Is Facebook the real Big Brother?

 

Image courtesy of orwelltoday.com

Image courtesy of orwelltoday.com

I read George Orwell’s ‘1984’ in the mid-70’s, but even then it was pretty obvious that his prediction of a world ruled by ‘Big Brother’ just wasn’t going to happen.

For starters, the technology simply was not there, and then there was the disconnect with [Western] society itself. Rather than being downtrodden and submissive, individuals in the ’80’s had never had it so good. So I filed 1984 away as another example of science fiction getting it wrong.

Now, let’s jump to 2017 and the article I read in Quartz this morning:

Facebook says it can sway elections after all—for a price

Essentially, the story is that Facebook didn’t sway the 2016 election with ‘fake news’, but in the future, candidates might get themselves elected by buying into a paid campaign:

To the majority of its users, Facebook seems like a passive platform for sharing news and engaging with various communities. But the social network is also a sophisticated multibillion-dollar advertising giant that is, at its heart, in the business of persuasion.

‘Advertising giant’. Wow. Of course…

I’ve never enjoyed spending time on Facebook, so I’ve never really taken the Facebook phenomenon seriously, yet now I feel as if the wool has literally been torn from my eyes. Or perhaps it’s just that so many disparate pieces of information have finally coalesced into a new picture of the world. Think about this:

  • As at February, 2017 there were ‘ 1.86 billion monthly active Facebook users’ [https://zephoria.com/top-15-valuable-facebook-statistics/]
  • Facebook already possesses masses of information from and about its users,
  • This information is provided, free of charge and voluntarily, by the users themselves [every ‘Like’ is data],
  • The users provide this information because at some level they either trust Facebook or enjoy the experience enough to suspend doubt,
  • Facebook makes its revenue from advertisments,
  • Facebook advertisements are tailored to the likes and dislikes of its users,
  • Newspapers are going out of business because their advertising revenue is drying up,
  • News media online are finding it hard to attract subscribers – i.e. people who pay for news – because the internet is awash with the stuff, much of it on Facebook,
  • Every company with a product to sell is scrambling to find a way of attracting customers because the old ways are no longer effective.

So, what do all these ‘bits’ actually mean?

Close your eyes and imagine that Facebook is not a social media platform. Imagine instead that it is the biggest market research company in the world. Now, picture that market research company analysing all the data it receives from users and using the results to offer targeted ‘audiences’ to advertisers. For a price, those advertisers will get to place their advertisements in front of the people most likely to buy their products – the perfect, closed loop sales environment.

“So what’s wrong with that?” you say. “Facebook is merely doing what commercial TV has always done, just better, and it’s still the quality of the advertisment that ultimately sells the product. In that sense, it doesn’t matter whether the product is a brand of toothpaste or a politician up for election; boring adverts get tuned out.”

There is an element of truth in that objection, and if that were all that Facebook does, I’d simply shake my head and say ‘buyer beware’.

But Facebook doesn’t just use data to push advertising to users. Facebook also hides information from users.

The official story is that the Facebook algorithms ensure your timeline displays only the information you actually want to see. In truth, much of the information hidden from users is advertising ‘spam’ of the “Please buy my XXX” kind. Given how boring such spam is, most users see Facebook’s actions as no different to the spam filter of their email.

The trouble with this view of Facebook is that email spam filters do not make money by selling a different kind of spam back to the user. Another difference is that real spam filters require the user to tell them what’s junk and what’s not, and even then, they often get it wrong. I know mine does. So how can we be sure that Facebook’s algorithms are any better? The simple answer is that we can’t, because we never get to see the ‘spam’. Facebook’s algorithms could be wildly wrong, but because we are never given a choice, we never get to find out.

I’m sure that the bulk of Facebook users will see this as pure convenience, but I see it as manipulation. And as far as I’m concerned, when manipulation is teamed with propaganda [selling advertising campaigns to politicians], I see the potential for a very dangerous situation.

While Facebook remains unchallenged in its ability to provide targeted advertising, its ability to manipulate users will probably remain merely a potential danger. But what happens when/if some other social media platform comes along to challenge Facebook? What if revenues begin to fall. Will Facebook continue to do the ‘right’ thing and distinguish between paid advertising and ‘content’? Or will it try to cheat the system the way German car maker Volkswagen did?

