The EU has now officially taken up arms against Facebook.
Yesterday in Brussels, European Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager gave the keynote address at the kickoff of a new pro-democracy initiative called ALL for Democracy. Although it’s hard to know how this new group will evolve, the agenda for the half-day inaugural shows an effort to draw on the expertise of union and corporate representatives, political organizers and activists, journalists, government officials, and academics across Europe.
What is striking about this initiative is that it makes no bones about seeing Facebook as a power center that is a threat to democracy due to its ability to sway opinion. The causes include its lack of accountability and its “code as law” approach of relying on algorithms.
The debate over the role of the media in shaping public opinion goes back to at least the 1920s when the wildly effective World War I propaganda campaign run by the Creel Committee came to light. It was deeply disturbing for citizens to come to see how the government had gone to such concerted lengths to sway their views and how effective the program had been. Creel Committee members like Walter Lippmann and Eddie Bernays tried to make the case that in a complex society, average citizens lacked the time and in many cases the skills to make sense of more and more complex information. They needed experts to pre-digest it for their consumption. They depicted this “manufacture of consent” as necessary and benign.
It was journalists in the main who, as the BBC’s Adam Curtis would put it, molded mass opinion via how they characterized the ongoing outflow of official propaganda (like government and business news releases), while preserving the veneer of independence by also acting in an investigative capacity (again reinforcing their status by enforcing at least some norms). And even though there was a period when a relatively small number of media outlets could sway popular views (for instance, CBS, ABC, NBC, Time and Newsweek in the 1960s), it was a time of high prosperity when many social assumptions were broadly shared, and perhaps most important, the elites were much less distant from the rest of society and had a much greater sense of noblesse oblige than now. Thus when the press in a past period when had highly concentrated power, in many respects, it comported itself well.
Increasing social fragmentation, aided and abetted by the rise of new media outlets which facilitated targeting narrow audiences, eroded the notion that there are or even could be broadly shared social beliefs. Fox fans inhabit a different reality than New York Times subscribers. But even with an increasing splintered political landscape, there were enough power centers and channels for reaching citizens and consumers that most participants felt they had a shot in the war for share of mind. In other words, the new complex landscape seemed navigable and fair enough, at least if you were a pretty big dog. But Facebook as a choke point changes the equation in a way that threatens not just the press but also other power players.
Even though Verlager focused on how “social media” curating represented a threat to democracy, the gorilla in the room is clearly Facebook, which many believe has already become an dangerously influential arbiter of content. . And her critique goes much further than the US fixation on “fake news”. From her prepared remarks:
The citizens of Athens didn’t go to the assembly just to vote. They went there to debate. To hear everyone’s views, so they could make the right decision for the city. And in a parliament or a public rally, in a newspaper or on TV, democracy still depends on free and open debate for those who choose to engage.
That’s where, if we’re not careful, social media could let us down.
Because despite all the connections that it allows us to make, social media can also lock us up in our own worlds. No one knows what I see on my social media timeline but me – and the social media company itself. And we can’t have an open debate from inside separate worlds.
In the US, nearly two thirds of adults get their news from social media. Here in Europe, more than a fifth say it’s their main source of news. News which is the basis of our democratic debates. And yet most of us aren’t really in control of the information that we see.
A social network like Facebook gets more than 50 million status updates a day. It makes sense to turn to algorithms to help us sift through that information.
The trouble is, it’s very hard to know how an algorithm has made its decision. And the things it chooses to hide might as well never have existed.
So even if an algorithm is just designed to show us things we’ve taken an interest in before, it can still limit our horizons without us even noticing. It can get in the way of seeing new ideas, or looking at old ones in different ways. It can build up our prejudices until they seem to be, not just opinions, but a natural part of how the world works.
That isn’t just about news stories that aren’t true. It’s about only seeing the facts that match the ideas we already have. About losing track of the fact that other views even exist. Because we can’t have a democratic debate if we only hear selected views.
