Only in recent months, with the news of the Russian hacks and trolls, have Americans begun to wonder whether the platforms they previously assumed to have facilitated free inquiry and communication are being used to manipulate them. The fact that Google, Facebook, and Twitter were successfully hijacked by Russian trolls and bots (fake accounts disguised as genuine users) to distribute disinformation intended to affect the US presidential election has finally raised questions in the public mind about whether these companies might compromise national security.
The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds
by Michael Lewis
We are living in an age in which the behavioral sciences have become inescapable. The findings of social psychology and behavioral economics are being employed to determine the news we read, the products we buy, the cultural and intellectual spheres we inhabit, and the human networks, online and in real life, of which we are a part. Aspects of human societies that were formerly guided by habit and tradition, or spontaneity and whim, are now increasingly the intended or unintended consequences of decisions made on the basis of scientific theories of the human mind and human well-being.
The Great Hack is an important film, one that people need to see, but its account of the Cambridge Analytica operation scarcely touches the shady world of the billionaire oligarchs who are the real financial and political forces behind the scenes. Perhaps it’s too much to expect a Netflix documentary to accomplish what the special counsel, with all the resources of federal prosecutors and FBI investigators at his disposal, also failed to account for. Although Robert Mueller succeeded in indicting Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, and others, he framed his investigation in such a way that the most significant aspects of what happened in 2016 were judged to be classified counterintelligence threats, about which the public may never learn.
The Snowden phenomenon was far larger than the man himself, larger even than the documents he leaked. It showed us the first glimmerings of an emerging ideological realignment—a convergence, not for the first time, of the far left and the far right, and of libertarianism with authoritarianism. It was also a powerful intervention in information wars we didn’t yet realize we were engaged in, but which we now need to understand. To this day, Snowden speaks often, and uses his platform. So whether we trust him matters. And it certainly matters if we conclude that he is a well-intentioned whistleblower who has shown bad judgment or has allowed himself to become an unwitting pawn of the Russians.
Once Cambridge Analytica and SCL had won contracts with the State Department and were pitching to the Pentagon, the whistleblower Christopher Wylie became alarmed that this illegally-obtained data had ended up at the heart of government, along with the contractors who might abuse it. This apparently bizarre intersection of research on topics like love and kindness with defense and intelligence interests is not, in fact, particularly unusual. It is typical of the kind of dual-use research that has shaped the field of social psychology in the US since World War II.
If Errol Morris had simply recounted the facts, even in a way that emphasized the real suffering of the victims, that would have shocked nobody. They are the stuff of every spy movie, a genre that has successfully turned state surveillance and assassinations into seductive excitement. But unlike that genre, Wormwood—a word for a bitter poison, used by Hamlet to describe bitter truths—doesn’t produce dramatic tension by exploiting our desire to be in on the secret. It exposes us to the baser side of that desire: the narcissism, mean-spiritedness, and contempt that are so often the psychological realities of secrecy.