Flagging a problem: The results of populism and xenophobia have infected the political realm in Brazil, which elected Jair Bolsonaro as president. Picture: REUTERS
Flagging a problem: The results of populism and xenophobia have infected the political realm in Brazil, which elected Jair Bolsonaro as president. Picture: REUTERS

Never before in human history has the ability to manipulate people been as easy and widespread as it is now. In the past, the more homogeneous communities were, the more vulnerable people were to propagandistic rhetoric and messaging.

So it was reasonable to expect that in a globalised era characterised by diversity and heterogeneity, that the propaganda tactics of old would become irrelevant. However, the internet created global homogenous communities with lives online — people’s profiles, preferences and biases, which are latent in all utterances and every click — has rendered them more vulnerable to manipulation than ever before.

Politics in the era of the internet and social media is distinguished by reaching people in their virtual lives — typically characterised by more free expression — and has yielded the kind of “big data” that political campaign strategists previously could not envisage.

Big data, in the era of super-enhanced analytics (also enabled by vast computing power) offers up a magical smorgasbord of insights into people that can be used to manipulate them into making decisions based on pre-existing preferences and beliefs by legitimising them and rendering them normative.

Even moderate organisations such as the World Economic Forum have adopted the position that the virtual realm now poses an existential threat to democracy.

Picture: 123RF/IGOR STEVANOVIC
Picture: 123RF/IGOR STEVANOVIC

Some say that this is hyperbolic and an exaggeration; that the blame for Brexit, the election of US President Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro cannot be blamed on social media and the internet alone.

Yet, while it is true that most people hold prejudices and fears that are dangerous and potentially divisive, it takes a lot to bring this out in the way this is currently happening around the world. But outlier sentiments — whether based on fear or prejudice — can quickly move to the centre in this new “post-truth” era.

What has changed is that people were previously targeted as broad demographic “bands” (such as white males between the ages of 25 and 35), but nowadays the capability of targeting individuals and small groups with messages that are specifically designed for them has been weaponised in the virtual realm — there is a new terrain of information and psychological warfare.

The results of “country first” sloganeering, populism and xenophobia has infected the political realm rapidly, rotting it to the core. These are dangerous times.

 There is  a push-back, however, as the “slow-to-learn” liberal centre and the left begin to grasp that the terrain of political contestation has changed.

In SA, three organisations have partnered to foster a capability to counter fake news, misinformation, incendiary rhetoric and online intimidation.

Big data, in the era of super-enhanced analytics (also enabled by vast computing power) offers up a magical smorgasbord of insights into people

The recently established Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change, incubated by the Allan Gray Centre for Values-Based Leadership at the Graduate School of Business has partnered with Citizen Dialogue Centre and the Citizen Research Centre to protect the 2019 elections from foreign and domestic online interference.

These relatively new organisations are responding to the damage that companies  such as Bell-Pottinger and Cambridge Analytica rapidly wreaked over a short period.

There is no point in fighting in this arena with old tactics. The capabilities  required to provide significant countermeasures to the emergence of well-funded right-wing efforts that have pulled the rug from under the feet of centrists, moderate conservatives and the social democratic left have to be developed. These capabilities also need to be shared with similar groups across the world to safeguard local politics from manipulation.

The rate of change in technology, traditional media and social media is so fast that existing regulatory frameworks cannot keep up with it in the short to medium term.

The priority, for people concerned about ensuring that a healthy political sphere is encouraged and protected, is building real-world capabilities that can stand as a counter-offensive to the onslaught of devious and unprincipled populism  infecting politics around the world.

What is needed now is to build capabilities that can help ensure that evidence-based, fact-checked information and messaging dominates public discourse, rather than half-baked, outlier, crank-fuelled prejudices masquerading as political arguments with merit.

These new counter-offensive capabilities need to be waged by nonprofit organisations, as for-profit companies with such capabilities will inevitably have to sing for their masters, and will be ethically compromised when salaries are paid.

But these organisations also need to be effective and sustainable. If they are underfunded, spend most of their time shaking a begging bowl, and cannot attract the skills or afford the equipment and software needed, they will get nowhere.

History shows that politics driven by fear wreaks more damage than the mythical “protection” it offers citizens.

It is time for the public and private sectors to think about how they can contribute to shaping the political sphere, not in terms of a particular ideological disposition, but in constituting a healthy realm where intolerance is not fostered or tolerated; where people agree to debate and disagree while making an effort to hear each other; where politicians don’t feel the need to appeal to the basest instincts and fears in desperate bids to secure support at the polls; and where transparency, accountability and elevating truth above all else is paramount.

• Peter is an associate professor at the Graduate School of Business, UCT and director at the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change.