For those who don’t follow the news, Volkswagen created software for some of their cars that would make it appear that the car was EPA compliant when it was not. Why? Because it was cheaper to create the software than to make the cars truly compliant. Read money and shareholders’ profits.

The problem with Facebook is that it has the capacity to do more than just cheat the system. It has the capacity to completely subvert the system, effectively selling votes by manipulating what users do and do not see. It’s not such a big step to go from not seeing spam to not seeing ANY information that competes with the world view of the politician with the deepest pockets.

That’s why I see Facebook as having the potential to become the Big Brother of our nightmares. And if the unthinkable does happen, it will have done so with our free and willing consent.

 

Meeks

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About acflory

I am the kind of person who always has to know why things are the way they are so my interests range from genetics and biology to politics and what makes people tick. For fun I play online mmorpgs, read, listen to a music, dance when I get the chance and landscape my rather large block. Work is writing. When a story I am working on is going well I'm on cloud nine. On bad days I go out and dig big holes... View all posts by acflory

38 responses to “Is Facebook the real Big Brother?

  • Scottie

    It is scary and one discussed in the comments over at https://angloswiss-chronicles.com/2017/03/01/one-word-photo-challenge-exposure/ . I was listening to an online new show about politics that was worried about the targeting of facebook members of false news stories or specific candidate information, all in an attempt to sway an election. The question becomes, how do we stop it, fight it, or over come it if it does take over like that? Thanks. Hugs

    Liked by 1 person

  • davidprosser

    You’re right it’s scary. A lot of people on Facebook will follow like sheep so can be sold a politician quite easily.Elections can be bought and sold this way. The only way to try and counter it is to legislate that the parties in an election are given equal space so people can make their own comparisons (though few will) and I’m sure that can be manipulated.
    xxx Huge Hugs xxxx

    Liked by 2 people

    • acflory

      From what I gather, in the US, election campaigns are completely up to the candidate, and so is the cost. I can’t see how they would legislate for equal air time. 😦

      Liked by 2 people

      • davidprosser

        If they legislated for a limit to the amount spent on each person’s campaign and granted equal air time to candidates it would level the playing field so that maybe not only the insanely wealthy could win. A normal person becoming President means their ideas would not just be based on the rich getting richer.
        Hugs

        Liked by 1 person

        • acflory

          They’re talking about limits to how much supporters can contribute here, but so far it’s all just talk because neither of the major parties wants to stop feeding at the trough. I suspect it would be even more ‘unthinkable’ in the US. 😦

          Liked by 2 people

  • ChrisJamesAuthor

    I’ve been reading a lot about this lately. There’s a company called Cambridge Analytica which may have swung the US election due to its manipulation of FaceBook data. They reckon that with 100 “likes” they can tell an individual’s personality precisely, so that person can be targeted with ads which play perfectly on his/her fears and hatreds. But don’t take my word for it, just take a look at their news stuff – this is what Orwell was thinking, he just didn’t have the means to express it because it hadn’t been invented then:
    https://cambridgeanalytica.org/news

    Liked by 2 people

    • acflory

      Just had a look and I’m scratching my head about where and how CA got all that data. If it was from Facebook itself, then a) how did they persuade FB to hand it over and b) how much did they pay for it? I know data mining is big business but I had no idea it was this advanced.

      Liked by 2 people

  • Hariod Brawn

    Good article, Meeks. You may be interested in this piece; it’s long but explains how Facebook is being used in political campaigns, and I think it’s quite fascinating. It mentions Cambridge Analytica, as Chris does above:

    https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/feb/26/robert-mercer-breitbart-war-on-media-steve-bannon-donald-trump-nigel-farage

    Liked by 4 people

    • ChrisJamesAuthor

      Good link, Hariod. That’s one I read recently too. Scary stuff how our willingly given data can be used against us

      Liked by 3 people

    • acflory

      My god…I feel as if I’ve just read a truly scary thriller. Except that it’s real. This is so much worse than I could ever have imagined. Not sure whether to thank you or curse you for shredding my nice, comfortable, middle class illusions of safety.
      This is going to stick with me forever now:
      ‘Bots influence trending topics and trending topics have a powerful effect on algorithms, Woolley, explains, on Twitter, on Google, on Facebook. Know how to manipulate information structure and you can manipulate reality.’

