Monday, April 09, 2018

Facebook's Role in a Democracy

Over the last several weeks, the social media giant Facebook has been on the hotseat for its dealings with a consulting firm called Cambridge Analytics.  Evidently, Facebook shared the data of more than 80 million of its users with the firm, which was working for the Trump election campaign at the time.  The details are rather murky and one's view of this particular breach depends on one's political affiliation.  So rather than get down into the mudpit to sling more mud about this specific incident, I would rather take this opportunity to examine a more basic and far-reaching question.  What is the proper role of a huge social media company such as Facebook in a democracy?

To answer that question, we need to have some notion of how a well-functioning democracy works.  Political scientists generally regard a democracy as consisting of a government run by elected representatives.  The people (or some chosen subset thereof) get to vote for these representatives, and in turn the representatives construct and operate a government which observes certain rights of the people and subjects them to the rule of law. 

Speaking from an engineering point of view, a democracy can be considered to be a kind of control system.   Things needing the government's attention affect the votes and opinions of the masses, who elect representatives to do something about these things.  The representatives enact laws that ideally decrease the gap between the way things are and the way things ought to be.  That gap is never wholly closed this side of Paradise, but the narrower it gets, the better the democracy works.

Notice that in the description I just gave, the phrase "the way things ought to be" is really a statement of morality or justice.  In a country of over 300 million people, you are never going to get perfect agreement on anything, let alone matters of morality and justice.  But the beauty of democracy is that if most of the people broadly agree on something that the government can or should do, the democratic system has a way to deliver it.  And sometimes it even does.

Control systems have feedback loops, and in the most general view of such things, what is fed back is information.  And the same is true, broadly speaking, of democracies.  The people inform their representatives of their opinions about various matters by voting, as well as contacting them directly.  The representatives vote and pass bills using this information, and the information solidifies into laws, which are sort of like operating instructions for both the government and the people.  Anything that short-circuits or distorts this process is a potential threat to the proper functioning of a democracy.  In particular, any influence that can sway voters unduly or by fraudulent means must be carefully observed, and if necessary, dealt with somehow to restrain it from distorting the flow of information.

Newspapers have been around longer than the U. S. Constitution, and in the very early days of the country, some steps were taken to repress the freedom of the press.  But wiser heads quickly realized that to let the government say what could and could not be published was a gross distortion of the democratic process.  And so the First Amendment was passed to guarantee freedom of speech.  In doing so, the founders regarded the people as being wise enough to judge what opinions and alleged facts they should pay attention to in casting their ballots.  But the proper functioning of the system relies on that judgment, and ever since then there has been a tension between two extreme positions that the media can take in political activities.

One extreme is to attempt complete objectivity:  to report everything of significance in as unbiased a way as possible, and to let the voters make up their own minds.  This extreme was never approached very well, but in the glory days of the major city newspapers of the early and mid-twentieth century, the Associated Press came close, motivated as it was by its desire to sell its stories to newspapers of as wide a range of political persuasions as possible.  And when mass media required huge investments and consequently had only a few outlets (such as the three major TV networks that prevailed for the first thirty years or so of network TV), viewers usually got basically the same news from everywhere.  Maybe it was slanted somewhat, but at least everyone was working from the same page. 

But Facebook is as different from that as you can get, and comes closer in some individual instances to the other media extreme of total partisanship at the expense of reason and even truth.  Add to that the fact that huge parts of Facebook are a mystery to everyone outside it.  The old brick wall between the editorial and the advertisement sides of print journalism has vaporized, and the opinion writers are the readers are the advertisers.  Instead of a clean, easy-to-analyze feedback loop from the media to the voters to the government, we now have a messy tangle of voters who are the media, and who are also maybe Russians with secret axes to grind, and political operatives using data from millions to target certain groups without letting them know what is going on.  And it is all being done for profit, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.  But unlike the old simple lines of profit from print advertisers, whose ads could usually be clearly distinguished from editorial matter, the motives of Facebook and its paying customers are confused, obscure, and sometimes even contradictory.

Can a democracy function when such a confusing mess plays a significant role in elections?  Our democracy is still functioning, in the sense that we still have a Senate and House of Representatives, a President, and a government.  But whether the flow of information back and forth has been hijacked by an influential few, or whether the voters' collective wisdom will rise above even this level of confusion to lead us to a better place, are open questions that only time will answer.  I just hope the answer is something we can live with.

Sources:  An article by Stephanie Bodoni carried in the Apr. 7, 2018 edition of the Austin American-Statesman entitled "Facebook to engage Europe on data scandal" was the motivation for this piece.  I also referred to Wikipedia articles on the U. S. Constitution and the First Amendment. 

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