international analysis and commentary

The world through Facebook-tinted lenses

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Mark Zuckerberg has clearly set forth his ideal of twenty-first century society, presenting himself in no uncertain terms as a leading public figure. Yet his creation is under fire, considered by many as responsible – along with other social networks – for a degeneration in society and genuine threats to democracy. Governments and institutions are painstakingly gearing themselves to respond to the challenge, but maintaining peaceful coexistence will still require the cooperation of those running these major platforms.

 

Mark Zuckerberg – 34 years old and ranked fifth in Forbes’ latest World’s billionaires list, with a fortune worth 56 billion dollars – makes no bones about his political priorities. His lengthy “manifesto” of February 16, 2017 – posted on his Facebook page, naturally enough – seemed to many observers like a first foray into the political arena, in that it was reminiscent of a presidential address on the state of the Union. In that open letter of sorts, addressed “to our community”, the founder and ceo of Facebook called for the development of social infrastructure capable of tackling global problems such as terrorism, climate change, disease, and poverty. He called for humanity to unite against social inequality and for a fair society, where every individual is safe, informed, and engaged. It really read like a candidacy for something akin to a us presidency 2.0.

“Facebook,” wrote Zuckerberg, “stands for bringing us closer together and building a global community. When we began, this idea was not controversial… Yet now, across the world there are people left behind by globalization, and movements for withdrawing from global connection.”

Drawing by Pablo Amargo

 

A FAKE NEWS FACTORY? Over the past year, we have seen other more conventional candidacies emerge for the succession of Donald Trump, and the most powerful social network in the world has had to deal with more pressing crises, such as those brought about by the fake news storm.

The internet and social networks are now immense superhighways that global disinformation outlets have at their disposal for conveying the “fake news stories” of the day. They are troll farms that continuously comment on international political news and the domestic politics of each targeted country. In a recent report, the American freedom, rights, and democracy think tank Freedom House revealed that, in all of the eighteen countries that have held elections in the past two years, there has been widespread and systematic contamination through fake news. The United States, with its election in 2016, and Great Britain, with its referendum on leaving the European Union, but also China, Turkey, Venezuela, the Philippines, and, as far as the old continent is concerned, France, Italy, and Germany, have all been targets.

Recent press investigative reports have documented the work carried out, in complete secrecy, by the bloggers of lies: young, underpaid men and women who every day receive a list of falsehoods to deploy, people to besmirch, and politicians to support. On a daily basis, these disinformation workers create and eradicate false Facebook and Twitter profiles. Credible in all respects, the profiles they create aim to poison debate on the most popular social networks. The main editorial team comes up with the hoax, and the owner of the false profile lights the fuse, while the Facebook community only has to “share” to make it go viral.

A case in point is that of Jenna Abrams, the social network star with 66,000 followers, able to top the rankings of the most followed tweets. She was later discovered to be an invention the Russian propaganda machine – that is, not a flesh-and-blood person, but a profile created for the sole purpose of spreading set information.

How many Jenna Abrams exist on the web today? How many other troll kings and queens own blogs and crowdfunding platforms, and are only lacking a social security number? They can shape minds, steer public opinion, and even interact with mainstream media.

The challenge today for Mark Zuckerberg – the Harvard student who invented Facebook by chance, on a night of college high spirits – is how to stem this tide.

THE MAMMOTH CHALLENGE FOR ZUCKERBERG. Facebook is now a platform of two billion users, clustered, in particular, in the 30 to 55 year old age bracket. Every day, humanity spends the equivalent of hundreds of years of time reading and writing posts, publishing photographs, and doling out “likes”.

Whether or not it is true that he wants to run for president, Zuckerberg cannot afford for his creation to implode. Beset by governments that are arming themselves with new anti-fake news and privacy laws, and surrounded by former companions who are abandoning the social platform and even accusing it of “being the devil”, the Californian colossus is running for cover.

Fake news and hate speech, the real disease of our time, are the poison that, in the absence of a valid antidote, will kill these social interaction networks. Combating them, with the current two billion users growing exponentially, is a mammoth undertaking. Artificial intelligence, the all-capable algorithm, does not yet seem able to verify news, or know how to gauge the point at which comments cross the line into hate speech. What is considered offensive in Italy, for example, may not be so in other countries, in other cultures. As things stand, this task can only be performed by trained men and women deployed within the community to be monitored. Protecting citizens from insults, young people from cyberbullying, and the most vulnerable from onslaughts of hatred is not within the grasp of robots.

Facebook has repeatedly ended up in the dock for having censored inoffensive content, such as artistic depictions of nudes, and for having left online political rants and racially-motivated abuse. After all, how can an operator, in the ten seconds allowed him or her to evaluate any single post, for at least eight hours a day, delve into every context, and interpret every conversation? Symptomatic of this is the percentage of monitoring staff who have ended up in psychiatric therapy, unable to withstand the stress of the work, compounded by the climate of hate that pervades certain dark depths of the web.

Achieving a conviction for web abusers is a particularly difficult task because a false profile is often hidden behind a series of Chinese boxes that in fact makes it very complicated to trace the identity of the person operating it. In Germany, fines of up to 50 million euro are envisaged for social networks that fail to quickly take down hate speech and race-driven posts. The task becomes even more difficult for those who have to monitor the profiles of the platform’s users, given that the German antitrust authority has repeatedly accused Facebook of having harvested more personal data than permissible.

