Last week, David Patrikarakos, a British journalist, TV host and author of several books, visited Tallinn. His reputation has grown with his book „War in 140 Characters: How Social Media Is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century.” Propastop used the opportunity to have a short interview with the Social Media expert.
What brings you to Tallinn?
I am here for the Head Read Festival. I am very happy to be presenting at this festival with many great people and I am grateful to the organizers for giving me this opportunity. It is a fantastic experience; I was honoured, for example to ride in the same bus from the airport to the city with Booker winner Julian Barnes.
I have been an Estonia fan for a while and I am always happy to come here whenever possible. Your ex-president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, is doing a lot of much needed work in presenting the different information risks we are dealing with to the West. Although Estonia is a small country, it has become one of the opinion leaders in the cyber sector. Due to its location between the East and the West, Estonia is geopolitically a very interesting and important country. Moreover, of course I like the Old Town of Tallinn. Therefore, when I was invited to attend this festival, I immediately seized the opportunity.
Head Read is a literary festival, and are you talking about your book here?
I am in a chat format with Sven Sakkov, Director of the International Center for Defence Studies and certainly one of the topics to be discussed will be about my book. I hope that this book can be of a little help to Estonia in understanding and repelling various information attacks. Of course, all Western countries have to deal with information attacks, but Estonia is literally at the forefront of this struggle.
Your book, „War in 140 Characters: How Social Media Is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century” was first published two years ago and mainly analyzes information conflicts in 2014. Now it is 2019 – what has changed in the last five years?
Things have gotten much worse. Information conflicts are heavily influenced by technology and technology is rapidly evolving. We always tend to be a step behind in this area. Today we have to deal with „deep fake“ news, video manipulations and other things that were still unavailable to the majority five years ago due to technological barriers.
It tends to be that dwellings do not get proper fire prevention until a tragic accident occurs and someone perishes in a fire. I fear the same thing with information conflicts – we do not take them seriously enough until a tragic accident happens.
The Ukrainian conflict was, in a sense, a laboratory that tested all of the same ways of influencing information that we saw in the 2016 USA elections. I have to be very careful here with my words. I cannot say that the Russians influenced the results of the USA Presidential election, but I can say that, according to Mark Zuckerberg, the ads and messages created by the Russians reached 126 million Facebook users. Did these messages affect all 126 million people? Certainly not, but if they only affected a fraction of the people, it is still a big number.
They also tried it with the French, but the French were ready and it did not work for them.
If the existing methods are no longer working, new ones have to be introduced. „Deep fake“ is introduced and the result is achieved. By the time we learn to be prepared for it, the damage is already done and will move on to the next phase. We are playing catch up here; we are usually one step behind the attacker. Technological development is therefore one of the most important things that affects information conflicts.
Another important issue is our democratic values that define us, but also limit our behaviour. However, the behaviour of the bad guys is not limited by democratic norms. For example, if someone wanted to start a troll farm in New York or London, for example, it would take no more than a month for the press to expose it and shut it down as well as the founders would be held accountable. In Russia, however, troll farms continue to function unhindered even after being exposed. The press does not bother Putin.
We have learned that the information environment we live in has changed forever and is fragile and more vulnerable than ever before. Technologies that shape the current information environment are still relatively new. Web 2.0 – Internet with content created by users is perhaps only two years old. If we compare it to the film industry, for example – we are still in the age of silent movies, which lasted for almost thirty years. We are just at the beginning; we do not have rules or skills to deal with new technologies.
Does this mean that today’s Social Media giants should be more regulated?
Yes. We need laws, not regulations. I myself think it is time for us to break these giants into smaller units. Many think that they are too powerful for this, but we have done it before with large corporations. Too much power has accumulated into the hands of these internet giants. I am not just talking about money or economic power here. These large corporations control our access to information and essentially shape our worldview. Such power has never been concentrated in one place in history before.
What kind of laws are we talking about – should Social Media platforms be held responsible for publishing user-generated content?
