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Review: 'Reality Game' offers warnings about today's internet-enabled political propaganda

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The Reality Game

"The Reality Game: How the Next Wave of Technology Will Break the Truth," by Samuel Wooley. PublicAffairs/Provided

THE REALITY GAME: How the Next Wave of Technology Will Break the Truth. By Samuel Woolley. PublicAffairs. 272 pages. $28.

Virtual and "extended" reality media, human-mimicking "bots," "deep fake" video and "fake news," all poison-tipped arrows in the quiver of propagandists.

Are we more vulnerable than ever?

Companies such as Facebook, Google and Twitter have proven especially at risk for political manipulation. Easily exploited, they have until recently given little thought to potential repercussions.

This has flung Pandora's Box wide open, with an engraved invitation to skulduggery. And according to Samuel Woolley, author of "The Reality Game," new technological breakthroughs could make matters worse. Far worse.

"We are talking about not only some of the most profitable companies on Earth but companies that control a massive proportion of the world's data and news," says Woolley, a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and co-founder of the Computational Propaganda Project at Oxford University.

The problem of digital deception, as he refers to it, is enormous in scale, complex and opaque, extending beyond corporations and governments.

While he applauds the positive potential of new technological developments, the author also warns that the internet "has become as much a tool to control people as a means to connect and empower them. The line between legitimate political marketing by campaigns and digital propaganda remains almost nonexistent."

Too many examples of political propaganda provide social media companies with enormous revenue, so they have been dismissive of corrective measures or reluctant to take responsibility for how their platforms are used. Woolley sees encouraging changes, but much urgently remains to be done.

He focuses on what legislative, technical and personal safeguards can be applied to ensure that new media technologies will be utilized to gird democracy, not undermine it. The solutions cover a lot of ground, but his blueprint for change is compelling, one that some companies are beginning to embrace.

One of the complicating factors is that many of the problems we will confront in the future will be caused by technologies that look like solutions to us today.

"At the end of the day, we cannot just continue to fight technology with more technology," says Woolley, who favors baking democratic values and human rights into new technologies.

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The solutions must come offline as well, for at its worst, online propaganda can lead to offline violence.

Woolley quotes those who fret that the underlying sociological and psychological factors that lead people to believe in various forms of computational propaganda are of even more concern than the technology itself.

"If we think of computational propaganda and other misuses of social media and technology simply as warfare, then we will fail to address the underlying and complex issues. It is a combination of social, economic and political problems that spurs manipulative uses in the first place."

Take one manifestation that has been a ploy of despots and the authoritarian mindset for a very long time: what we now call "fake news."

"The term 'fake news' was quickly co-opted by the powers that be. The very people who produced the junk content known by this moniker reclaimed the phrase as a means of undermining legitimate journalism, as a crutch to attack inconvenient scientific findings, or as a means to refute factual stories about their own misdeeds. The term 'fake news' itself became a tool for spreading fake news."

As Woolley points out, President Trump and his advocates own no monopoly on bogus news accounts, intentional or otherwise.

Woolley rejects the term in any case, preferring "misinformation" to suggest the accidental spread of false content and "disinformation" to refer to the purposeful spread.

The willingness of some citizens to prefer conspiracy theories over the results of investigative journalism or scientific inquiry makes them susceptible to buying into campaigns that are against their own interests and the broader interests of democracy, the author writes.

"All of us have a stake in making sure that future generations don't live in a world where reality and fiction, truth and lies, are indistinguishable."

Despite the book's overheated subtitle, "How the Next Wave of Technology Will Break the Truth," the actual tone of Woolley's book is sober, thoughtful and hopeful. It is also admirably clear, if rather dry at times. General readers may find themselves treading water in its deep well of technospeak, or weary of Woolley's tendency towards repetition.

But don't let your eyes glaze over. The issues are alarming. And Woolley's arguments are too important to dismiss.

Reviewer Bill Thompson is a writer an editor based in Charleston.

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