A further obstacle when seeking to prosecute the authors of hate speech is that Facebook is based in Palo Alto, and under Californian law defamation is not a criminal offense.

On the fake news front, Facebook, the company that owns Instagram and WhatsApp, has sought to change course by actually limiting the amount of news on our personal pages. A new algorithm, in operation since the beginning of the year, gives precedence to interactions between friends, limiting the circulation of shared news articles solely to those from major newspapers which are not in the business of peddling fake news and which, at least in theory, scrupulously check news stories before publishing them. The idea is that we will become less and less likely to encounter – and hence spread virally – articles deliberately concocted to confuse and manipulate public opinion. In the end, there will also inevitably be a price to pay for this. On the announcement of plans to reduce space for news, Facebook – a company worth 523 billion dollars, and which in a single quarter in 2017 had a turnover of 10.3 billion dollars, with a growth trend of 47% – suffered a stock market decline of 5%.

Drawing by Pablo Amargo

 

IN SEARCH OF SOCIAL MEDIA ANTITOXINS. Disintermediation is on the rise. Today we are all more or less capable of doing what only news professionals once knew how to do. Now, as Instagram and YouTube show, each of us can become an influencer generating hundreds of thousands of clicks, turning this predisposition into real gain. Meanwhile, journalists – bound by their profession to explicit ethical and deontological codes – are paradoxically losing credibility and status. The traditional media delivery channels – the press, first and foremost – are being divested of their traditional role as edifiers. Indeed, publishers are alarmed and many have begun to diversify.

Personal interactions encourage users to put their own content online, with all that that entails. In order to favor the cultivation of affinities between users, the algorithm will replicate posts, including those based on false truths, thereby reinforcing concepts among groups of like-minded people. The system will continue to re-present more familiar content in a spiral that will progressively exclude any disruptive element, any different opinion.

“It’s important to me that when [my children] grow up that they feel like what their father built was good for the world,” said Zuckerberg before launching “Messenger Kids”, the new app for parents and children. But today it is precisely children – according to authoritative voices from diverse sources – whom we should be keeping out of harm’s way. Sean Parker, founder of Napster and Zuckerberg’s first significant investor, has for some time now been a prime “conscientious objector”. Having left Facebook, of which he was president at one point, he now says: “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.” He describes the social media platform that he himself helped to set up as a “social-validation feedback loop” that has built its success on exploiting an inherent vulnerability in human psychology. According to Parker, today head of a cancer research institute that bears his name, Facebook, owing to the size it has grown to, has warped individuals’ relationships. It is making society increasingly dependent on a system of illusory shares and likes.

A further alarm has been sounded by another former senior executive at Facebook, who, without mincing words, warns “You don’t realize it, but you are being programmed.” Speaking to students of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, after stating that he had banned his children from using social media, Chamath Palihapitiya – a businessman who until recently was vice president for user growth at Facebook – claimed that “his” former network is destroying how society works. Facebook is apparently giving us all a sense of well-being thanks to dopamine-fed vicious cycles, driving us to angst over continuous updates in a communications overload. In his view, this leads only to illusion and lies, as happens with a series of distorting mirrors. A far cry from the “collaborative construction of truth” that Mark Zuckerberg describes.

DEMOCRACIES AND WEAPONS OF DISINFORMATION. So does this simply amount to disenchanted people venting? Like someone who has deserted a cult and who treats those left behind as the victims of coercion? It’s too early to tell. It is also too late, however, to reverse a possibly dangerous trend. As fossilized politicians – even young ones – struggle to understand how to compose a tweet (and especially how to cope with the ensuing feedback), for the rest of us it’s becoming increasingly more complicated to figure out whom to believe. Democracies are being fundamentally undermined by the new weapons of disinformation. The suspicion that foreign powers are swaying our vote is being borne out daily. We believe what we read, no matter who wrote it, while we’ve come to doubt our traditional stalwarts.

“Fake news is spreading at a worrying rate, it threatens the reputation of the media and the well-being of our democracies and threatens to undermine our democratic values. That is why we need to develop mechanisms for detecting fake news and preventing it from being spread. Unless the eu takes action, the situation could get even worse.” It was with these words that in January 2018 the European Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society Mariya Gabriel launched the first meeting of a European Commission expert group tasked with tackling the phenomenon. The aim of the working group is to monitor electoral processes in individual countries of the European Union – countries which, at a national level, are in any case preparing themselves by adopting more stringent regulations.

Also at the beginning of 2018, Italy’s Ministry of the Interior launched the first “Operational Protocol to combat the spread of fake news online”. Viewed with some skepticism by the web community, the “red button” service made available to citizens by the police is designed to activate a team of experts that are on-call 24 hours a day. This team – using latest-generation software – should, within a few hours, identify new items that are cause for public concern or harmful to people. Any doubts as to the initiative’s effectiveness are justified: after all, as Fabrizio De André once sang, “any news that’s a bit out of the ordinary doesn’t need any newspaper to help it travel; like an arrow shot from a bow, it sets flight fast through word of mouth.” Governments would be better off introducing compulsory functional digital literacy courses before it’s too late.

In the meantime, we must trust to Mark Zuckerberg’s ability to soundly steer this starship into the future at breakneck speed; we must hope his interests and ours continue to coincide.

 

 

 

*This article is taken from Aspenia International, n.80-81