Facebook is essentially a publisher. They do not want to admit this, of course, because then they are accountable for the content they publish and would have to take responsibility for it. Today, there is a situation where, on one hand, we have an environment where virtually any uncontrolled information can be published and on the other hand, it draws money and resources from environments where controlled and true information appears – from newspapers and traditional media. The public space is doubly damaged.
In 2017, Facebook announced in light of scandals that it will introduce factual control. In my public presentations, I usually ask if someone from the audience has noticed that Social Media has become more accurate in the last two years. So far, no one has raised their hands. Self-regulation is not working.
We are dealing with a business, whose product is us – the users. This means that it is in the interest of Social Media executives to get as many users as possible, because at the end of the day, hate speakers also buy running shoes and T-shirts and it is worthwhile to advertise to them as well. It is good to show things to users, that they like because then they will come back.
Since it is a business and self-regulation is not working, laws need to be created to motivate them to control the content they publish. Freedom of speech is extremely important, but for example, hate speech and death threats must not have the right of impunity. Law must also prohibit the dissemination of such content in Social Media and the platform must have sole responsibility for controlling it. They must be responsible for it with their wallets because this is the language they understand.
Separate countries have different laws and different perceptions of things that are allowed and forbidden. However, Social Media crosses national borders and may, if necessary, register its legal entity in the country with the most beneficial laws. How do we enact laws for such super international organizations?
We need an agreement similar to the UN Charter to regulate the Internet. Otherwise, there is a risk of Balkanization of the Internet where, for example, America has a slightly different internet than Europe. This has already been seen with the entry into force of the new EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The Internet is important enough to be regulated by a supranational agreement similar to the UN Charter; because it is an environment that shapes our future growing generation’s understanding of the world. If you and I remember the time before the Internet, where information about the world was obtained from books and encyclopedias, then for the newer generation the most important channel for generating any kind of information is the Internet.
Obtaining such a supranational agreement is of course very complicated – especially with countries like China or Russia. At least in democratic western countries, we should be able to agree on common principles – in the extreme, we would balkanize the internet in this way.
You mentioned countries like China and Russia. They are approaching the problem in a different way. China has built a large Chinese firewall and is very thorough in controlling what online content is available to its citizens. Russia is also taking its first steps in introducing such controls.
China is China –but Russia has so far been very smart in this area. They do not censor the Internet, but they use it very skillfully. Putin is a prime example of what a modern world dictator looks like. He does not organize mass exterminations or deport tens and hundreds of thousands of inhabitants to prisons or concentration camps. Anyone that is still doing that looks like al-Assad and no one wants to look like al-Assad. Nobody wants to be an international pariah.
Russia has so far behaved very cleverly – making good use of Internet resources to influence both its inhabitants and its international audience. Indeed, Russia has now taken the first steps towards censoring and controlling the Internet, it shows that Russia is becoming nervous. This is a worrying development, because countries do stupid things not when they are strong but when they feel weak and threatened and Russia probably feels so right now.
Should and how much should nations consciously and actively participate in a Social media presence as well as the dissemination of their narratives?
Countries should definitely be involved in promoting their positions. It also has to deal with fighting hostile narratives in countries. Because Social Media is a place, where dialogue can take place and information from Social Media will spread to ordinary media. For example, Twitter’s user base is small compared to Facebook but it has an important target group – decision makers, diplomats, politicians, journalists etc. If there is something to say there, it will reach many influential people and through them everyone else. Trump is a good example. His voters may not be on Twitter, but they read newspapers and watch television – whose editors and reporters are Twitter followers and mediate the President’s tweets.
Modern nations cannot ignore Social Media because if it leaves its messages out of the narrative space, others will fill it with messages about you. Many countries’ diplomats have understood this perfectly and used the toolbox of Social Media.
How does the Estonian nation appear in Social Media?
Recently, unfortunately I have found some problems. For example, when members of a political party in the government openly display a white power sign in parliament.
Has this strongly influenced Estonia’s image?