      Liked by 3 people

      • Scottie

        It would make a great sci-fi thriller. You and the great authors who come here could really do a grand work with this. Maybe then people will learn and think about how they are being manipulated. Be well. Hugs

        Liked by 2 people

        • acflory

          Someone should definitely write about this, Scottie, but I lack the skill. This needs someone with a deep understanding of business and politics. Just at the moment I feel as if I’ve just started primary school. 😦

          Liked by 2 people

  • Darryl Walker Jr

    Great piece. I agree … Facebook is definitely problematic and works to perpetuate business and surveillance practices. I wrote a bit about this a few months ago. I think you’ll find it of interest: https://www.google.com/amp/s/zoneofnonbeing.wordpress.com/2016/10/20/social-media-surveillance-mechanism/amp/?espv=1

    Liked by 2 people

  • The Opening Sentence

    I read the long article in the Guardian and three things came to mind.

    1: I recognised the phenomenon, but it was always in the form of Rupert Murdoch’s support or Paul Dacre at the Mail getting his teeth into you. Politicians of all colours have always looked to get into bed with the right wing press and can’t seem to get elected (in the UK at least) without the Sun or the Mail backing you.

    2: In spite of all the technological sophistication Trump still didn’t win the popular vote, he won the Electoral College, so his success was as much to do with a peculiar voting system as it was a majority. I might be being naive ignoring all the talk about the algorythms knowing more about you than you do, but if it’s so powerful….

    3…. why don’t these right wingers unleash it on China or Russia or Islamic extremists or the French and turn those populations into western-loving automatons? Russia seems to have developed this technology first, but I haven’t developed a yearning to move to St. Petersburg.

    There’s something depressingly apocalyptic about all this hysteria. A modern day comet, sound of trumpets or nuclear winter. And to call it a right wing movement is probably overlooking the fact that most of the people behind it are billionaire businessmen looking to get richer. If they saw a way of making another billion by turning everyone into Communists they’d been running around in Lenin tee-shirts and bigging up Bernie Sanders!

    Like

    • acflory

      I understand where you’re coming from as it reads like the plot to a great thriller, and it hinges on the development of software far more sophisticated than anything commercially available to the public. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean the software can’t exist. The visible end of technology is always the tip of the iceberg, so I /can/ imagine that the military and surveillance agencies would find a great use for this kind of software.
      And then there’s the issue of provenance. Unless the Guardian article was written as a work of pure fiction, why make so many claims that can be verified?
      I just did a quick check on Robert Mercer, and it tallies with everything in the article. The man has the technological ‘know-how’. He has the money and isn’t afraid to use it to promote right wing causes.
      Does that make Robert Mercer a mad-genius type bad guy? Maybe not, but his very real connection to Breitbart indicates a desire to do more than just ‘donate’. And Cambridge Analytical is real too, but what they do is not thought control. It’s mob control. Find a group of disaffected people who are unhappy with life as they know it. Then give these people something or someone to blame. Keep stoking the fire until they’re ripe to be hurled against the target of your choice.
      Psychologically, it’s been done all through human history, but the advent of global connectedness and sophisticated technology has allowed the process to be amplified. It is possible. 😦

      Liked by 1 person

  • Candy Korman

    Scary! “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clock were striking thirteen.” Opening line of 1984…

    Like

  • HonieBriggs

    Great discussion you have going here, Meeks. You may be interested in Eli Pariser’s Ted Talk on this topic. Oddly, while trying to paste the link, there was a technical problem. The title of his talk is “Beware online filter bubbles”.

    Like

  • jilldennison

    Very good, thought-provoking post!

    Like

  • Mohamad Al Karbi

    Wow, very interesting post to read. I never trusted Facebook – including the results of their advertising campaigns. But I found myself using it to stay in connection with my friends/family who are far away. Though, I do my best to use it and other platforms in a way that supports my belief: “One should not put all their eggs in one basket”.

    Like

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