- Date published:
7:30 am, April 26th, 2016 - 23 comments
Categories: Abuse of power, internet, journalism, Media - Tags: community democracy, corporate media, facebook, google, social media
Interesting piece in The Guardian recently:
You may hate Donald Trump. But do you want Facebook to rig the election against him?
The company’s dominance means it can easily manipulate voter behavior. Though it claims it won’t, just the possibility is a threat to democracy
While the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency is a terrifying one, perhaps this is scarier: Facebook could use its unprecedented powers to tilt the 2016 presidential election away from him – and the social network’s employees have apparently openly discussed whether they should do so.
As Gizmodo reported on Friday, “Last month, some Facebook employees used a company poll to ask [Facebook founder Mark] Zuckerberg whether the company should try ‘to help prevent President Trump in 2017’.”
This is not just idle speculation.
Harvard Law professor Jonathan Zittrain explained in 2010 how “Facebook could decide an election without anyone ever finding out”, after the tech giant secretly conducted a test in which they were able to allegedly increase voter turnout by 340,000 votes around the country on election day simply by showing users a photo of someone they knew saying “I voted”.
…Facebook’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg, said, in 2014, “I want to be clear – Facebook can’t control emotions and cannot and will not try to control emotions.” She added: “Facebook would never try to control elections.” Her comments came right after a controversial study conducted by Facebook became public. It showed that, in fact, the company had secretly manipulated the emotions of nearly 700,000 people. … Earlier this year, the Guardian reported on the treasure trove of data Facebook holds on hundreds of millions of voters and how it is already allowing presidential candidates to exploit it in different ways
And in a Politico Magazine piece entitled “How Google could rig the 2016 election”, research psychologist Robert Epstein described how a study he co-authored in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that “Google’s search algorithm can easily shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by 20% or more – up to 80% in some demographic groups – with virtually no one knowing they are being manipulated.”
OK, but is this different from what we have now, with Rupert Murdoch, the constant bombardment of conservative media and talkback radio? The author of this piece thinks so:
To be sure, many corporations, including broadcasters and media organisations, have used their vast power to influence elections in all sorts of ways in the past: whether it’s through money, advertising, editorials, or simply the way they present the news. But at no time has one company held so much influence over a large swath of the population – 40% of all news traffic now originates from Facebook – while also having the ability to make changes invisibly.
… one organisation having the means to tilt elections one way or another a dangerous innovation. Once started, it would be hard to control. In this specific case, a majority of the public might approve of the results. But do we really want future elections around the world to be decided by the political persuasions of Mark Zuckerberg, or the faceless engineers that control what pops up in your news feed?
I’ve pondered this for a while. The power of social media is different from that of old media. Filtering your peer group is much subtler, and could be much more persuasive than regular media. Being something of a cynic, I think it is only a matter of time before Facebook / Google start using their powers of persuasion, then selling them to the highest bidder. But, while it will be more effective, I’m still not sure that it is qualitatively different from the situation that we already have. Is there any reason to fear “faceless engineers” more than “faceless journalists”?