Yes, it was very shocking. Estonia’s soft power is very strong and influential for such a small country. We are accustomed to Estonia being a supporter of the European Union and NATO, a pro-democratic nation that supports human rights and a place where they fight actively and successfully against disinformation. For example, former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves is a successful ambassador of this narrative internationally. In my opinion, this successful brand has now become somewhat tarnished.
In your book, you tell stories about groups and people who have influenced Social Media and electronic information such as Eliot Higgins, leader of Bellingcat or Farah Baker, a teenager from the Gaza strip using Social Media in her fight. Are there any similar stories about the Baltic nations that are not in the book?
Yes, of course. There are the famous Lithuanian elves or other groups that fight misinformation. The Baltic nations and Estonia in particular have been at the forefront of this struggle. They have been talking about information threats and dealing with these issues for years before it was taken seriously elsewhere. Ukraine was what opened many eyes. In Great Britain, for example many did not take the threat from Russia seriously – until the Skripal incident. Now we have started to seriously listen to what Estonia has been talking about for at least ten years.
What are the most active Social Media information conflicts in the world today?
They are everywhere now. Venezuela is certainly one of the most active but also there are the latest developments in China. The Syrian issue has been going on for years, as well as the alternative right (alt-right). Of course, Brexit – it is massive, what happens on Brexit topics on Social Media.
Social Media reflects what is happening in the world. Many conflicts in the world are also reflected in Social Media.
In your book, you say that, in the world, there is a greater likelihood of a major transnational war then since the Second World War. Why so pessimistic, after the Second World War, a number of institutions were set up to prevent the outbreak of such a major war.
Yes, we are living in a post-World War II world order, whose goal is to end major world wars. That is why NATO, the European Union, the United Nations etc. were formed. I do not want to say a war is coming, I am just saying the probability is greater than ever. I am not worried that the USA will declare war on Russia or China or vice versa. I am worried about the possibility that countries may get into a war if they are accidentally in circumstances that forces escalation down a path of no return. When countries deal with inciting hatred in the information space, such as the Russia-Ukraine conflict or the conflict between China and Taiwan, it may incite the people of the countries to push their leaders essentially into a corner, forcing them to act whether the want to or not.
This is new technology, which no one can really control, making the situation very volatile and fragile. I personally believe and hope that there will not be a major war but we certainly are closer to it than in the 90s, 80s, 70s or 60s.
What changes will the rapid development of technology and, for example artificial intelligence bring about in the information conflict?
New technologies are becoming more and more accessible and on one hand, it significantly reduces the barriers for all kinds of criminals and terrorists. Previously when it was a complicated procedure to hide the movement of large funds or launder money, it is now easier than ever with the advent of Bitcoin.
I do not know much about hacking myself but if I had enough interest and money, I know I could buy an application from a dark website that would allow even myself to take and clear out the credit card of some unsuspecting victim.
The easier it becomes to commit such criminal and terrorist acts and the more difficult it is to prevent them, the greater the desire in democratic societies that someone will put an end to this mess and put things in order. I call such a ruler Digitalis Rex – a modern enlightened techno-autocrat. We can possibly expect the emergence of such a leader.
What can a normal Social Media user do to protect themselves from misinformation and manipulation?
Be alert. Use reliable news sources. Do not spread information that seems to be of dubious value, not to overly trust everything that comes from Social Media. If something goes viral, it does not mean that it is true information. Often, on the contrary, it is highly likely that it has been processed to make it more appealing and understandable to people.
We need to introduce compulsory Social Media literacy in school education so that people learn to defend themselves already at an early age.
Have you familiarized yourself with the Propastop blog? What are your impressions and are there any suggestions on how to do it even better?
It is great. Interesting content, meaningful analysis. I am a fan. It is such initiatives that help to make the information space cleaner and more reliable for all of us and it is a very necessary job.
Are you writing another book any time soon?
Indeed, I have an idea to write about the birth of the 21st century, although I guess it depends on whether anyone is interested in the idea and then whether it will become a reality.
Photos from the HeadRead Literature Festival