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Facebook’s threat to democracy is worse than Cambridge Analytica

Cambridge Analytica is not the problem.

Sure, the vote-influencing firm appears to have broken rules, and possibly laws – and certainly moral standards – in scraping the Facebook data on personal interests and friendships of 50 million people, and the Trump Republicans may have made these private data part of a campaign that used hateful fictions, possibly from Russian troll factories, to tilt the 2016 election, and Facebook was surely betraying its users and basic human values in allowing all this to happen.

These excesses deserve investigation and should be regulated (for starters, private data placed online should be controlled only by its users). But the Cambridge Analyticas of the world are merely a side effect of a far more serious and immediate threat to democratic stability posed by companies that have unlimited, unquestioned access to even more personal information on hundreds of millions of people – that is, the social-media giants themselves, especially Facebook and Google’s YouTube.

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Over the last few months, I’ve had conversations with political decision-makers in parties that have governed Canada, Sweden, Belgium and Germany. I’ve made a point of asking a basic question: “What scares you?” What are the fracture points you see tipping your country into the sort of anti-government marginality that has seized the United States, Hungary, Poland and, recently, Italy?

Every one of their answers included a version of the same set of sentences. “We’re losing touch with a huge number of voters who are getting all their news and information from posts and videos. We just can’t reach those people any more. They’re abandoning normal politics.”

They all pointed to the same pattern: In towns and smaller cities, newspapers and local TV stations are disappearing. Yet voters in those places have big, complicated questions about a fast-changing world – and the only answers available to many are coming from those posts and videos and anecdotal news clips sent to their inboxes and apps by friends and strangers or appearing when they enter hot-button search terms.

The artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms that drive those social-media giants are designed not to provide people with informed debate or thoughtful answers, but rather to maximize engagement time – and that has dark results.

In a recent lecture, technology sociologist Zeynep Tufekci described her experience online during Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. “I wanted to write something about one of his rallies, so I watched it a few times on YouTube,” she recounted. As a result of these clicks, “YouTube started recommending to me and autoplaying to me white-supremacist videos in increasing order of extremism. If I watched one, it served up one even more extreme and autoplayed that one, too. If you watch Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders content, YouTube recommends and autoplays conspiracy left, and it goes downhill from there. Well, you might be thinking, this is politics, but it’s not. This isn’t about politics. This is just the algorithm figuring out human behaviour.”

It is very easy today, after a few clicks or follows or searches, to find yourself learning over and over that climate change is a hoax, or that sharia law is being imposed on North America, or that darker skin colours cause lower IQs, or that conventional political parties are run by a cabal of “globalists” with Jewish surnames, or that vaccines cause autism. Factual answers on such matters are, for many users, almost invisible.

So while every major political party has used private data from Facebook over the past decade, it is most beneficial to those movements and parties that play to those sorts of controversies. Mr. Trump’s strategists and their enablers profited from this knowledge.

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Three weeks ago, a formerly fringe anti-progress movement, Five Star, became the largest political party in Italy almost entirely by using Facebook and YouTube-driven conspiracy theories and xenophobic videos to drive 10 million voters to an anti-progress, anti-politics campaign.

That party’s co-leader and strategist, Davide Casaleggio, boasted in an article this week that he’d done so at a cost of only nine cents a vote, using readily available social-media data. “Our experience is proof of how the internet has made the established parties, and the previous organizational model of democratic politics more generally, obsolete and uneconomic.”

That was a boast, but it ought to be a warning: We need to seize regulatory control of our most popular communications tools, before even more aspects of democratic politics become obsolete and uneconomic.

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