It is not always a ‘trending’ phenomena that a top corporate honcho, at the peak of global success in a multinational company calling the shots all around amidst piles of money and raw talent, would choose to turn into a seeker of truth. And that too when the company is the shining star and dream-come-true of the post-modern galaxy of post-recession capitalism: Google.
Jacob Helberg did precisely that.
Helberg is a senior adviser at the Stanford University Center on Geopolitics and Technology and an adjunct fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He is the co-chair of the Brookings Institution China Strategy Initiative. He studied international affairs at The George Washington University and received his master of science in cyber security risk and strategy from New York University.
From 2016 to 2020, Helberg led Google’s global internal product policy efforts to ‘combat disinformation and foreign interference’. In these four crucial years, he suddenly found himself trapped in a brand new Cold War – driven by technology – in what seemed a diabolical, full-fledged war between democracy and autocracy. Or, between the United States of America, and Russia and China. In the process, several cobwebs moved out of their camouflage across both ends of the spectrum, and it all seemed so terribly messy. In the final instance, no one seemed absolutely holy or clean.
In the apparent sense, the war revolves around software – news and information, breaking news, fake news, free for all social media platforms, which is indeed, not so free, trolls, truth, post-truth, normal and post-normal – which has both condemned and liberated the so-called global citizen of the world with its tablets, smart phones, computers and high-tech gadgets, and the compulsive dependence on them each moment of their alienated, allegedly modern lives.
In the unexpressed sense, the war works through revolving doors, back-door diplomacy, hackers and whiz kids, those who are trying to control and usurp the newest of the tech, both hardware and software, around the bitter reality of the virtual realm. This includes cellular phones, satellites, fiber-optic cables, and 5G networks, etc.
And this moves from the soliloquy of the Silicon Valley, into the surreal suspense stored inside the fortresses of the virtual world in China and Russia, especially China. This is what Helberg calls the ‘Gray War’, unseen, invisible, camouflaged. This is what he feels is the Second Cold War, the massive mafia-like operation which seeks to control the fate of humanity and individual minds and feelings, and, thereby, shape the balance of power in this ‘brave new world’.
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In other words, you will be forced to shift your gaze, as John Berger said in that classical BBC series, ‘The Ways of Seeing’. And with the shift in your gaze, often without you even noticing it, your political and apolitical unconscious too will change. Indeed, as George Orwell would write in another classical, 1984, the entire galaxy of lies will turn into truth, or seem to appear like truth, and jingoistic injustice would therefore seem to have become compassion and justice.
Reported by Glen Greenwald in The Guardian of London, the first explosive disclosures by Edward Snowden, now forcibly exiled in Moscow, exemplified at once to the world how the systemic surveillance system of the new cyberspace of new capitalism controls this subconscious to the extent that you are yourself not aware of how your habits and tastes, sense and sensibilities, choices and desires, are shaped.
And where was the original epicenter of this organized apparatus of seduction? America.
In its dark irony, how far can Snowden go in terms of his critical commentary on Russia, in the context of the damned war in Ukraine, which Putin seems to have already lost? Not very far, surely, considering the totalitarian clampdown on the entire Russian media, with most of them singing odes to the greatness of the Tsar, while the dissenters are being hounded out.
In Russia, for instance, amidst a mindless war with thousands dead across the border, surveys point out that almost half of the population believe that the war is cool, that it boosts national pride, that Neo-Nazis have taken over Kiev, and that there were no massacres in Bucha. It’s like the Germans who made themselves ‘make-believe’ that there was no Holocaust happening in Hitler’s Germany and occupied Europe, and that the gas chambers and concentration camps were a figment of mythical imagination. This is exactly what mainland China, with absolutely no freedom, including a total control on internet, thinks about the slave camps of enslaved Uighurs in Xinjiang.
In his book, path-breaking, but loaded in favour of America, Helberg, who comes from a family of Holocaust victims and survivors, opens a can of worms, and academics and journalists, including whistleblowers, can read it eyes wide open or wide shut.
In the book, The Wires of War: Technology and the Global Struggle for Power, (Published by Avid Reader Press along with Simon and Schuster, 2021), Helberg writes: “This isn’t a hot war – at least not yet. As I write this in early 2021, this Gray War has not resulted in large, direct, military confrontations between the United States and Russia or China. But make no mistake, it’s a war nevertheless, one that will shape this century and beyond. The skirmishes of the coming years will be fought to defend network security, protect intellectual property, gain influence over information, and control critical infrastructure. The spoils of this war are power over every meaningful aspect of our society: poor economy, our infrastructure, our ability to compete and innovate, our personal privacy, our culture, and subtle daily decisions we make based on information we interact with online. And, in recent years, unfortunately, the world’s democracies have been losing ground.”
The manner in which Russia influenced and interfered in the US presidential polls in 2016, covertly backing Donald Trump, is an example. Or, the fake news that the Pope was supporting Trump. So much so, Julian Assange and Wikileaks were cited as playing the dubious Russian game in leaking emails of Hillary Clinton during a crucial time in the heat of the elections, which, finally, went against her.
So how does one combat disinformation? Among the ‘Dos’, Helberg writes:
- Check the source. Is it truly independent? Does it have a track record of accuracy? Or, is it an anonymous Twitter account started a weak earlier?
- Check the sources’ source. Sometime even friends or verified accounts credulously share disinformation. Take the time to see where they got their information before sharing it yourself.
- Cross-check sources. Filter out fact from fiction.
- Read and share authoritative sources. There is a reason the New York Times and the BBC are a lot more accurate than a blog with inconsistent grammar. Serious news organisations invest tremendous time and resources into getting the story right, and they can be held accountable when they fall short.
- Crucially, check your own biases. Human beings seek out information that confirms what they already believe. Disinformation plays on that tendency.
Among the ‘Don’ts’, he points out:
- Don’t click on the first link you see. Thanks to techniques like firehosing, the top-ranked search result isn’t necessarily from the most credible source.
- Don’t share without reading. Headlines can be sensationalist or misleading.
- Don’t trust something just because you see it repeated everywhere. Trolls and bots intentionally try to amplify disinformation as much as possible. ‘Trending’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘truthful’.
- Don’t believe your own eyes. Even images and video can be doctored.
- When you retweeet and amplify adversaries, you are actually doing their work for them.