Now that the fascists singularly failed to carry France despite a last-minute attempt at one of those terrifying, democracy-destroying “hacker” jobs against Macron it’s time to call out the hacker and algorithm stories for the bullshit they are.
It was clear from the outset that the Macron-leak contained many false documents. What I didn’t find out until today was that many (all?) of those false documents were planted by the Macron campaign itself (scroll down to last paragraphs) in an apparent counter-phishing attempt. That proves the hackers aren’t terribly clever (and didn’t read French).
Let’s look at what those terrifying hackers actually achieved:
Clinton. The Clinton email revelations likely did have some influence on the US election outcome, but it is important to realise that it merely reinforced an already-existing story and was powerfully supported by the US press and the FBI director. In the absence of these occurrences, would the hackers have had the same success? I’m not sure they would have.
Fillon. The Fillon corruption revelations clearly did influence the French elections, and, as far as I know, the data was new and genuine.
Point is: if we assume the hackers are in Putin’s pay and advance his political agenda, they did a thoroughly lousy job. Fillon is a typical example of a “moderate right-wing” politician who can be made to coopt fascism, and who was genuinely pro-Russian (or, at least, anti-sanctions). The revelations destroyed his chance to win the presidency, and with Le Pen never a serious contender Fillon was exactly what Russia should have hoped for.
So despite their apparent success the hackers failed in France.
And this, as far as I can see, is the total roster of successes for the hackers. One success thanks to powerful support from within US politics, and one apparent success that was a serious strategic error. To me, that doesn’t seem like evidence of a serious threat to democracy.
There are murky rumours surrounding the Brexit vote, but nothing has been conclusively proven, and I tend to look at the polls themselves as the main culprits. Though the vote was expected to be close, poll after poll after poll showed the Remain camp squeaking in a narrow victory. Thus, if you’re a moderate Remain supporter but are angry at the political caste, you could easily be led to believe that you can cast a protest vote with impunity because Remain is going to win anyway. Except that too many people made this decision, and the tables were turned and Brexit won.
To me, this is a MUCH more convincing explanation than shady conspiracy theories featuring billionaires, tech geniuses, and algorithms — especially when techies and moderate right-wing voters have a vested interest in such stories.
Why do we believe it?
This leads to the question why we so desperately want to believe these stories of high-tech voter manipulation. As far as I can see there are two reasons.
First, it strokes our ego as technologists.
The tech sector is on the defense nowadays, with Facebook and Twitter refusing to do anything about fake news (except for “algorithms” and flags that aren’t going to solve anything — hire human editors, guys!), and with especially Uber under fire for extorting its employees who aren’t really employees. It is becoming clear that technology is not the instrument for salvation we’ve believed it to be for the past twenty years.
It may be that Silicon Valley’s dominance is coming to an end, and even if it isn’t the Valley needs to convince the rest of the world it’s worth keeping around. It needs to restore its magical appeal.
In that light, dark mutterings about hackers and genius algorithms that can throw entire elections are a gift from heaven. They prove tech’s continuing vital role in the world, and prove technology can do anything it sets its mind to. And we as techies have every reason in the world to reinforce this narrative, since it enhances our position as grand imperial wizards of the most important force in the universe.
Bull. Shit. But it strokes our egos and keeps our wallets healthy, so no wonder we fall for it.
Also, the evil geniuses with their algorithms are supposed work with Big Data, and if there’s anything that’s overrated right now in the tech scene it’s Big Data. But hey, these people can throw entire elections, so you’d better invest in that Big Data company, right? So the Big Data people have a vested interest in hyping these stories.
Second, it serves to absolve voters from responsibility.
Remember: fascism can only win if it is supported by the moderate right wing. This happened in the US back in November, and it will likely happen in the UK next month. But if you can say that you’re a soulless slave of genius algorithms, hey, then the responsibility is not yours. (Also, if you’re a soulless slave, should you have the vote?)
Bull. Shit. If you vote for a fascist party it’s your responsibility, and no one else’s.
The hacks are unimportant
So let’s pierce the bullshit and clearly state that these vaunted “hackers” are a relatively unimportant force that can only strengthen genuine trends that already exist in the political realm. The rest is all smoke and mirrors aimed at reinforcing the societal status of technologists, and of protecting the sensivities of “moderate” right-wing voters.
Also, these categories overlap in the upper reaches of Silicon Valley. I mean, libertarianism is also a part of fascism, though only for the upper classes who have achieved success and can therefore do anything they like. Triumph of the Will and all that. (The commoners should serve and obey, and combat the immigrants. Libertarianism is not for them; only for us.)
So there. Smoke and mirrors, nothing more. The current fascist crisis is not caused by tech geniuses, hackers, and algorithms, but by moderate right-wing voters in the US and the UK, where the outdated and silly political system forces them to vote either extreme right or moderate left. And they pick extreme right of their own free will.
Keep calm and perform historical analysis.
We techies should stop hyping and supporting bullshit articles about dangerous hackers and genius algorithms. Also, we should consider the possibility that the modern tech gospel has some fascist components at its heart — especially the myth of the genius innovator.