Bombarded: How to Fight Back Against the Online Assault on Democracy, by Cyrus Krohn, with Tom Farmer, takes on an ambitious topic. The authors’ goal is to demonstrate how digital media threatens to destroy American democracy. In particular, they focus on the problem of misinformation and disinformation that floods online news platforms and social media sites—distorting public opinion, and the very notion of objective reality itself.
Krohn has unique credentials to write this book. He was one of the first hires at Slate.com, a site he helped build into one of the first viable online news sites. He then went to work as a digital media advisor to a number of high-profile political campaigns. He is an insider in a business that most of us experience, in alarmed ignorance, from the outside.
Krohn leads off with a bit of dystopian fiction, which is a clever and engaging way to get the reader to think about where today’s toxic infosphere is headed. Imagine the year 2032, he asks, where deepfake-style holograms of the American president greet you at the door and ask how you liked your most recent latte at Starbucks. Like another book I reviewed, Social Engineering, Bombarded wants you to be very concerned about how much personal data the tech industry is (legally and illegally) harvesting about you and putting to work changing your mind on various issues.
The book then goes into what seems like a digression into Krohn’s career history, starting with his days working for Vice President Dan Quayle and helping to launch Slate. It’s not a digression, however, as Krohn leads the reader right up to the present moment of digital chaos. Understanding the origins of today’s online firehoses of lies is helpful for grasping the depth of the information crisis of American politics and the broader society.
The issue Krohn wants the reader to understand is that there is a line out there, a line between aggressive microtargeting of voters with data analytics and using those analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) techniques to confuse people and agitate them in toxic ways. That line has been crossed, in his view, and any sentient observer of American politics in the last five years should concur.
Krohn’s exhibit A in showcasing the insane frenzy of disinformation is the public’s response to the COVID 19 pandemic. This episode should put to rest any notion that online platforms can do what they originally claimed they were capable of: unifying the American people to form communities that could improve the health of our democracy. The appalling opposite is true, and hundreds of thousands of lives ended as a result of the deliberate, cynical politicization of the pandemic using digital media.
Books are always like insects in amber, reflecting the moment they came out. This book went to press before the 2020 election. A sequel is needed to cover the lethal madness of January 6 and related disinformation campaigns.
One of Krohn’s main concerns is that voters, confronted with a daily deluge of half-truths, will simply give up and disengage from the political process. This is already happening for younger voters, who are not up for the job, per Mark Zuckerberg’s advice, that Facebook users decide for themselves what is true and what is a lie on the platform. Is anyone up for such a job? Turned off, trusting no one, they opt out of voting, which will lead to the effective death of US as a self-governing republic.
The book takes aim at the naïve and irresponsible abdication of authority present on major platforms. Coupled with lax or nonexistent regulation of data collection, opaque algorithms and the collapse of the news business, it’s a pretty grim situation. The country’s polity is heading for a bad place, if we’re not already there.
One issue that’s implicit in the book is the notion of the “Attention Economy,” a term coined by the economist Herbert Simon. Per Simon and others who have studied the issue, the explosion in information has put a premium on people’s attention. Attention translates into economic and political power. And, the pressures of the attention economy lead to unintended negative consequences.
If attention were paid to the right issues, this book would not be number 954,000 on Amazon. Heather Cox Richardson would have the top-rated nightly news show and political campaigns would not traffic in twenty second sound bites and lying Facebook memes. Instead, the attention economy rewards people who are talented at hogging attention for all the wrong reasons. See Trump, Donald.
This leads to one of the paradoxes of the book. There are solutions, as Krohn suggests. There could be better regulation of data collection and online platforms, for example. The news industry might find a way to reinvent itself to be profitable. However, the forces that have been unleashed by the Internet stand in the way. In an era when there is so little trust in government, and elections go to the biggest and most well-funded liars, reforming digital media is probably a fool’s errand.
Krohn is not a pessimist, however. He believes these problems can be solved, or at least addressed. I am not so sanguine about it, though I do share his view that the younger generation may make peace with the new infosphere in ways that us older folks can’t imagine. For example, tuning out all the lies might be a good thing. Perhaps a general understanding that online news is not to be trusted will create opportunities for outlets that can demonstrate some commitment to the truth.
My only issue with this book is its relentless drive to be evenhanded. I understand why the authors have tried so hard not to take a particular side. The issue affects the entire society. It’s a non-partisan issue. However, if we can be real for a second, it’s not quite fair to say that the COVID pandemic disinformation problem just happened because of a corrupt infosphere. One side promulgated outlandish, lethal lies while the other tried in vain to prop up the truth. Any serious solution to this problem has to take aim at the biggest violators of the public trust, as much as its looks at reforming the digital ecosystem.
To get a copy of Bombarded, visit https://amzn.to/3K8mxp6