Why You Can’t Trust Facebook

I’m reading an article in The Atlantic (https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/10/what-facebook-did/542502/) about the effect Facebook (may have) had on the 2016 election of Donald Trump as the USA’s 45th President. The article itself has many reasons for us to be very wary of the information we are presented with in our social media bubbles.  And it got me thinking about all the ways it can be ‘gamed’ (or worse) to skew our view of the world.

Let’s start by saying I’m not a massive conspiracy theorist. I choose to believe that the algorithms the social platform geeks cook up are genuinely intended to serve up valuable content that we will be pleased to see and will enhance our lives.  That’s not to say I think they always get it right though.  At best it seems to create an ‘echo chamber effect’ where everyone’s preaching to the converted, and we don’t get to see a real diversity of opinions and attitudes. And at worst it can lead to views becoming increasingly entrenched, coupled with massive cognitive dissonance when we finally do get to see some conflicting material.

Fans of the US TV show “Homeland” will remember the “Sock Puppet” plot, where hundreds of geeks sat in a darkened room, controlling thousands of online profiles, inciting their social media “friends” to outrage about political issues. It’s not far-fetched; in the Atlantic article, ad agencies admit to using FB Ads to skew political results in specific swing counties. So we know what people see on their social media feeds can either change or reinforce their views.

And what that means is that if a foreign government wanted to affect the result of a democratic process, they wouldn’t need to hack into anything. They could simply set up a massive sock puppet operation.  OK, they’d need to be a bit clever with their routing – it’s fair to assume that a whole load of connections from Moscow or Beijing servers befriending US voters in swing states might raise a digital eyebrow or two in Menlo Park. But that’s a whole lot easier than hacking a mainframe.

The trouble with (and the effectiveness of) sock puppet campaigns is they appear to be people like us.  And we tend to have an inherent trust of ‘people like us’.  In many ways that’s not too much of a problem when all it does is create the “echo-chamber effect” – our social media feeds being full of stuff we already agree with. That simply reinforces what we already think. It might save the odd ‘swing voter’ from flipping, but the overall effect is limited.

But there’s a much bigger potential danger in the combination of sock puppets and the ‘people like us’ effect. ‘Sock puppets like us’ if you like. And that’s when our sock puppet friends start to subtly change their views.  We like them, they’re people we get on with, we have shared interests. If they start to have doubts about our favoured candidate/policy/party, maybe we should also have doubts? When they ‘come across’ some convincing argument to weaken our position, we’re probably going to take more notice. More notice, even, than if we came across that new information ourselves.

All sorts of things are going on here, from Cialdini’s consistency to Maslow’s belonging. I wrote a blog some years ago back in my Ecademy days (the first real business social media platform, sadly now defunct through lack of funding), called “Where should you focus your efforts for greatest effect?” about how we are more likely to be swayed by our moderate opponents, especially if we consider ourselves to be moderate too. And that’s even more likely when they used to be just on our side of the argument.

That social media connection of yours may appear to be a socially-conscious mother of two from Wisconsin, with ideas and attitudes you can align with.  But for all you know you could be getting subtly influenced by Boris from Bratsk, or Supremacy Steve. So my advice is to be very wary of any online connection who you haven’t met in person. You really have no idea who they are, so before you allow someone’s reasonable argument to sway you, pick up the phone or jump on skype, and find out what they *really* stand for.

Are we truly represented?

Is our geography-based system of representation still the best form of democracy?

After all the shenanigans of the Brexit referendum here in the UK, I have found myself pondering upon what democracy really is, and how best to design a system of representation that delivers it.

Democracy is generally understood to be government of the people, by the people, for the people.  In practice, that usually becomes not by the people, but on behalf of the people.  We elect representatives to re-present our views in a parliament, and we have to trust that they will do so.

I’m basing this article on the UK, but in most democracies, like the UK, we elect our representatives based on geography.  That has practical advantages – we can trot along to our local MP’s (or equivalent) surgery and tell them what we would like them to find important.  And if they are a good MP, they will take the matter up.  But it is also based in the premise that all the people in a geographical area want roughly the same things and find the same sort of things important.  The recent referendum showed how false a premise that is, with most votes being in the 51-60% range in favour of one side or the other.

And we cannot realistically expect MP’s to take up something that we are the only ones to have raised, if there are other matters that more local people are more concerned about.  MPs have limited bandwidth, and so does parliament.

That has the effect of marginalising ideas that are at the edge of the consciousness of a society.  You may say that’s as it should be – if it’s on the edges of what people are interested in, why should it get air-time in parliament?  The problem with that view is that nothing will ever change, because that leading-edge thinking gets suppressed, not by government dictat, but by it simply not getting discussed in the corridors of power.

Let’s try a thought experiment, these are not real numbers, but let’s say there are maybe 5% of the population overall who would like to see a kindness-based system of government.  With 650 MP’s, that would mean we should have 33 of them willing and able to re-present that idea in parliament.  But because each individual MP is elected by a majority (well, technically a minority much of the time) of the people in their geographical area, unless there are maybe one or two areas where the 5% of the “Kindness Rules” tribe congregate and can create a majority, they will probably not manage to get anyone at Westminster.  So they are reliant on their local Tory or Labour MP bringing it up, which is unlikely, because (quite rightly) they are focussed on what the majority who elected them want.

I find myself asking: why do we continue to define constituencies by geography?  It made sense when the system was originally designed – centuries ago – when difficulty of communication meant having someone local was important.  And most people’s major concerns were about local issues, the wider world having little effect on them.  But with modern technology enabling the communication and discussion of issues much more widely, could we not select our representatives from across the nation, based on their views rather than where they live?

There are all sorts of difficulties with putting such a system in place, not least the potential length of the ballot paper in each polling station!  But again, technology could provide an answer – perhaps with voters selecting their choice electronically.  The risks associated with that are amusingly demonstrated in a fictional US Presidential election in the movie “Man of the Year” with Robin Williams, but I am sure it is not beyond the wit of C21 man to come up with a solution – perhaps mini-printers in polling booths printing off physical ballot slips?  Or a list of candidates posted on the wall with reference numbers for voters to copy onto ballot papers.

Those are just off the top of my head, I am certain the geeks can come up with something equally as robust as what we currently have.

Of course, we probably won’t ever see anything like that, because the sheer variety of candidates and views has the potential to destroy the relevance of political parties, so they would probably all use the massively-undemocratic “three-line whip” to defeat anything that came close, as the major parties have with PR in the past.

But imagine if we did – what if you could elect someone who genuinely represented your true views about the way you want the world to be?