by Joe McNamee, Executive Director, European Digital Rights (EDRi)
Social Media: Time to face reality?
In a remarkably short period of time, our society went from hearing the phrase “social media” for the very first time to absorbing them into the fabric of our society. Faced with this revolution in our communications, our understanding of their business models and of their roles and responsibilities in our society is lagging years behind reality – creating multiple, diverse risks for basic principles of our democracy.
Social media are not one phenomenon. They raise issues for privacy, for freedom of expression, innovation, competition and, for all of these reasons, for democracy. At the moment, the political world seems content to respond to this set of massive challenges with populist, simplistic answers. This is short-sighted at best and reckless at worse.
Humans as commercial products
Facebook is a business whose revenue relies on the data that it collects about us. But if we have nothing to hide, we have nothing to fear, right? Well, not exactly. It also generates new data about us. Do you share a lot of characteristics with people who die old, die young, get depressed or get rich? You don’t know. Facebook does. Facebook has exploited its insights into users’ sexuality to sell advertising based on sexual preferences, until it was required to stop doing so by the Dutch privacy regulator under European Union rules. Similarly, Facebook developed technologies to identify and target vulnerable teenagers for advertising purposes, exploiting analysis of particular keywords and image recognition. It also ran a successful experiment on tens of thousands of unsuspecting users to work out if showing different contents on their feeds could make them feel depressed. It could.
Humans as political products
Advertising is not just restricted to commercial services. Facebook also sells influence to political parties. Researchers confirmed that Facebook can influence its users’ behaviour and increase the turnout in an election. The Conservative Party in the UK spent one million pounds a month on Facebook advertising, in the run-up to the 2015 general election. There are credible claims about the significant impact of Facebook data in the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump. Faced with that analysis, Facebook was fortunate when a story came out that workers claimed to have actively suppressed right-wing news from Facebook’s “trending” news section. However, it could also be the other way around next time. Who decides what content is deleted, demoted or promoted by privately owned, profit-driven online platforms?
The business model behind “fake news”
The influence of tracking-based data collection on news sites brings an additional challenge. News services have, for centuries, been based on a trusted relationship between them and their readers, with the purchase price and advertising as the core of their business model. Today, news outlets online are partly or fully funded by revenue generated by “clicks” – each time a page is loaded, data is sent to “surveillance companies”, including Facebook and Google, that track people as they wander around the web. That data is merged with other data to make assumptions about people. This is used to make advertising more targeted and therefore more expensive. From the perspective of the business model of the news outlet, the reader is no longer the customer that needs to be served, the customer is the surveillance company – the more clicks that are generated, the more money that can be collected. This shift has driven the rise of “clickbait”, sensationalist headlines shared on Facebook and elsewhere, to drive traffic and increase the number of clicks. It has also spurred the phenomenon of “fake news”, news articles containing misleading or deliberately false information, usually accompanied with sensationalist headlines.
The influence of this new surveillance-driven substitute for journalism on the most recent US presidential election has been extensively commented upon. The New York Times unravelled the story behind one of the most famous fake stories about “tens of thousands of fraudulent Clinton votes” being found in an Ohio warehouse. The person behind the story ruthlessly exploited prejudice and outrage, to generate a story that earned him 20 000 USD for twenty hours work, courtesy of the clicks he generated for the surveillance industry.
Can Facebook fix it, please?
Phenomena such as “fake news”, racial abuse or incitement to violence on social media, terrorist content, or copyright infringements, are at the heart of debates on what kind of interventions are needed on the internet. Politicians are faced with complex problems caused by jurisdictional issues, limited resources to investigate and prosecute offences, inconsistent laws (even within the EU), among other issues. Rather than undertaking the profound reflection on how to cope with these multi-layered problems caused inadvertently by billion-dollar companies, politicians have generally found it easier to give a populist, simplistic answer – let Facebook and Google fix it. Fake news? Facebook and Google should do more! Hate speech? Facebook and Google should do more! Copyright infringements? Facebook and Google should do more! Regardless of the problem, regardless of whether Facebook might make the problem worse, regardless of whether the superficial actions that Facebook takes might create impunity for actual crimes committed on the platform that have actual real victims, the answer remains the same. Of course, this approach requires a much more intrusive, regulatory function to be undertaken by Facebook – a company that already has vast, unaccountable power in our society. If Facebook’s algorithms can subvert the free press, democracy and our individual autonomy, just how wise is it to ask the company to use its algorithms, in the absence of any meaningful legal framework, to regulate our freedom of expression?
Who guards the guards?
Facebook can be pushed into a regulatory function. However, when it overshoots the line between what is necessary, proportionate and valuable, there are few, if any, tools to prevent it from excessively restricting our rights. There is no way to force it to respect freedom of expression and our democratic values. This is a crucial point that the populist view of Facebook’s regulatory role fails to recognise. If we make the Faustian deal whereby we expect online giants to magically solve problems as diverse as fake news, hate speech, child protection, copyright enforcement, incitement to violence, and others, we are legitimising their interference in – and authority over – our democratic discourse. We are legitimising the interference of a profit-driven, US-based company that sells influence in our elections. We not alone allow it to be the judge and the jury when it comes to our freedom of expression, we are actively demanding this.
Pitfalls and opportunities
Social media and the wider surveillance-driven online environment raise multiple, deeply intertwined questions for our society and our democracy. We are faced with companies that have deeper insights into our lives than our friends and families – or even ourselves. These insights – our social, sexual, consumer and human interactions – are turned into untold billions in revenue and profit, with an increasingly brazen lobby demanding to have formal ownership of this data. The goldrush for this data does not just boost “fake news” and “clickbait”. It is also profoundly subverting the motivations of news outlets, transforming readers into raw material and data brokers into their actual customers. These insights are, in turn, becoming the raw material of election campaigns, with our data being used to manipulate us to support the political parties that can afford it.
However, the insights into our lives also represent, particularly in an era of extensive consolidation in news media, a huge opportunity for a diversity of voices, for democratic discourse – if our politicians do not insist on this function being strangled. This potential cannot be achieved without addressing the challenges head-on, ignoring the lobbying against trust-inspiring privacy rules and rejecting the siren call of populist, short-sighted messages of censorship and control by companies that are already more powerful than our society realises.
“Joe McNamee has worked in the field of internet regulation in Brussels for almost 20 years. He was responsible for three independent studies for the European Commission on telecoms and internet policy and has worked with European Digital Rights (EDRi) since 2009.”
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