Democracy And The Algorithm-Shubhranshu Singh

In a democracy, ultimately only the votes matter. Each vote is an endorsement. This endorsement is earned by convincing people. It needs scale, continuity and reinforcement.

To win favour as a candidate, party or an ideology requires the means for information dissemination. An ability to shape the discourse in the public sphere is invaluable to the pursuit of power. Social media platforms in general and Facebook in particular provide this. The ‘leave EU’ campaign calling for Brexit understood the power of Facebook.The US Presidential elections of 2016 put this power under a spotlight. It was a Facebook election. 

The topology of the World Wide Web is such that being a hub is of paramount importance. This network based media ecology is new. It is incomparably more powerful than ever before.In this time of a pandemic, we can think in terms of informational epidemiology. Bias is infectious. It spreads from one host to another. The shape of the network and the speed of transmission is key. A platform that provides clumped reach is ideal for planting bias. This is what Facebook has been accused of. 

The state is a resource constrained actor. No single government can take on Facebook. Political power in a democracy comes from gaining market share in the information economy. Successful players need to gain attention in a “many to one” environment. Increasingly, it has meant creating polarity and getting the people behind your view of the world. Bias, prejudice, polarisation causes the aggregation that can be reaped to advantage. Majoritarianism – right or wrong – is defended as being a democratic phenomenon. 

This connected influence is being fortified by real-time data on each and every member and intersection on the platform. Used well, it leads to a huge propaganda advantage. Consistent reinforcement of lies on a social platform is possible via an inbuilt skew in the design. Others can decide what we get exposed to.

How do we inoculate ourselves and our society and democracy from managed social media propaganda? How do we recover our individual freedom of choice from the control of massive companies such as Facebook? How can I be in charge of my data?

Bot attacks, fake posts, automated messaging, directed traffic are amongst the means employed. There is nothing “bot” everything is “bought”. There is always a human behind it all, curating the toxic hate that gets passed on as organic messaging. 

For the majority of people in the world Facebook is the way to experience the internet. 

Facebook doesn’t share data the way, say a Twitter does. It gives us no account of what the data is that they scrutinise and what such scrutiny tells them. It needs regulation. Facebook’s revenues totalled $ 70.7 billion in 2019. After deductions, the company reported a net income of $18.5 billion. Its market value as of 24th August, 2020 is $761 billion. Facebook had 2.50 billion monthly active users ,as of 31 December 2019, making it the most populous single community on earth.

It is not merely fake news. It is ‘take’ news. Someone is profiting. A super algorithm with an assembly line of lies! Entire troll farms, cut outs and legends are using Facebook and Instagram for misinformation and we know very little about Facebook and even lesser about Instagram. The company says it does everything possible to weed out hate. Advertisers and civil society are not convinced. 

An entire new field of visual disinformation is emerging and we know that a picture says a thousand words. The technical system now has a superior ability to manipulate the social system.

The game plan is simple. To give selective exposure to preferred opinions. Reinforce these and convince people that they represents the reality. Make followers into voters.

At one level, we all learn via reinforcement. Looking for the truth, thinking, unlearning, relearning is difficult and painful. 

This is precisely the pain we must endure to save ourselves and our democracy.

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