Although she focused on the dangers of confirmation bias, note she also pointed out how sticking within communities of the like-minded hampers citizens’ ability to work together when they hold diverging views.
Verstager also saw Facebook’s ability to narrowcast as a way to take politics out of the public square entirely:
The information that social media companies collect about their users can transform the way you advertise. It can help you put your message in front of exactly the people who are likely to buy it.
But when you apply that to politics, it could undermine our democracy.
Because if political ads only appear on the timelines of certain voters, then how can we all debate the issues that they raise? How can other parties and the media do their job of challenging those claims? How can we even know what mandate an election has given, if the promises that voters relied on were made in private?
Politico reported in its daily European e-mail summary:
At the launch of both ALL for Democracy, and at the OECD Forum in Paris this week, participants expressed strong concerns that algorithms can distort everything from election results to what updates from friends a person can see.
In a bit of synchronicity, the New York Times, without making reference to the ALL for Democracy event, published Facebook’s Role in European Elections Under Scrutiny, which is actually mainly about the UK. An earlier Times story on this topic was awfully close to a PR palcement, describing various tech approaches to fighting fake news. Needless to say, it did not consider that these algos are unaccountable and mainstream media stories, which these algos treat as factual,often don’t deserve such reverential treatment. And even worse, the Times only well into the piece acknowledged that Europe didn’t seem to be afflicted much with fake news:
So far, outright fake news stories have been relatively rare. Instead, false reports have more often come from Europeans on social media taking real news out of context, as well as from fake claims spread by state-backed groups like Sputnik, the Russian news organization.
Nevertheless, the tech promoters were sure it was coming.
Yesterday’s Times article alludes to the controversy over the data mining firm Cambridge Analytica’s claims that its Facebook targeting helped the Brexit Leave and Trump campaigns score their unexpected victories. Our Marina Bart debunked that idea. Even the Grey Lady published a skeptical piece.
However, the scare has produced some good results:
Lawrence Dodd lives in one of Britain’s most fiercely fought voting districts, and he has been peppered almost daily with ads from the country’s major political parties on Facebook. About a month ago, he tried to find out why….
Facebook provides little information on how political parties use ads to reach undecided voters on the site. And concern has been growing since the American presidential election about the company’s role in campaigns, including about how politically charged fake news is spread online.
Now, as voters head to the polls across Europe, groups in Britain, Germany and elsewhere are fighting back, creating new ways to track and monitor digital political ads and misinformation on the social network and on other digital services like Twitter and Google.
The political ads shown to Mr. Dodd are being tallied by WhoTargetsMe?, a nonpolitical group that designed a digital tool to monitor Facebook’s role ahead of the British election..
That lack of information has raised hackles about the activities of both Facebook and politicians in a country where campaigns are highly regulated and political financing is tightly capped.
Even the generally business-friendly Brits are increasingly arguing that Facebook needs to be constrained. Notice this academic isn’t saying whether or not to regulate Facebook; his question is how:
“It’s a fundamental conversation to have about how we regulate this,” said Nick Anstead, a media and communications expert at the London School of Economics. “Facebook has a responsibility to tell its users who is buying advertising that is targeting their votes.”
As we pointed out when the campaign to get Facebook to Do Something about fake news was hot, the California giant was clearly not keen about the assignment. It’s not clear whether its concerns were mercenary (censoring content can alienate advertisers and readers; it also imposes costs) or whether it thought there was no way it could do take on this role without creating more controversy. Some French media outlets, including Le Monde, said Facebook made it hard for them to send in alerts on potential fake news. And Facebook’s refusal to share enough data to determine if fake new it circulated had any impact on the elections is giving critics more fuel for their demands to force Facebook to become more open:
Academics and others scrutinizing the vote also said the company’s failure to provide data on what Facebook users in France shared among themselves made it virtually impossible to determine if false reports spread on the network affected the overall result.
Given that the Europeans are much more wiling to ride herd on businesses, particularly tech giants, than Americans, it makes perfect sense that they are in the forefront of the battle against Facebook’s excessive power. I wish them well.