Hard Truths About Digital Power

Written by Lisa Hrabluk

Best-selling author. Award-winning journalist. Purpose-led entrepreneur. Find me hanging out where culture, people and ideas collide.

February 25, 2023

This week I brought a knife to a gunfight.

Sean Connery’s beat cop Jimmy Malone from The Untouchables was echoing in my head this week as I read through my newsfeed.

In the United States, court filings in Dominion Voting Systems’ $1.6-billion defamation lawsuit revealed Fox News hosts were saying privately what the rest of us were saying publicly: that Donald Trump and his supporters’ claims about the 2020 election were stupid and dangerous. However, despite their misgivings, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham continued to push ‘the big lie’ storyline on their shows.

In Canada, Justice Paul Rouleau concluded after a 10-month public inquiry, that it was appropriate for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to invoke the Emergencies Act to end last February’s 24-day Freedom Convoy protests in Ottawa, citing a failure of policing, federalism and the spread of disinformation.

In Great Britain, the BBC purchased Vice Media’s documentary ‘The Dangerous Rise of Andrew Tate’ to stream this week and broadcast on its youth-focused channel BBC Three on Feb. 21. The documentary gives voice to the women allegedly abused by the former kickboxer turned misogynist champion.

In Israel, we learned of Team Jorge, a group of disinformation contractors-for-hire who claim to have successfully sabotaged 27 presidential elections and an unknown number of corporate disputes over the past two decades from an industrial park on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. It took a consortium of 100 journalists from 30 media outlets to track down the story during a six-month investigation into global misinformation campaigns.

While all that was breaking out in the world, I was busy working in mine, which this week included a lot of Zoom calls, emails and cloud-based editing, all in service to planning facilitated engagement sessions to address complex challenges. This week included conversations about rural housing, Indigenous reconciliation, climate justice, values-based supply chains, and gender equity.

Different issues, yet all share the same root problem: a feeling of powerlessness in the face of massive waves of change.

From clients and colleagues, I hear the same set of worries: we are moving too slowly, we face too many barriers, we are under-resourced, and we fear we are running out of time.

Wielding knives at a gunfight.

The forces working against us don’t have that problem.

They’ve got a successful formula and they are sticking with it: pull together a combination of experienced programmers, subject matter experts and charismatic personalities to work together to destabilize relationships and manipulate the public. They do this by firing off a cannon of targeted investments, focused content campaigns, and intelligence gathering, all in service to building a global network of fans who quickly amplify and redistribute their messages.

Yep, that’s right, your content marketing strategy looks a lot like Steve Bannon’s, minus the fake accounts and hacking.

Why are the purveyors of misinformation so much better at this than us?

Because they are playing a different game that values a far different outcome.

Where we seek fairness, they seek power.

More specifically, they seek hard power, a form of power that seeks to coerce others through economic and military control.

For centuries hard power was the sole purview of political states because they were the only organizations capable of raising the financial capital required to maintain the economic and military force needed to exercise and defend that type of power.

By the late 20th century, large corporations began to flex their hard power muscles by negotiating better tax conditions and looser regulations with jurisdictions in exchange for creating jobs and building manufacturing plants.

Now, two decades into the 21st century we are confronting what could best be described as the most significant hard power shift in history.

Digital networks haven’t just handed power to the people; it’s handed us access to hard power.

What was once controlled by a few powerful entities – political states and economic corporations – is now in our hands to command and control.

How shall we step into our new power position?

Right now, the forces that want to destabilize democracy and control the global economy are the ones commanding a world of attention.

Forces that want power for power’s sake.

The hard truth is they value hard power, which means if we are going to succeed, we need to value it too and to do that we must cede our natural inclination to control the agenda in exchange for gaining access to the collective power of the wider community. That’s how you get, hold and scale power in the knowledge age.

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