Saturday, April 7, 2018

Greed’s New Playing Field

On Facebook, Russian Meddling, and the Corrupting Power of Profit 

In the wake of the massive social media meddling and manipulation that impacted the 2016 U.S. presidential election, all fingers are now pointing at Facebook, and for good reason. It was a year and a half ago that U.S. intelligence agencies determined that the Russians had used Facebook and Twitter to meddle in the election. Executives from the tech companies went to Congress to express contrition while assuming no accountability, which was fine until we learned that Cambridge Analytica—whose founder, Robert Mercer, a reportedly brilliant computer scientist and staunch far-right-wing Republican, is the closest thing we have to a real-life Dr. Evil—had obtained and used data on 50 million Facebook users in its own nefarious election influence campaign. Eventually, Facebook’s chief information security officer, Alex Stamos, resigned in disgrace, and now we face the horrifying possibility that Mark Zuckerberg himself, the last person anyone wants to see sitting before a Congressional committee, might indeed subject himself to such a grilling.

So, the world wrings its collective hands over the power and influence of social media platforms, but the fact is, we’ve known for decades that something like this would happen.

Long before the emergence of the worldwide web 25 years ago, researchers identified two key characteristics of what we then called computer-mediated communication—essentially, large-scale communication over devices like computers and smartphones—which were that this type of communication is asynchronous and anonymous. Together, these attributes result in human interplay that is radically different from the face-to-face conversations and phone calls that were the pre-internet norm. Freed from quizzical or stunned expressions, harrumphing or sighs over the phone line, or out-and-out verbal interruptions, and, in fact, freed from ever coming into contact or interacting again with one’s antagonist, participants in social media from the very beginning jettisoned basic tenets of human self-regulation: status, diplomacy, empathy, compassion.

In short, much of social media quickly became anti-social, and the flame wars of 1980s-era Usenet evolved into the bots, imposters, and trolls of modern Facebook.

That’s the temperament story, which explains the human capacity for nefarious deeds on social media. What it doesn’t explain is how social media attained the global reach that allowed it to change the course of a national election in the world’s largest and most well-established democracy. For that, you have to follow the money.

Mark Zuckerberg
In the early days of Facebook, there was reportedly a split between founders Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Severin on the subject of advertising. Severin, who had provided the initial seed money for the site, was in favor of selling ads from the get-go, while Zuckerberg clung to the idea of an online destination free of the stain of conspicuous profit-making. Severin created a media kit that he floated around potential customers and investors in New York while Zuckerberg managed his small team of nerds in Palo Alto. Lots of intrigue, conflict, and resolution later, Facebook now openly promotes its unique ability to deliver targeted ads, and an entire industry has arisen, largely supplanting the newspaper, magazine, and television advertising of the past, and now a company that had revenues of $78 million in 2010 has grown to over $40 billion in revenues today. All that money comes from owning the attention of 2 billion users globally, and all that attention leads to lots of new tech to gain even more attention, and with it, more revenue.

Internet Research Agency Headquarters
So, while nefarious behavior was always a built-in feature (or bug) of the social media paradigm, the scale and global reach of Facebook, and the temptation that gave to devious, creative, and well-organized perpetrators like the Russian Internet Research Agency, all flowed forth from an impulse that is all too American: that of unbridled greed.

1 comment:

Tripp Reade said...

Thanks for setting this problem in its historical context, Bruce. Very useful analysis.