‘Like’ and ‘Share’ are the new guns and tanks

We need to step up our efforts, at least in the European Union where our voice can be influential so that real solutions can be found

At the start of World War Two, the Morse code was seen as an advanced communications system in the battlefield. By the end of the war, technology was already in place that could work through very complicated mathematical computations with the aim of camouflaging communication, rendering it accessible only to the intended recipient in battle.

That gruesome war, fought in the fields, the sea and the air, became increasingly reliant on fledgling computer warfare. If you had to fast-forward 50 years from then, war and power continued to be perceived in terms of securing, occupying and gaining territory. But things are changing. Power is taking a new form – and rather than a thirst for territory and imposition of authority, power is now taking shape in a completely new form that we’ve only just started to understand: mass online influence, fuelled by the affordances of big data.

Since time immemorial, influence has been synonymous with power. Courtiers were deemed powerful figures because their advice could influence the decision of the prince or king. But mass influence works differently – it is the ability of one entity or individual to influence a huge number of people. And it can be abused – to devastating effect.

We now live in the age of mass influence. I’m not talking about a celebrity influencer on Instagram trying to convince you to buy skin cream. Think of organisations being able to influence you through tacit messaging, camouflaged communication processes and sponsored posts that morph seemingly innocuously online – on your Facebook timeline, for instance. The American scholar Shoshana Zuboff positions Internet giants like Google and Facebook within a surveillance capitalism framework. This works by providing free services to billions of people, enabling the providers of those services to monitor the behaviour of those users in detail – often without their explicit consent – and then monetising such behaviour to those organisations prepared to pay for the data.

When the online influence process is weaponised, it can be as powerful in its ability to reach its aims as much as bombs, guns and tanks. The fact that we have not yet fully understood the mechanics and dynamics of what constitutes online influence and power makes it even more dangerous.

In many societies around us, including ours, we have left important elements such as critical thinking and digital literacy out of the priority list in our education system, and this has gone on for decades. Now this vulnerability is exposed, more than ever, by the prospect of mass influence on social media, especially the nefarious kind.

Social media organisations respond by assuring us that they are spending millions of dollars to better combat governments and political groups using their platforms to spread false and misleading information. Last week, Mark Zuckerberg said Facebook employed 35,000 people to review online content and implement security measures. Yet many doubt that the unilateral checks and balances in place by platforms are enough to diminish the risk of political weaponisation: large sums of money are still being invested to spread lies and fake news and destroy reputations. The emergence of technologies such as artificial intelligence might promise new ways of mitigating known risks: they may also make the situation worse. In the immediate future, the only option available to mitigate the significant risks is the regulation of social media platforms. And there simply is no appetite for this, especially beyond Europe.

We are no longer within the remit of one or two growth hackers going a bit off the chart – the process has been industrialised. Organisations with thousands of people are part of this whole process aimed at distorting facts and raising doubt when there should reasonably be none.

I am not exaggerating when I consider the online space to be the new theatre of influence and power, with the physical infrastructure of the battlefield replaced by algorithms and big data.

We need to step up our efforts, at least in the European Union where our voice can be influential, so that real solutions can be found. This may also mean limiting some online practices of influential Silicon Valley social media platforms. We need to take stock, and reflect on what is happening. In the last decade we’ve seen the reality that there are banks which are too big to fail. In this decade we are facing the reality of platforms too big to be left to their own devices.