On Facebook vs. Trump

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Interesting article by Trevor Timm of the Guardian: You may hate Donald Trump. But do you want Facebook to rig the election against him?

Here are the numbers to Timm’s argument:

  1. US population is 323 million and Canadian population is 35 million;
  2. 1.04 billion DAILY active users on average in December 2015 – Facebook; and
  3. Approximately 83.6% of daily active users are outside the US and Canada – Facebook.

This suggests that 16.4% of daily activetma users are in the US and Canada, and of the 1.04 billion daily active users as of December last year, 164.7 million users or nearly half of the US and Canadian population are using Facebook daily.

So what if Facebook’s news feed has become the main interface by which nearly half of the US and Canadian population is interacting with Facebook daily, what’s the big deal?

Jonathan Zittrain, a Harvard Law professor in Internet and International law, suggests,

Four decades ago, another emerging technology had Americans worried about how it might be manipulating them.

In 1974, amid a panic over the possibility of subliminal messages in TV advertisements, the Federal Communications Commission strictly forbade that kind of communication. There was a foundation for the move; historically, broadcasters have accepted a burden of evenhandedness in exchange for licenses to use the public airwaves. The same duty of audience protection ought to be brought to today’s dominant medium.

As more and more of what shapes our views and behaviors comes from inscrutable, artificial-intelligence-driven processes, the worst-case scenarios should be placed off limits in ways that don’t trip over into restrictions on free speech.

Our information intermediaries can keep their sauces secret, inevitably advantaging some sources of content and disadvantaging others, while still agreeing that some ingredients are poison—and must be off the table.

Zittrain refers to Facebook’s algorithm as having the potential to produce digital gerrymandering, which is when a site instead distributes information in a manner that serves its own ideological agenda. Therefore, if the artificial-intelligence-drive processes realizes that the quest for Facebook’s survival, and thus its own survival, depends on consumption behaviour and advertising revenues, will it adjust what we ‘experience’ to our detriment?

In terms of what Timm is writing about, the era of Big Data could give every citizen a big slap in the face when they realize their online behaviour is compiled and crunched live by the site’s algorithm, as another Guardian article tackles the Facebook vs. US Election issue,

Facebook, which told investors on Wednesday it was “excited about the targeting”, does not let candidates track individual users. But it does now allow presidential campaigns to upload their massive email lists and voter files – which contain political habits, real names, home addresses and phone numbers – to the company’s advertising network.

The company will then match real-life voters with their Facebook accounts, which follow individuals as they move across congressional districts and are filled with insightful data.

Facebook profiles turned into campaign currency also offer another sign of Silicon Valley’s growing influence in America’s political system.

The company in recent years has increased its lobbying efforts in Washington to press immigration, surveillance and patent policy, while doubling its political staff and adding other features to make it easier for campaigns to reach specific voting groups in what Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg this week dubbed “the new town hall”.

So how has it taken four years for academics and citizens to realize that Facebook is capable of exacting the same influence on the public as radio and television has done for the past century? It is ironic that the Guardian has tried to forward this concern.

Instead, the Guardian should look at the different ways they can work with Facebook, especially as they realize they are less effective at distributing the news – 40% of all news traffic now originates from Facebook, as Timm mentions – and the sad realization that Facebook is better at news distribution than a nearly 200 year old publication.

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