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:
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.