One man’s online politics is another man’s poison

We may end up with Kremlin-sponsored ads but the democratising effect of new technology opens the door to all voices.

The Financial Times columnist Edward Luce had an interesting article in Thursday’s paper about the demonisation of Silicon Valley. “In the space of a few months,” Luce observes, “the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, and Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Alphabet, the owner of Google, have gone from heroes to pariahs.”

All of which is true. The only problem is that outside the Washington Beltway – DC’s version of the M25 – few people seem terribly excited about the supposed evils of Facebook, Google and co. (That’s not entirely true: lots of intellectuals and commentators not in the United States, including this columnist, are concerned about these companies, so for current purposes we can think of the “Beltway” as a metaphorical filter bubble.) But outside that bubble, life goes on. People log on to Facebook every day and use Google to find recipes or train timetables, regardless of whether these platforms might be playing a role in undermining democracy.

One can see why people don’t care. Antitrust lawyers and European commissioners may be concerned about the monopoly powers of internet companies, but it’s very difficult to persuade the average internet user that s/he is being gouged by outfits whose services are free. Given that, the prospect of a popular uprising against Google and Facebook seems pretty remote.

At the root of the problem posed by Google and Facebook (as regular readers of this column know only too well) is their business model, which trades free services for the right to exploit people’s personal data. In order to make this as efficient and profitable as possible, the companies have automated every aspect of their respective businesses.

When you want to place ads on Facebook, for example, you never deal with a human being – unless you’re a very large advertiser indeed. Instead, you interact with a robotic interface that guides you through the process of selecting categories of user you want to target with your ads. It’s quick and helpful and all you need is your credit card.

Until now, Facebook’s robot hasn’t cared who you are. So long as your credit card is valid then you’re good to go. The discovery that some of those credit-card wielders seem to have been agents of the Russian state has come as a rude shock to Facebook, which has vowed henceforth to investigate the bona fides of anyone seeking to place “political” ads. The company is also going to employ thousands of humans to ensure that bad actors don’t slip through the net and weaponise Facebook’s money-making machine.

This is good PR but it doesn’t make much sense. First, a human inspection programme would have to employ humans on a Chinese-censorship scale to cope with the volume of Facebook’s ad business. This would make Facebook less efficient, slow the growth of advertising on the platform, annoy legitimate users and shareholders and cause slippage in the share price. Second, how do you decide what’s “political”? None of the complained-of Russian ads seems to have been overtly political, even though they might have had a political impact.

Also, what you think is “political” depends on which filter bubble you inhabit. And here we all have a problem. As a recovering techno-utopian, I still celebrate the empowering aspect of the internet – the way it can give everyone a voice and a platform for their views. But when viewed from inside my “liberal” filter bubble, I am also distressed by the nastiness, untruthfulness and cant that flooded on to the net during the Brexit and US presidential campaigns. I see this abusive torrent as confirming my view that the technology holds up a mirror to human nature and that much of what we see reflected in it is appalling.

One man who feels this sharply is the Harvard scholar Yochai Benkler. His landmark 2006 book The Wealth of Networks celebrated the democratising power of the internet. But his research on the 2016 election campaign confronted him with an uncomfortable truth. “An important part of what happened in this election,” he said afterwards to the New York Times, “is that a marginalised community, with views that were generally excluded, forced their way into the mainstream.”

Was that a democratising effect or not? The answer, Benkler concluded, depended on “how much emphasis you put on people being able to contest an election versus how much you put on civil rights, protection of minorities, rule of law. You could say that if it translates into denigration of minorities, it’s antidemocratic. But as long as you are focused on the question of, ‘Do you have an intensely engaged minority able to clarify its message so clearly that it can contest politically in a way that it couldn’t before?’, then it’s a democratising effect.”

Yep: you pay your money and choose your bubble.