28 Aug 2018

Anti-social media: Facebook and surveillance capitalism

From Afternoons, 3:10 pm on 28 August 2018

Despite protestations of innocence by Facebook representatives over abuses relating to the social media giant, the main problem is it's working as designed, author and expert Professor Siva Vaidhyanathan says.

Siva Vaidhyanathan

Siva Vaidhyanathan Photo: wikipedia

Facebook has faced scandals relating to the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar, authoritarian countries such as Cambodia, anti-Muslim sentiment leading to deadly riots in India and as its use as a campaign tool to influence voting in the US and UK.

Prof Vaidhyanathan is the Robertson professor of media studies and director of the Center for Media and Citizenship at the University of Virginia.

His latest book is Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy, and in it he says social media is accelerating the deterioration of democratic and intellectual culture around the world.

He says Facebook staff who talk about such tragic events tend to speak as though they are incidental, when that's not the case.

"This is what Facebook is supposed to do, Facebook is designed to amplify content that generates strong emotions."

Content that generates strong emotions is more likely to garner clicks, share, and comments he says. Facebook measures this reaction and then amplifies it. 

"What generates those reactions? Cute puppies do, pictures of babies do, pictures of baby goats do, but also hate speech and calls for genocide and calls for religious nationalism and terrorism recruitment and conspiracy theories.

"Whenever there's a reasonable, rational discussion on Facebook it dies a quiet death because Facebook's algorithms just don't sense that this is the sort of content people care about."

He says Facebook's ability to connect people, its drive to amplify strong emotions and its powerful, inexpensive targeted advertising system means information, products, services and politics are served directly to the people most likely to be persuaded to it.

The news business has questions for Facebook.

The news business has questions for Facebook. Photo: PHOTO / RNZ Colin Peacock

"So, in democracies around the world we see a poverty of deliberation, discussion and debate - and we have an amplification of rancour.

"That's not entirely Facebook's fault, it didn't start with Facebook, but Facebook not only amplifies it, Facebook monetises it."

He says Facebook's creator Mark Zuckerberg is a genius of sorts but has limited understanding of human behaviour.

"I wish he had read more, I wish he had read more philosophy, sociology, more of the classics. I wish he had pondered the cruelties that human beings are capable of."

Read more about Mark Zuckerberg and his defence of Facebook: 

  • Ten things learned in 10 hours of Zuckerberg testimony
  • Facebook CEO says company did not do enough to prevent misuse
  • Facebook: We're in arms race with Russia
  • He says Facebook does provide some value, offering a sense people paying attention to the user and connection with people who might find that otherwise difficult.

    "Updates about your cousins and their children, and friends from grade school and distant relatives you don't actually talk to but wouldn't mind seeing pictures of them occasionally.

    "Facebook was not designed to hurt democracy but it was designed to do all of these other things."

    He says Zuckerberg has moved away from talking simply about connectivity and towards talking about "community".

    Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg.

    Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg. Photo: AFP

    "Once again he is uneducated, he has not read deeply about the concept of community, he has not thought deeply about the extent to which Facebook is unable to create community in the way Zuckerberg would like it.

    "He refers to all 2.2 billion Facebook users as 'a community', well, that's just not the case, we have almost nothing in common … instead we have these fractured collections of like-minded people: the opposite of a community."

    He says what defines community is a shared experience or fate.

    "So a village can be a community because it sits under a volcano or it sits on a shore that can be hit by a tsunami.

    "We also know that community itself is not a value-free or value-positive concept, it can also imply exclusion - of people who may be sexual minorities, ideological minorities, religious minorities.

    "He's flailing around for a vision that sounds like he is making the world better."

    In reality, he says, Facebook is aggregating massive amounts of private people's data - location data from mobile phones with the Facebook app, usage of other apps on Android systems, tracking internet search and history via cookies and through more straightforward ways of getting data - buying it, including information on people who are not even signed up.


    Facebook Photo: 123RF

    "Everything you look for, everything you click on, everything you engage with on the web, its constantly making a profile on you, a dossier on you - even if you are not a member of Facebook."

    He says people should be concerned that this information is available to people who might want to make hostile use of it.

    "[The data] might be available to the government of Turkey or the government of Thailand or any other illiberal state … it could be available to the governments of New Zealand and Australia and the United States and the UK - which we don't necessarily think of as being hostile but they certainly have a record of being hostile to certain people under certain conditions."

    "We know that states - Russia, the United States, the UK, have tried and in many cases succeeded in getting access to Facebook data, massive amounts.

    "Facebook itself shares data, prolifically and promiscuously."

    He says the Cambridge Analytica controversy is one example, but it was not a one-off.

    More about Cambridge Analytica:

  • Explainer: Why you should care about Cambridge Analytica
  • Cambridge Analytica shutting down
  • Facebook scandal 'hit 87 million users'
  • "The Barack Obama campaign in the US had richer data in 2012 than Cambridge Analytica had 2016 but nobody was freaking out about that because Obama didn't seem like a threat to our way of life.

    "It's actually a settled matter that Russia has imposed its propaganda rather effectively in both the US and the UK, and often just messes with us … just wants to stir up trouble and just wants to undermine faith in democracy."

    He says policies, like the new GDPR law from the EU, are a necessity but so far they are insufficient.

    "We should not be considered merely the producers of distilled data that has value to these companies but none to us - we should be considered subjects and humans fully when it comes to our relationship with these companies."

    A lit sign is seen at the entrance to Facebook's corporate headquarters

    A lit sign is seen at the entrance to Facebook's corporate headquarters Photo: AFP

    Prof Vaidhyanathan says he also wants to see increased enforcement of anti-competitive and antitrust regulation.

    "I would like to see regulators consider breaking off Whatsapp and Instagram from Facebook, both of those companies should never have been allowed to be purchased by Facebook.

    "They both generate a tremendous amount of data and it all goes into the Facebook mothership and I think we would be better off if those companies were in competition with Facebook rather than collaborating with it."

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