[N]etworks themselves offer ways in which bad actors – and not only the Russian government – can undermine democracy by disseminating fake news and extreme views. “These social platforms are all invented by very liberal people on the west and east coasts,” said Brad Parscale, Mr. Trump’s digital-media director, in an interview last year. “And we figure out how to use it to push conservative values. I don’t think they thought that would ever happen.” Too right.
The Globe and Mail this weekend had an essay by Niall Ferguson on how Social networks are creating a global crisis of democracy. The article is based on Ferguson’s new book The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power from the Freemasons to Facebook. The article points out that manipulation is not just an American problem, but also points out that the real problem is our dependence on social networks in the first place.
What happened in 2016 was much more than just a Kremlin “black op” that exceeded expectations. It was a direct result of the profound change in the public sphere brought about by the advent and spectacular growth of the online network platforms. In many ways, the obsessive focus of the American political class on the Russian sub-plot is a distraction from the alarming reality that – as the European competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager argued earlier this month – the big tech companies, and the way their services are used by ordinary people, pose a much bigger threat to democracy. It is the threat from within we really need to worry about – not the threat from Putin.
Our public sphere is managed by companies whose interest lies in maximizing the data they can milk from us and they can do that by encouraging division and partisanship. They amplify polarization by networking people into sides. The public sphere is not one meeting place where we are all networked, but hundreds of silos that politicians can target directly without any public scrutiny. Social media are not really either social or media. They balkanize us in ways that makes it hard for any public will to emerge. Only those who can afford to pay for the data and the tools for targeted messaging will do well in the emerging political environment.