The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data exploitation crisis seems to be waking up a new wave of Americans to the fundamental downsides of our purposeful addiction to social media providers. Russia’s information war, designed to foment domestic unrest, exposed more of us to the reality of online manipulation, but many viewed this as a willful attack by an outsider, not reflective of a base problem with the social media platform business model.
This week’s outing of how and why Cambridge Analytica extracted vital, personal information on more than 50 million Americans for political reasons amplifies how dangerous the fundamental business model is to our national cohesion.
Like more than a billion persons worldwide, I enjoy the connectivity social media provides us with friends and family. And like most others, I have opted to ignore the troubling ways in which social media providers treat our user information as commodities to be bought and sold to their real clients in advertising, marketing, social engineering, criminality and political influence operations. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others are clear in their Terms of Agreements that our user data will be collected and sold to highest bidders, but we click “I Agree” without acknowledging that our access is not free, and the price we are paying as a nation is extraordinarily high.
The essential revenue model for “free” social media access is that our user data is the commodity to be collected and sold to influencers. Our activity is the product, and the product is worth more when it is detailed and constant. The more daily active users there are, the more influencers will pay for the data. Our commoditization is even more valuable now that social media platforms have morphed from social updating to being news and product providers.
To be clear, there is great gain in increasing our access to people and events via social media platforms. They are great democratizers. However, there are equally great dangers that must be mitigated if we are to improve our fraying civil society. The challenge is that even modest course corrections will be difficult to make, because doing so will greatly reduce social media provider revenue streams.
There are deep fundamentals vexing corrections. Until we recognize how fixed these fundamentals are, we risk cosmetic reforms that simply send us deeper down the rabbit hole. The seven most obvious core flaws to meeting the challenge are as follows:
- Congress can’t fix the problem. Congress cannot keep pace with the speed of technological inventiveness. Congress spent years passing legislation to improve the climate for industry, namely by increasing government cyber threat information sharing. But during that time, deep, new threats vaulted well ahead of this challenge. Legislation introduced by Democratic Senators Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, together with Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona requires full disclosure of online political ads addresses a small element of our lost online information integrity. The challenge of bots and state-sponsored troll farms is now a far larger threat. Congress could pass needed laws on fundamental issues, like the right to be forgotten online, and tilt the balance of power on Terms of Agreement more in favor of users. But individual users and company shareholders will need to drive social media providers to change the basic vulnerabilities of their business model.
- Sponsored content is dangerous. Sponsored content is advertising. Sponsored content is not unbiased analysis or news. Sponsored content is worth more to social media providers when it looks like news and is placed in the middle of news reporting. Too many content providers – well beyond social media platforms – have dangerously blurred the line between actual reporting and advertising. Simply noting at the top of paid, online articles that they are sponsored is not protective enough. Compare what sponsored content looks like online to the separation in hard copy newspapers. There, the line is still bright, and readers are far more likely to know they are reading advertising, not news. Raising awareness of sponsored content will take a sizeable bite out of revenue, but our online literacy is dependent on it.
- Social media platforms pretend they are not content providers. Social media providers like Facebook and Twitter have long argued that they are simply platforms for providers to post what they like, consistent with law and internal rule making. This lets the platforms skirt journalistic ethics and oversight. Facebook, Twitter and others have a business interest in users feeling safe and satiated with their online experiences, but they also have fiduciary responsibilities to shareholders. They are built to maximize profit. As social media platforms have become primary sources of news for more than half of the nation, they would serve their users best by adopting stricter standards like those followed by two of the largest news organizations in the world: AP and Reuters . This is far more than policing their sites for pornography.
- Bots can be stopped, trolls cannot. Cleaning up our online information requires removing artificial accelerants that push some stories to the top of news feeds. This artificiality is driven primarily by automated story pushing commonly referred to as bots. Not all bots are bad, such as those used for emergency information alerts, but bots are dangerous when used to push false narratives to far-larger audiences than they would reach organically. Technology allows providers to identify automated information pushes, and there are steps being taken to alter algorithms away from simply forwarding the most widely, artificially pushed stories to the top of news feeds. Trolls are another matter. Trolls are individuals or groups of persons posting divisive content for hateful, political or even humorous purposes. As we learned in the 2016 election, Russia used state-sponsored troll farms to attack American civil society. Blocking trolls means humans deciding whether posts are serious, manipulative, in poor taste, or simply free speech. Trolls are here to stay.
- Valid news costs money. Blogging is not validated, professional journalism. Real, newsroom journalism costs time and money to produce. It begins with the hiring of trained journalists. It includes editors, and can include ombudsmen and review panels. Preserving the business of professional journalism can be done by charging readers for content or relying on advertising. The easiest route today is clickbait stories that drive up advertising eyeballs. We will continue to decimate the field of professional journalism as long as we demand it be “free.” Many professional newspapers are switching to paid digital-access models, which I believe is a small price to pay for validated, accountable, branded information. But until more Americans prove willing to sign up for paid, digital content, the more professional journalism will atrophy. Our current president sees great advantage in undermining trust in journalism, but the nation is far more resilient with common understanding of basic facts.
- Bad online literacy is good for business. Social media providers make money when we are easily manipulated. Advertisers will pay more when the public is more malleable. Too many of us spend hours unknowingly fighting bots and trolls in forum and chat rooms. And each fight we have gives platform providers more data to sell. Facebook and Twitter almost certainly recognize that telling us we are fighting foreign adversaries and bots will drive users away. And having fewer users means they make less from advertisers. Until and unless companies determine their current business model is a net revenue loser, they will continue to be opaque about known abuses on their platforms.
- The fundamental business model is here to stay. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is to be commended for acknowledging his platform was, and is being used by a foreign power to foment domestic unrest, and political consulting firms are using user data for nefarious purposes. But until the basic revenue stream shifts from selling user data to third parties, fundamental dangers will persist. Providers hide behind obtuse Terms of Agreement to cash out on our privacy and the health of civil society.
The positives in the public exposure of the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica debacle is that it makes more glaring the deep problems we have in our ungoverned online space. Ever since social media platforms moved decisively into being content providers, we have been increasingly vulnerable to wide-spread manipulation and degradation.
It may be wistful to hope for a return to the time that Americans willingly went to valid, professional news sites for information and analysis, and social media business treated users as customers. But it is not too late for us to increase our online literacy and heal some of our willfully-stoked social fissures.