Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, testifies in Congress following the uncovering of the Cambridge Analytica scandal in which it was revealed that Cambridge Analytica harvested the personal data of up to 87 million Facebook users and subsequently used the profiles to help the Trump campaign.
There is a growing sense that Facebook and other social media platforms are a significant factor in the increasing polarization of our politics and even a real threat to democracy in countries such as the U.S. and Canada – countries with historically strong democratic institutions. This post explores how the business model chosen by the biggest platforms has contributed to the weakening of our democratic institutions and what can be done to curb the socially destructive consequences of the platforms’ current operations.
The Facebook business model
The problem with Facebook is that it is fine-tuned to be an addictive site in which politics – and information more broadly – are indistinguishable from entertainment. Of course, much the same could be said of cable TV news and the tabloid press. However, the engagement and immersion in social media is more intense than the kind that television or print delivers. It encourages people to associate only with those who share their opinions, creating information filters regarding politics and general views of the world. By training its users to place greater importance on feelings of agreement and belonging (“friends”, “like/dislike”) than on objective truth and facts, Facebook has created a gigantic forum for tribalism. Or more precisely, a forum for tribalism that contains a multitude of tribes that define themselves in terms of politics, race, ethnicity, religion, cultural/consumer preferences and social status. And because they are tribes existing in an information bubble with news of the outside world delivered to them primarily by Facebook’s algorithms through its newsfeed, members of any given tribe are increasingly oblivious to any views other than their own. They are also increasingly oblivious (and even hostile) to the notion of objective truth and facts more generally.
Moreover, Facebook’s algorithms are designed to feed users, over time, ever more extreme material that plays to these tribal identities. In strictly business terms, this increases the average time a user stays on the platform thereby increasing Facebook’s advertising revenue. In political and social terms, it leads to a polarized electorate and society.
98% of Facebook’s revenue comes from selling ads and the company has every incentive to continue to collect as much private data as it can on its users in order to keep them engaged on the site and to allow ad buyers to effectively target their ads. The potential impact of a business model driven by this combination of intense immersion and surveillance manifested itself when it was revealed that the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica had obtained information about 50 million Facebook users in order to develop psychological profiles to assist the Trump campaign. That number has since risen to 87 million. Yet Facebook seems incapable of accepting the fact that its relentless pursuit of growth, which Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg characterizes as encouraging “openness and connection” globally, has been socially destructive.
But concerns over tribalization and the debasement of truth and facts caused by social media, should not stop with Facebook. Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and Google, also share an aspiration to become the primary lens through which we both view the world and participate in it. And Google, in particular, suffers from many of the same problems as Facebook. Continue reading