Future of Globalization

Digital Fascism Rising?

Can we still stop a world of technological totalitarianism?

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  • Intrusive data collection practices make a new, digital fascism – via the data-driven steering of masses of humans – a real possibility.
  • The issue is whether democracy, such as we know it, can survive Big Data and Artificial Intelligence.
  • Today’s secret services and Big Data companies possess much more data about us than were needed to run totalitarian states in the past.
  • We humans have been sweet talked collectively to the point that we don’t even realize the new, digitally empowered kind of totalitarianism.
  • In the past, conditions for fascism were usually just found in select countries. In the digital era, fascism has reached global dimensions.

Any claim that we humans are (already) contending with a new form of – this time digital – fascism will immediately be discredited as overblown.

No wonder: There are very powerful business forces who each make tens of billions of dollars a year by singing the sweet song of how our existence as individuals, as well as democracy in general, is enhanced by the conveniences of Big Data and Artificial Intelligence.

However, the real issue is whether democracy, such as we know it, can survive Big Data and Artificial Intelligence. We have long entered a world rife with new kinds of behavioral manipulation.

Whether we like to admit it or not, today’s secret services and Big Data companies possess much more data about us than were needed to run totalitarian states in the past. It is unlikely that such power will not be misused at some point in time.

Features of digital societies

Any doubter about my core claim – that we are running into conditions of a new, digital kind of fascism – should consider the following list of features of many modern digital societies:

• mass surveillance,
• unethical experiments with humans,
• social engineering,
• forced conformity (“Gleichschaltung”),
• propaganda and censorship,
• “benevolent” dictatorship,
• (predictive) policing,
• different valuation of people,
• relativity of human rights,
• and, it seems, possibly even euthanasia for the expected times of crisis in our unsustainable world.

That list exhibits all the core aims that fascists in the past were dreaming of.

We humans have been sweet talked collectively to the point that we don’t even realize this new, digitally empowered kind of totalitarianism.

Saving democracy

Even worse, in the past, the conditions for fascism were usually just found in select countries. In the digital era, the new fascism has reached global dimensions.

If we want to save democracy, freedom and human dignity, an emergency operation is inevitable. Often heard arguments to justify digital fascism – such as the need to fight terrorism, cyber threats and climate change – have been skilfully used to undermine our privacy, our rights and democracy itself.

The emergence of mass surveillance after 9/11, enabled by the Patriot Act in the United States and other laws, has led to the incremental erosion of liberties and human rights. Since the Snowden revelations, we know that there is mass surveillance of billions of people around the world.

But most people still have no idea how pervasive it is, and how it may influence their lives in the future. Billions of dollars have been spent on mass surveillance tools of secret services to hack our computers, smartphones, smart TVs and smart cars.

The estimated amount of data collected about us every day ranges from millions of numbers to Gigabytes of data. As a result, we have ended up with the digital tools for a data-driven, AI-based so-called “benevolent” dictatorship, where big businesses and the state determine “what is best for us.”

Citizens are being targeted, their data collected and consolidated. This is used to create a near complete profile of each person, their nature, habits and preferences. Each profile can contain thousands of specifiers.

Manipulating behavior

As if that weren’t bad enough in itself, these digital doubles can be used to make thousands of computer experiments with our virtual self to find out how our thinking and behavior can be manipulated.

More specifically, our personal data is being applied to customize information such that it will influence our attention, emotions, opinions, decisions and behaviours – often subconsciously – by a technique called big nudging or neuro-marketing.

This ranges from steering our consumption behaviour to manipulating voting behaviour in elections.

In the wrong hands, the misuse of surveillance-based personal data will have catastrophic consequences for us as individuals and for society as a whole. In an explicitly or implicitly totalitarian state, this kind of information could be used to predict and identify those people who don’t agree with certain government policies and sanction them even before they can exercise their democratic rights.

The British secret service, for example, runs a program called Karma Police, which shows where our societies are heading. This Citizen Score, which is currently also tested in China, may be used to run an entirely new kind of autocratic society, or even police state.

According to plans, the Citizen Score would determine the level of access to facilities, products and services. We would be scored or penalized according to our behaviours. Reading critical news or having the “wrong” kinds of social ties, for example, would get you minus points.

Countering digital totalitarianism

To counter this danger of a digital totalitarian state, we must at a minimum ensure:

• a democratic framework of use for powerful cyberinfrastructures,
• scientific use by interdisciplinary teams, considering multiple perspectives,
• ethical use considering human rights and human dignity,
• transparency,
• cyber-security (by decentralization etc.),
• informational self-determination (e.g., with a Personal Data Store),

The door is wide open for global fascism to take hold, unless we take action now. The longer we wait, the harder it will be to fight back, as more – and more intrusive – data are collected every single day, and powerful algorithms are used to predict and – increasingly control – our behavior in its totality.

That is why all of us are well advised to pay attention to well-founded concerns regarding the rise of a technological totalitarianism that – this time – is unfolding on a global scale since the data collectors really know no boundaries.

Concerning global events

Events around the world are quite concerning. The recent German election has just seen the unprecedented rise of a right-wing party, in part promoted by voter targeting and social bots.

Countries such as Spain, Hungary, Poland and Turkey are clearly on the path to more authoritarianism.

Political developments in France, the UK, United States, Japan, Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands deserve attention, too. Some of their politicians have started to question human rights. Other people have even openly sympathized with Hitler.

Politics – that means, all of us – must act. It cannot be ignored anymore that civilization, as we built it after World War II, is at stake. Our societies are in a danger of derailing.

It is important to take time to think about the future we really want to live in and to leave old kinds of thinking behind. We need a real public discourse and a positive vision of our future.

Moreover, the old powers must allow change to happen. It’s time to re-invent society, but fascism should be left behind once and for all!

Recommended related reading: We Need Peace Rooms, Not War Rooms

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About Dirk Helbing

Dirk Helbing is Professor of Computational Social Science at the Department of Humanities, Social and Political Sciences and affiliate of the Computer Science Department at ETH Zurich.

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