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Canada No, the Facebook backlash won’t let us go back to the elections of old

When Justin Trudeau won power, savviness about using digital media was part of his youthful brand.

Both before and after the 2015 federal election, his Liberals were eager to talk about how they had overtaken the Conservatives in using available data to profile individual voters and deliver tailored messages to them. Like political operatives in other parties, they said many nice things about Facebook, the public platform most pivotal to such efforts.

The next federal campaign probably won’t see the Liberals or their rivals boasting as much about such techniques. Not after weeks such as this one, with its revelations about Facebook’s failure to protect users’ data, reports of shady political actors attempting to use that data for “mind control,” and a whistle-blowing architect of the data use (in aid of U.S. President Donald Trump and Brexit) turning out to have had ties to the Liberals here.

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But even if parties are quieter about their methods – and reject having Facebook and Google representatives liaise with their campaigns, as happened last time – there is no turning back the clock. Microtargeting will be at least as much a priority in coming elections, because the way the public now consumes information demands it. And Facebook is nowhere near losing its central role.

A better question is whether it might eventually be possible to restore optimism around what our new interconnectedness could mean for democracy.

It’s easy to forget how possible it was to see microtargeting’s upside a few years ago. And part of the reason for looking positively upon it – the necessity of reaching people through new means – hasn’t changed.

More and more people are cutting their TV cables; it’s harder and harder to reach anyone by phone. Other than their renewed emphasis on door-to-door canvassing, parties’ only option to avoid being tuned out is to embrace digital. In a world of endless viewing options, that means coming directly to their target audience with customized pitches.

What has changed is naivety about what kind of customized political content we would get.

Social-media utopians could once imagine all sorts of positive, issues-based persuasion or calls to activism. People who cared deeply about the environment would get informative pitches about environmental policy, likewise those who wanted to know the nitty-gritty of tax policy, and so on.

There have been earnest efforts on those fronts. But increasingly, they have been overwhelmed by niche messaging of a different sort. Whatever sophisticated research may be behind it, it eschews nuance as it taps into negative emotions about the government of the day or its alternatives – be it through oversimplified rhetoric, out-of-context quotes or outright fake news.

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The dominance of Facebook goes some ways toward explaining why that is – not just because, as the Cambridge Analytica scandal has demonstrated, outside actors doing politicians’ dirty work had too easy a time getting their hands on users’ data. Facebook has revolved around an algorithm that prioritizes content generating strong reactions, including negative ones. If the potentially polarizing consequences of that model haven’t yet been fully realized in Canada, the way they have south of the border, keep in mind that heading into this spring’s provincial election Ontario Proud – a third-party group that mostly produces unflattering memes about Premier Kathleen Wynne – has gotten more Facebook traction than anyone else.

Will the current anti-Facebook backlash cause the tide to turn? There is not yet evidence of the “#deleteFacebook” movement stopping overall user growth. If there is an exodus, it seems likeliest to be from the chattering classes. And anyone who works in digital politics will tell you that Facebook is more for engaging people who start off looking for photos of their grandchildren or old high-school classmates.

There is more chance of those able to impose higher standards being shaken from past complacency. Facebook has among other measures tightened its privacy controls, and tweaked its algorithm to supposedly de-prioritize the most divisive stuff. And governments previously wary of seeming technophobic, including this country’s, are growing more open to stepping in with regulation.

But that’s not quite going to cut it, either.

Political actors are going to keep trying to tap into negative emotions such as anger and fear. That’s not new: We’ve long seen it in TV ads, and attacks filtered through traditional media. What’s changed is that they can target each voter’s emotions more directly, without worrying as much about how it looks to everyone else.

Regardless of whether Facebook ultimately remains the dominant platform, we’re not moving back to mass viewing experiences. The best cause for faith about democracy’s future, in the growing awareness of what the digital age has so far gotten us into, might be its impetus to ensure younger generations are better prepared to sort their way through it than older ones have proved.

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