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The Facebook threat to democracy

Social media companies like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have been in the news and in the public consciousness for the past couple of years with regard to things like their influential effect on democratic elections and their role in fomenting populist uprisings and even amplifying hatred leading to terrible crimes like race-based hate crimes and genocide and ethnic murder.

There is now ample evidence that foreign governments[0] tried to and did interfere in democratic elections in Britain, the United States, France, and Germany. The degree of success in each campaign is unknown to any real level of detail, but the broad impact is understood. Money, disinformation, false-flag activities: these are the hallmarks of a covert influence campaign. Governments have been trying to influence the outcomes of elections in other nations for probably as long as there have been governments and elections and nations. Never before has undertaking been so effortless, the cost of doing so been so inexpensive, and the repercussion of having it done to you been so dear.

The threat from social media companies is clear. They provide the platforms for bad actors. They offer little or no oversight on behalf of the public. And indeed, they profit from these bad actors and not from protecting the interests of democratic populations.[1]

A common defense from the social media companies has been that they merely provide the platform. They disclaim responsibility for the way that bad actors might happen to use the platform they provide. It is not their fault, they claim. Nor can they be expected to police their own services.

Is this acceptable? No.

Any other company that was caught taking money from foreign agents to influence domestic elections would rightly be considered to be committing a crime. Facebook, for example, took money from foreign agents (Russian operatives), and showed election-related ads to domestic voters (election influencing). Facebook should no more be allowed to do this than, for example, the National Rifle Association in the United States should be able to take millions from Russian banks to spend on the 2016 presidential election. Both of those acts should be illegal foreign influencing of free and fair elections.

The real threat from Facebook is the opacity of the platform. If the NRA buys political ads on television, or sends mailers to its members, at least there is a chance that failure to follow election laws could be reported to the oversight agency. On the other hand, if Russian agents are buying and placing microtargeted, and as the Washington Post says[2], "weaponized" adverts in an attempt to trigger emotionally-unstable voters with the goal of influencing a democratic election, then how would the world ever really know? How would we know that Russia is behind the effort? How would we know who is targeted? How would we know what Russia's intent is? Basically, at this time, we would only realistically know the answers to these questions if a company like Facebook voluntarily disclosed that information.

That disclosure is not in Facebook's, or any other social media company's, own short-term financial interest. That disclosure would damage the company's good will, image, and brand. On at least a very small scale, that disclosure would probably lead to a minuscule decrease in profits, but not zero. But, most importantly, that disclosure would leave the company exposed to greater scrutiny from the types of democratic governments, and probably other authoritarian governments, that the bad actor nations are targeting. Increased oversight, and the cost of compliance, is never a financial benefit to any company. So, we should not expect that Facebook or any other social media company will of its own accord volunteer information on malign actions by foreign states.

Take the recent revelations about Cambridge Analytica, as an example. By at least one account, Facebook only acted because investigative organizations like The Guardian and The New York Times were on the verge of publishing highly detailed, critical, and potentially damaging information about Facebook and its relationship with CA.[3] We would not have gotten this information voluntarily from Facebook, or any other social media company.

That leaves us with the question of what to do about these platforms that so easily enable corruption and malign election influencing. That is a difficult question, no doubt.

One glib answer has been to shut them down. Clearly, if you favor open markets and free expression of ideas, then banning social media is not the right answer. However, coming up with the right answer is going to take some real effort. If it came down to a question of being able to have social media, or to have democracy, but not both, then I for one would choose democracy.

[0] Talking about Russia here, of course.

[1] There have also been charges that companies like Facebook actively assist oppressive authoritarian regimes against their own people, but this essay will not address that question, as horrific as it is.

[2] See, link

[3] E.g., link

~Patrick

12:27 Sunday, 18 March 2018