(Alessio Jacona Feb 21, 2016)
The Pirate Bay cofounder Peter Sunde recently labelled Mark Zuckerberg “the biggest dictator in the world”.
How can the CEO of a social media platform be likened to a dictator?
Sunde’s point is that Facebook and a handful of other digital giants are the increasingly centralised collators and controllers of the many online services we use, and the personal data our use generates.
And Sunde is pessimistic about the potential use or abuse of our personal data by these digital giants:
“Trump is basically in control over this data that Zuckerberg has, so I think we're already there. Everything that could go wrong has gone wrong and I don't think there's a way for us to stop it.”
References to Trump being in control of Facebook data might sound overly conspiratorial, like a House of Cards plot device. But during the election the majority of the Trump campaign’s digital advertising budget was spent on Facebook ads.
Why Facebook ads?
Because the social media platform gives users an unprecedented capacity to tailor advertisements to ever-smaller groups of potential customers…or potential voters.
According to Trump’s digital director Brad Parscale, the campaign team routinely tested 50,000 to 60,000 ad variations each day, in attempts to get the most clicks, by:
“…changing language, words, colors, changing things because certain people like a green button better than a blue button, some people like the word 'donate' over 'contribute.'”
The flexibility of the Facebook advertising system also allowed the Trump campaign to reach rural voters. As Parscale told 60 Minutes “now I can find 15 people in the Florida Panhandle that I would never buy a TV commercial for.”
But it’s not just about getting Trump supporters to donate. Reports of “voter suppression” targeting “idealistic white liberals, young women, and African Americans” emerged from Trump’s own campaign team highlighting their efforts to use Facebook ads to discourage voter turnout among key demographics of Clinton supporters.
The exact nature of these negative ads is unknown, as is their overall effect.
But that’s precisely why the micro-targeting of Facebook advertisements is potentially so sinister: being able to target very specific sections of the population means that politically motivated advertisements are free from the kind of scrutiny a TV ad or pamphlets in your letterbox face.
So called “dark post” Facebook ads are visible only to their targeted audience, and as a recent post promising to build a border wall “(not a fence)” shows, the Trump campaign clearly thinks these tactics worth continuing.
With all the focus on “fake news” and not trusting everything you read online, it’s disconcerting to find that people are being wilfully manipulated by online content the rest of us can’t see or scrutinise, even if we wanted to.
The danger in Facebook’s Big Data powers is epitomised in new revelations that Russian operatives used Facebook to influence American politics over a two year period, with as many as 126 million Americans viewing the posts.
Facebook has refused to release the ads, but described them as focused on “divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum”, such as race relations and gun rights.
For pessimists like Sunde, these sinister political machinations are just a symptom of the real problem: the centralisation and corporatisation of the internet. Sunde compares Big Data to Big Tobacco – a once seemingly-benign habit we now find hard to quit, even as evidence of the harms mounts.
What are the harms?
All those free, convenient, centralised services we take advantage of are milking us for all the data we’re worth. Social media like Facebook are all but indispensable to modern life, yet the cost to us is hidden from view.
The more we depend on them, the more vulnerable we are to their whims and their discretion. Don’t want Russian agents influencing you? Better hope Facebook is vigilant enough to stop them.
Don’t want political parties targeting you? Too bad, that’s part of Facebook’s core business now.
Don’t want corporations using your personal data to advertise to you directly? Hahah, grow up.
From Sunde’s point of view, the galling aspect of internet centralisation is the subordination of freedom and the common good to corporate interests:
“We're super happy about self driving cars, but who owns the self driving cars? Who owns the information about where they can and can't go? I don't want to ride in a self driving car that can't drive me to a certain place because someone has bought or sold an illegal copy of something there.”
If Zuckerberg is a dictator, then Facebook is nonetheless a very “soft” dictatorship; think Singapore rather than North Korea.
Most of us are just excited by the ability to connect with our friends and relatives, and if Zuckerberg is wolfing down our data on the other end of the fibre, that’s no skin off our noses.
But while Sunde has his own ideological and political reasons for opposing centralisation of the internet, the rest of us should not remain complacent either.
We can’t assume that the multinational corporations behind our favourite devices and online services will remain benevolent, or that market forces will ensure corporate interests and consumer interests are always in alignment.
Regardless of your political allegiances, it’s telling that the winner of the 2016 election relied so heavily on an opaque corporation to secure victory, even to the extent of having Facebook employees embedded in its campaign team. Where else in modern democracies do we see so much power concentrated in unaccountable, opaque, unelected entities?
Services like Facebook aren't “free”, it’s just that we the users don’t realise the value or significance of our personal data, or the possible rammifications of handing it over.