Can Democracy Survive Facebook?

In De Tocqueville’s shadow

When he wrote the seminal work Democracy in America (1835), the French diplomat and historian Alexis de Tocqueville found the idea of overthrowing the aristocracy in favour of spreading power among the people utterly irresistible.

Scholars quibble over whether he interpreted the flourishing of democracy as an inevitable fact in America. With the benefit of recent experience, we can say it is nothing of the sort.

Democracy does remain stable in the US, for now: it is competently run at national and state level, and the prospect of people being denied the vote is minimal. But democracy is a rugged fabric with unreliable threads, and in Washington and elsewhere, some are starting to fray.

Voter suppression is a big issue; so too is a hyper-partisan media that prefers heat to light; and a lobbying industry that is rampant and mostly serves the rich. Moreover, the Constitution contains immense wisdom, but needs an update.

And to this list of worries we can now add the use by foreign powers of technology platforms to spread disinformation, sow division and poison the public domain.

We discovered this week that 126 million Americans could potentially have seen around 80,000 posts originating with the Internet Research Agency, a troll factory emanating from Russia.

That came in leaked testimony ahead of the appearance before Congress of senior executives from Facebook, Google and Twitter.

Google, commenting for the first time on an internal investigation, said it had discovered ads looking suspiciously Russian, and 18 YouTube channels also linked to the Kremlin. Meanwhile Twitter found 2,752 accounts linked to Russian mischief – ten times more than they had previously indicated to lawmakers.

Anti-social media

It is vital to keep a sense of perspective about this. As my distinguished colleague Mark Frankel has pointed out, the large figure of 126 million is the potential reach of these ads.

That doesn’t mean all those people saw them – and, vitally, even if they did see them, it doesn’t mean that they would have been persuaded to vote differently. In any case, this represents a tiny fraction – 0.004% – of the immense volume of content on Facebook over a two-year period.

Why, then, ask whether Facebook represents a potentially mortal threat to democracy?

For four reasons in fact. Facebook’s response to this crisis shows a company grappling with what it has unleashed; the threat from filter bubbles; the immense volume of data online; and because of a pattern of exploitation of this social media platform around the world.

Let’s take these in reverse.

In September, it was revealed that Bell Pottinger behaved disgracefully in South Africa, poisoning the well of public debate. The company has apologised profusely and been split up.

What we know is that social media was a vital tool for this propaganda exercise, and it stands to reason that, because Facebook has the most users of any social media platform, it is most attractive to propagandists.

As to the question of data, this weekend John Lanchester wrote the cover piecefor The Sunday Times Magazine, in which he argued that Facebook was the biggest surveillance enterprise in history, and could destroy civilisation.

The former is true, the latter is not. It is absolutely the case that Facebook has acquired a volume of personal data which is hard to fathom. This might be seen as more of a worry for those who care about privacy than democracy; but the point about it is it could get into the wrong hands.

Companies like Facebook sell advertisers personal data that we have all readily given them. They say they go to great pains to keep it safe, and would never sell it to unsavoury types. But insiders from Cambridge Analytica to the Kremlin are already using this data to micro-target voters.

As to the threat from online echo chambers, so much has been written about this that I feel I won’t add to it here. Suffice to say there is a real danger that people live in walled gardens online, exposed only to information that reinforces their prejudices.

That’s why we might call it anti-social media – though of course it’s not Facebook’s fault that we like to follow who we like to follow.

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