Facebook – Signal / Noise

Cyberspace Anarchitecture as Jungle-War is the typically awesome title of a typically incomprehensible Nick Land article. It lurches out of my id as I contemplate the current Facebook* fiasco. Not so much a watershed as a tsunami, the aftermath of the 2016 US election exposed efforts by multiple US and non-US actors to influence the election. This should come as no surprise. Influencing elections is what groups try to do. That’s part of democracy. However the 2016 election was decided by a very small number of votes. The narrowness of victory means that the losing side feels that every action mattered. Rural whites abandoned by the Democrats. Hilary Clinton’s emails. FBI intransigence. The list goes on and on and on and… I’m sorry, were you saying something to me?

Anyway, it became increasingly clear that Russia attempted to influence the US election through social media targeting  – specifically buying ads on Facebook. There is a wonderfully detailed article was published in Wired about this in February. But that wasn’t the trigger for the outrage we have been experiencing. That was a series of exposes written about Cambridge Analytica and Facebook data that they obtained from academics to “psychographically” profile users and then target ads at them during both the UK Brexit referendum and the 2016 US election.

This is sometimes written up as though Cambridge Analytica have data superpowers that won these democratic contests for their clients. That’s certainly what they would like their potential customers to think – as do most firms with the phrases “big data”, “machine learning”, or “artificial intelligence” in their pitch decks. But they probably didn’t – the model doesn’t actually work very well. However the Cambridge Analytica scandal has both highlighted and obscured a number of things.

It has highlighted that the Tech Behemoths hold a lot of data about you and they are not always careful with it**. Some of us have been aware of this for years. The message we were told was:

“Consumers will happily give up their data and privacy in exchange for a free service. Advertisers will pay for that data for advertising. Consumers get a free service AND better advertising. We make truckloads of money. Everyone is a winner!”

The mindset of Silicon Valley firms is that data is the new oil. The more oil you have the better. You want to be Saudi Arabia (more oil) not Basingstoke (less oil) – right? Now there’s a thing in economics called the “resource curse” that they might want to think about but for now, lets state that tech firms collect and hoard as much data as they can. Facebook is not alone here – this mass data harvesting is a norm (indeed a core value) for the Tech Behemoths. So why Facebook?

Well, one issue is that traditional media companies hate Facebook. Apple has given us new devices. Amazon has sold stuff in new ways. No one really cares about Twitter any more. Google comes close to Facebook in its co-domination of the online advertising market that has subverted the business traditional media companies. But Facebook’s combination of walled garden and continual changing of the game pisses off traditional media businesses like nothing else – that comes through in the Wired article.

It is easy to both overestimate and underestimate the power of Facebook. It dominates consumer entertainment / distraction to a huge degree but beyond that its ambitions are shallow. Google has a whole portfolio of projects (e.g. self-driving cars) based on its founders’ adolescent science fiction dreams. Facebook’s acquisitions have been focused on consumer communications. It is very profitable and its high market capitalization both indicates the future riches that investors expect it to deliver and also gives it power in acquisitions but it appears #393 on the 2017 Fortune Global 500 with a revenue of $27bn (sandwiched between Coop Group and Traveler Cos).

But it’s not just trad media sour grapes. Facebook does have a case to answer. It is now the world’s most powerful media company. It doesn’t want to be a media company – or at least it does not want to be regulated like one. But it is. And it should be. And this scandal may blow over and Facebook’s massive user base may go back to using it willy-nilly. Or they may not. And while the US government has shown itself to be unwilling to regulate these new markets, the EU has been far more activist. To say nothing of the Chinese (where the internet market is very different).

However all this noise has obscured other things. Just as the Facebook scandal was firing up, there was a smaller kerfuffle about a talk given by veteran internet researcher danah boyd @ SXSW 2018. You can:

Done that? OK. So part of the Cambridge Analytica narrative is that CA “stole” Brexit and the US presidency. That narrative is problematic because the real question is why such patently bad ideas as a Donald Trump presidency or a poorly thought through Brexit were popular enough to be viable in the first place***. If these things were “stolen” then they were left in plain sight with a massive sign saying “steal me” hanging over them, a bag on one side for the thief to carry them off in for maximum convenience, and a call placed at the local den of thieves advising them of this exciting opportunity.

danah’s point is a confronting one. Her talk is a bit of a mess. But I actually like that. I am watching someone trying to make sense of a messy, complex situation. If media literacy is simply telling people that Fox News is bad then it will fail. What danah is talking about here is politics. The messy politics of engaging with people that you disagree with. The need to rebuild community and connection with people with whom you can both disagree and get things done. What does it mean to create a community of understanding? Who knows. Even Facebook could be a part of this. But what she is talking about is not education or media literacy. Do not be mistaken. It is politics.

Meanwhile just under the smooth, frictionless UI surface of Facebook, we are still in the jungle, in the anarchitecture. We have met the enemy, Porkypine, and he is us.

*Takes, like revenge, are a dish best served cold.

**I combat this by lying a lot on social media. While I would like to pretend that I arrived at this through careful strategizing, it’s really just the fortuitous by-product of being a sociopath.

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