Yesterday a friend of mine shared the Carole Cadwalladr TED talk “Facebook’s role in Brexit – and the threat to democracy” in which she explains how she led an Observer newspaper investigation into the role Facebook played in the Brexit and Trump elections. The talk is absolutely jaw-dropping, so if you haven’t seen it yet then watch it now, because I’m going to discuss it with spoilers.
To summarize: People with a lot of money paid Cambridge Analytica to use Facebook to spread carefully targeted misinformation (and outright lies, and hate speech) with the specific aim of influencing the result of the UK Brexit election as a testing ground for technology that they then deployed in the US election of Donald Trump. And so as Cadwalladr says:
“what the Brexit vote demonstrates is that liberal democracy is broken. And you [Facebook] broke it. This is not democracy — spreading lies in darkness, paid for with illegal cash, from God knows where. It’s subversion, and you are accessories to it.” (above video, 12:09)
And then at lunchtime, reading the Guardian over my bento, I saw a story that stated the (obvious, though drastic) solution to this problem. In response to the Easter church bombings the Sri Lankan government shut down access to all major social networking sites, including Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Youtube and Viber, because “misinformation spread through social media has been linked to deadly mob violence” – the problem is that “misinformation travels just as fast as verified information, if not faster.”
We all love social media, and it can be used to do a great deal of good – I’m recently quite an enthusiastic sharer on FB, and of course have recently started my own Youtube channel, but it is quite clear from Cadwalladr’s TED talk that the damage is outweighing the good.
(Additionally, although I generally post partly so that friends outside my bubble might be exposed to alternative viewpoints (this is why I am so scrupulously polite in my posting) it is entirely possible that the algorithms do not even display my posts to those who I would most like to see them…That’s actually one half of the reason you are reading this on my personal blog not on Facebook!)
And it is difficult to conceive of any piecemeal solutions that would solve the problem. Certainly Facebook’s “We will do better” (yet another fox claiming the foxes should run the henhouse…) is of zero reassurance whatsoever, not just because of their pathetic moral stance on the matter, nor their deliberate hacking of human vulnerabilities as inherent aspects of their system design, but because the problem is in the nature of social media itself: by connecting us all instantaneously across the globe, the sheer volume of posts (Facebook has 2.3 billion users) means that even the operating companies themselves are powerless to regulate or police their own platforms. (As techno-utopianists they of course talk about deploying AI, which currently seems to be causing as many problems as it solves).
Longer term, one possible solution would be to slow the flood of posts, perhaps by building a delay into the system (so your posts and comments will appear an hour after you type them, for example), or (more broadly) by adopting a wikipedia or TED-style approach to the web, so that there is some (I hope transparent and accountable) vetting of material before it is published on big sites (including search: Gooooogle is equally to blaaaame) because these tech giants must now be considered publishers, responsible for the content they host. (To preserve freedom of expression I think small private sites and blogs could perhaps be exempt – somewhat self-serving, I know!).
Additionally, when they grow too big they must be broken up (as indeed the EU seems to be exploring): no private entity should ever be allowed to grow bigger than democracy. (New approaches to democracy, such as sortition, may sidestep the problem entirely, but we need some kind of solution right now, not when sortition gets…sorted)
Thus, in the short term it is clear that Facebook has broken liberal democracy. No election held while Facebook is still operating in that country can ever be considered fair and impartial again. The only solution is to shut it down.
I don’t like to try to predict the future (I figure I’ll inevitablly be wrong and look foolish) but I will say this: the problem is immediate, and the solution, though somewhat drastic, is also immediately available to any government willing to take it (many in government benefit of course: if those people are already in power you may need a) rebellion…).
So as a user you should probably make sure that you won’t lose anything valuable when social media is permanently blocked in your country – photos, links, data, contacts: download anything you want to keep while you still can. (This is the other reason you are reading this on my personal blog – Facebook may well not last very much longer).
We’ll miss it of course – at it’s best it really did bring us together – but we survived perfectly well before it (we’ve only had it a decade or so!), and we’ll survive perfectly well when it is gone.
Social movements will miss it too – at it’s best it really did enable some revolutions – but again, we coped without it before and we’ll cope without it again. The suffragettes got the vote and the US civil rights movement ended segregation all without social media – we might have to print leaflets and then go out and talk to each other….
But the super-rich who seek control us (and therefore governments we “elect”) will miss it more, and that’s why it has to go. There is no way to control it, and Cadwalledr is quite clear: it is no longer “actually possible to have a free and fair election ever again….[Social media companies] are the handmaidens to authoritarianism that is on the rise all across the world… Is this what we want: to let them get away with it, and to sit back and play with our phones, as this darkness falls?”
Thank you for reading, if you would share (on social media or in other ways) I’d be very grateful.