Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun, Chairman Mao taught us. Nowadays, it is just as likely to derive from the click of a mouse.
The latest revelations in the Observer and the New York Times about the role of Cambridge Analytica in hacking the 2016 United States presidential election shine an unforgiving light on the potential abuse of computational propaganda and mass manipulation.
By allegedly accessing the profiles of 50 million Facebook users, the data-mining company could infer the political preferences of US voters and help target personalized messages at them to the benefit of the Republican candidate Donald J. Trump.
“You are whispering into the ear of each and every voter,” said Christopher Wylie, a data scientist who blew the whistle on Cambridge Analytica’s operations that had enabled political actors to whisper different messages into different ears.
All this comes as further confirmation of how we are turning the wondrous informational resource that is the Internet into a cyber cesspit, where Russian trolls, Islamist terrorists and corporate and political lobbyists peddle bile, propaganda and lies.
It is clear that the data sucked out of our connected devices can easily be used to deduce our political orientation. Whoever accesses that data, therefore, controls the most powerful political technology ever created. Part of the problem is that both the informational superstructure and the data substructure of our age lie in the hands of the so-called private superpowers, such as Facebook and Google, which have never fully acknowledged their responsibilities, still less lived up to them.
Soon after the 2016 presidential election, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, said it was a “pretty crazy” idea that his company had affected the outcome. We know differently now and even Zuckerberg has backed down.
In his recent message about the state of the World Wide Web he created 29 years ago, Sir Tim Berners-Lee noted that the dominant tech platforms act as our informational gatekeepers controlling which opinions and ideas are seen and shared around the world. But these companies have been built to maximize profits rather than optimize social good. Their business is to encourage advertising-generating clicks rather than democracy-enhancing content.
If market forces will never compel these companies to reorient their goals, then governments can be expected to do so for them, particularly in Europe. The German government has already implemented a law slapping heavy fines on platforms that fail to take down illegal content sufficiently quickly. In May, the EU’s 28 member countries will adopt the General Data Protection Regulation, constraining the exploitation of personal data. In the Philippines the data protection is in place already after the Data Privacy Act was signed into law. The nuclear option would be to reclassify such platforms as publishers, making them as responsible for the content they host as newspapers or broadcasters.
But before we blame everything on the platforms, we should examine our collective complicity, too. We humans are more responsible than the bots for fanning false news and boosting the market value of lies. A recent study, published in Science, found that flesh and blood users enthusiastically spread false news because it was more novel or elicited stronger emotional responses, such as surprise, disgust or fear.
In a study of thousands of “information cascades” on Twitter between 2006 and 2017, the researchers found that falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper and more broadly than the truth.
We all debase the currency of truth whenever we repost false news. But it would undoubtedly help if the algorithms were designed to work in our broader societal interests, rather than against them. If we want to avoid our societies splintering, our politics polarizing, and the value of reason and evidence being further devalued, then we all need to fight for a freer, fairer and more accountable informational resource.
Do we need to reinvent the Web? Do we have to cut Facebook and Google into pieces? Zuckerberg’s lame apologies are just not enough. Facebook has basically been giving away user data like it was handing out candy. We certainly have to fight against everybody who uses our personal information or allows our personal data to be used without our consent. The strict implementation of the GPDR and the Philippine Data Privacy Act is a must.
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