democratic processes. Martin Moore’s Democracy Hacked: Political Turmoil and Information Warfare in the Digital Ageexplores what kind of influence social media wields, how it has evolved and where it might lead. The insights are fascinating and the conclusions make for bleak reading to anyone who values Western liberal democracy as we currently know it.

The book is broken into three overarching themes: hackers, systems failure, and alternative futures. Each section has a few chapters breaking the theme down into sub components. 

Hackers. This section is a lesson in the history of the internet and Information Operations stretching back to the height of the Cold War. Chapters addressing this theme speak to the role of individuals, plutocrats and states in influencing and subverting the public political discourse for their own ends. 

The content is as diverse as the genesis of internet trolls on platforms such as 4Chan; the rise of alt-right media like Breitbart (and its plutocratic backers); and the Russian model of Information Operations and foreign influence. 

On this last point, the author provides a detailed history of Soviet misinformation campaigns, tracing their lineage through to the Russian state’s contemporary efforts. He highlights the ways in which social media removes many of the roadblocks that stymied earlier Soviet efforts. Central to this history is the personal story of Vladimir Putin and his formative years spent working in the Soviet (and later Russian) intelligence community.

Systems Failure. Here Moore takes an in-depth look at the rise of the social media and internet platforms, devoting separate chapters to Facebook, Google and Twitter. The author traces the origins of each of these platforms and focuses on the evolution of their business models, in particular how they monetised their operations by selling advertising. 

Of note is the emphasis given to the global reach of these platforms which necessitates an ability to sell ad-space in multiple currencies unburdened by geography. The effects of this are mapped to recent political events such as the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the 2016 BREXIT referendum where foreign influence through legally purchased social media ad-space was an issue. 

Concurrent to this, the author also tracks the decline of established media outlets and dedicated journalism (particularly local news outlets) against the rise of social media. The effects of this on the public political discourse paints a grim picture of the perils of the 24/7 news cycle. This is shown in stark detail in the chapter discussing Twitter.

Alternative Futures.The final section focuses on the what the digitisation and democratisation of news and information means for democracy itself. The chapters specifically focus on what is termed ‘platform democracies,’ ‘surveillance democracies,’ and ‘democracy re-hacked.’

Platform democracy follows on from the previous section and extrapolates a potential future that is dominated by omnipresent social media and tech companies who leverage network effects and data analytics to keep consumers bound to their platform. This is gradually moving into fields as diverse as health care and education. 

As these platforms continue to grow into new sectors, they accumulate ever more power over the population through their ability to manipulate citizen’s behaviours and purchasing decisions (executed through algorithmic filtering of what people see based on prior behaviour). It is implied that the more devoted to free market economics a country is, the more likely its future will be one of platform democracy.

‘Surveillance democracies’ are ultimately quite Orwellian in nature, and see states respond to the growth of tech platforms by establishing state owned alternatives and forcing citizens onto them in ever more integrated ways. 

Several examples are given but they all resemble some form social credit system where it becomes increasingly difficult to access basic public services without being on the system. Once on the system, the state can constantly monitor people’s behaviour. This makes it increasingly difficult for political dissent to organise and manifest itself without the state’s prior knowledge; leaving political protest dependent upon the state’s permission. 

‘Democracy re-hacked’ discusses ways that democracies might leverage the best of digital technologies while preserving the rights and freedoms inherent in the current system. Ultimately though, it lacks any real solutions.

While Moore takes a broad lens to digital political influence, he cites research that 28 nations have embarked on digital manipulation campaigns, and identifies the U.S. led social media platforms as the key terrain on which these narrative battles play out. Overall this book is deeply interesting and should be read by anyone curious about political affairs or national security.

About the Author: Chris Bulow is an Australian Army officer who holds a Master of Project Management and Bachelor of Engineering.