Manipulation or Control? What ‘Big Brothers’ Can Really Do


Can new communication technologies help establish total control over population in the absence of a theory of social and political behavior?

There has been a lot of talk lately about the possibility of using new digital technologies, Big Data, and artificial intelligence to enslave and manipulate humanity. Recently, Beijing’s presumable attempts to establish full digital control over the Chinese segment of humanity hit headlines. It is obvious that in today’s trans-communicational world, this cannot be true for a single local fragment of the planet, therefore the threat cannot be confined to an individual region, unless it is attempted to build a digital “fortress” in order to separate countries and regions from one another.

Of course, the digital challenge does exist and the potential consequences of rapid development of digital and communication technologies can be serious and very dangerous. As I wrote previously, modern communication increases transparency and makes humans more exposed. Each move of a human or of a social/political/economic institution made in the new communication environment becomes almost impossible to erase. In a sense, a Resistance fighter in a Nazi-occupied country lived in a safer environment than today’s blogger. Posting leaflets with anti-Nazi proclamations could be done in secret. Today, everything and everyone can be tracked, if necessary.

At the same time, one should not run to extremes and fear the omnipotent digital web. Only a couple of months ago, amazing information technologies, believed to have ensured Donald Trump’s victory, were being discussed. There were references to the mysterious Cambridge Analytics, some murky Singaporeans, the use of Big Data, the possibility to use your profile on Facebook or Twitter to establish your personal traits, to rank Internet users and manipulate people with specially constructed messages. Hillary Clinton was said to have been seriously damaged by targeted messages about her controversial statements on racial issues, delivered to the Afro-American audiences.

All those activities must have had certain effect. But, as the debate was going on, a question emerged: if the new technologies have these manipulative capabilities, why cannot we see how they work on the regular market? The real state of things with the influence of, for example, chocolate or cars, on consumers does not mean the existence of any advanced technology that is based on the analysis of big data and its use in managing consumer behavior. Of course, clever and creative advertising people are able to influence and achieve greater success in promoting products and brands, but for now, there are no traces of breakthroughs or revolutions. Although, the prospects are great. In addition, people like to be deceived and are very prone to give up the freedom and independence in exchange for protection and subordination.

In general, the discussion about the wonders of Big Data has faded. Moreover, the topic of mysterious and all-powerful hackers has mostly captured the minds of leading politicians, people who are usually elderly and not very educated in this. Therefore, talk of mysterious villains hacking everything around them were planted in fertile mental and political soil, fertilized back in the days of Ian Fleming and his ubiquitous James Bond.

So it is no surprise that here again, Bid Data and its terrible might has rushed over the confused minds of contemporaries. However, this time not in the form of a threat of manipulation, but in the form of a frightening ghost of total control. While Cambridge Analytica and some Singaporeans allegedly stealthily manipulated everyone, the Chinese are now being accused of attempting to control everything with the help of the so-called “social credit” or “social trust” system. The idea is very simple: all traces of a person left by them, one way or another, will be collected, generalized and systematized in the digital environment. Such tracks can include purchases, use of all sorts of services, from sports to sex, travel logs, messages on social networks, visited sites, reviews and denunciations from others and so on. Based on generalization, people will be ranked and then rewarded or punished in one way or another. In general, total control over people, and over institutions.

The fact is that all authorities are inclined to acquire exhaustive knowledge and complete control over citizens. This is not news.

The news, and quite unexpected, would be success of these attempts, based on digital technologies. This success requires a lot, and, above all, the ability to really determine something following the footsteps in the digital environment. So far, the real successes are reduced either to the offer of advertising, associated with the user’s search history, or the establishment of traditional police control over those who, for example, actively communicate with suspected terrorists or their supporters. In the first case, someone who was looking for information about bicycles is offered to buy them, in the second case, a curious member of a fringe group is to get acquainted with the police, perhaps closer than he would like to.

The reason for my skepticism about the applicability of all the wonders of digitization to build effective total control or create a stable system of manipulation is that no really acceptable new model of social stratification has been created yet, at least, according to my knowledge. I want to make a reservation once again: you can create a system of total control and suppression. There are a lot of examples: the Soviet system, Nazi Germany, the Pol Pot/Ieng Sary regime in Cambodia, North Korea, etc., etc. To some extent, all these systems have been successful in organizing the control and management over citizens. But the instruments of this control were quite traditional: propaganda, secret police, denunciations... And all these systems relied on quite a definite system of social stratification: occupation, ethnicity, educational level, and so on. New control involves much more subtle ways of citizens’ distinguishing and classifying.

But so far, there are problems with this. For example, there is a lot of talk about a relatively new stratification system based on five personality traits – OCEAN (CANOE) – Openness to experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism. This model did not appear yesterday and, in theory, the ability to measure these personal characteristics can allow to predict and even influence behavior. The question, however, is whether this is true and practically applicable. Even if we admit that it is, it is completely unclear whether these parameters can be calculated based on an analysis of the totality of personal data, collected primarily in the digital environment.

Roughly speaking, subtle and sophisticated control/manipulation requires an equally subtle and sophisticated theory, a complex and multidimensional matrix, where all this will fit. For example, ancient people knew a lot about the starry sky, named the constellations, saw the connection between movements of the stars and the change of seasons. But before the appearance of Newtonian mechanics and many other theories, no deep understanding of the structure of the universe, no astronautics were possible. Similarly, the myriad terabytes of information about a person’s behavior without a new theory of this behavior can either be meaningless, or simply serve as a screen for fairly traditional manipulation and suppression.

In general, it, of course, makes sense to be afraid of total lack of freedom, but digital technologies can play only an auxiliary role in bringing this about.

In conclusion, I would like to say, that, of course, there are threats. One of the most significant ones is the problem of people’s behavior in a world of flood of information. Never before has so much information been inflicted on a person, never before have people consumed and produced as much information as today. It seems that there will be even more information tomorrow. And we see the consequences of this: people are massively entangled into the flow of information, they are hardly able to separate the truth from lies, they hardly catch connections between the phenomena. Of course, this problem is not new: people are used to living in a fog of dubious facts, absurd theories, silly illusions, bias and fear of novelty, undermining the habitual picture of the world. The thing is that today, all of this has been multiplied because of the extraordinary ease of communication. This led to destruction of the information hierarchy and the crushing of most authorities. Ironically, the area of general knowledge – due to an incredible increase in the number of information sources – has only decreased.

Until recently, professional media played a very important role in creating and maintaining a relatively reliable and understandable picture of the world. Today, their role is much more modest. And this is largely to the media’s fault. At the same time, the need for authoritative information institutions is great. I have written repeatedly that a kind of journalistic renaissance is needed, of course, if it is possible now.

The problem of manipulation and strengthening of totalitarian tendencies is very closely connected with weakening of hierarchies, with the fall of institutions, since there is nothing more amenable for manipulation and accessible control than the crowd. Information chaos, which is flooding the world, turns all the humanity into such a crowd. And it is not necessary to explain how dangerous a crowd can be.