Sometimes, things that seem unproblematic and obvious don’t bear much scrutiny. Let’s take a popular case in point. Elon Musk, you may have heard, is buying Twitter. He tweeted the following of his intentions for the platform:
There is so much to unpack here. I almost want to go line by line. But instead, let’s zoom out a moment and just think about what’s happening here. The world’s richest man is buying a platform which has been known to have had an effect on democratic elections in at least two major western democracies. So he is absolutely right when he calls it a “digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated”. More than that, though, it’s a giant memetic influence machine which will no doubt help decide who will become next President of the USA.
Twitter isn’t “the” town square, however, in two senses. First, town squares aren’t usually privately-owned. They’re public spaces, owned by the people. Second, although it has a lot of users, Twitter doesn’t even have as many as Pinterest, never mind Instagram or Facebook. Also, worldwide, people use on average over seven different social platforms on average.
But, hang on, it’s a good thing that Musk’s is aiming to make Twitter better by “open source the algorithms to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans,” right? Well, perhaps not. Although I appreciate the sentiment, just because something can be inspected doesn’t mean it can be understood.
However, my main issue is with the idea that everything would be OK if we got rid of spam bots and ensured that everyone was in some way verified. Although it seems like common sense that the use of real names leads to civility, this has proved to be incorrect. It’s actually my experience on the internet as well. I’ve had some of the best interactions with people who I don’t know the real names of, nor where they’re located.
Someone sent me a link to counter.social which is a reductio ad absurdum of what Twitter could turn into. It claims: “No Trolls. No Abuse. No Ads. No Fake News. No Foreign Influence Ops.” Good luck with that. Again, although it sounds like something that social media users would want, it’s a thinly-veiled signpost to authoritarianism.
The answer to the problem of how to do online democracy is citizen education together with strengthening democratic institutions. It’s not allowing a billionaire who’s had some success buying companies before to parachute himself in to ‘fix’ things. Thank goodness I’ve spent the last five years on the Fediverse and deleted my Twitter account around six months ago…
I’m continuing to listen to Season 4 of Scene on Radio, entitled The Land That Never Has Been Yet. As I mentioned in a previous post quoting from another episode in the series, the hosts bring a clarity to some of my muddled political thoughts.
This time, they’re talking about neoliberalism, the idea that markets can fix everything. It’s gone from being a contested idea when I was young to pretty much orthodox thinking in 2020.
John Biewen: Yeah and despite these inconsistencies and logical problems with the theory, another thing that Wendy Brown has pointed out is that neoliberalism has become so pervasive. People like Buchanan and Hayek and Milton Friedman wanted us to accept the market as the guiding metaphor for pretty much everything in our lives.
Chenjerai Kumanyika: Yes. And we were talking about an example of this in our pandemic episode. The problems with this idea that everything should be run like a business. But neoliberalism is really this on steroids, right? It’s like society should just be a marketplace, in fact, Margaret Thatcher famously said there’s no such thing as society. Just a collection of individuals. So in that picture, we’re not even citizens, right, we’re just kinda like, independent contractors.
John Biewen: And notice that language, the way so much of our language now is borrowed from the financial world and from markets. We’re not caring for ourselves, we’re developing our humanity, we’re investing in ourselves. We’re not sharing our gifts, we’re building our brands. We don’t have responsibility to take care of each other, we’re out here competing.
That line from Kumanyika that we’re “not ever citizens… just independent contractors” really stopped me in my tracks (literally, as I was running at the time). In the UK, we don’t have a written constitution so, despite the government’s mention of us as ‘citizens’ we’re actually subjects of the Crown. The term may no longer be in popular use, but it doesn’t make it any the less true.
Part of the reason we don’t think about this is probably because how subjugated we are to the market forces of neoliberalism in every area of our lives. True democracy, as Biewen and Kumanyika discuss towards the beginning of the episode, deals in power dynamics, trying to make society more equal over time. Neoliberalism instead entrenches privilege and hierarchy, which is why I’m against it and everything it entails.
Facebook, on the other hand, only offers its users a forum to connect and share information. Facebook’s income derives from selling targeted advertising to be delivered to those same users, based on preferences the site has learned from their comments, friends, and preferences. It has no goods or services to sell, and its users don’t buy anything. Thus, its only product to take to market is, in fact, its users’ data. (source)
I don’t use Facebook. You shouldn’t either.
I scraped the trackers on these sites and I was absolutely dumbfounded. Every time someone likes one of these posts on Facebook or visits one of these websites, the scripts are then following you around the web. And this enables data-mining and influencing companies like Cambridge Analytica to precisely target individuals, to follow them around the web, and to send them highly personalised political messages. (Jonathan Albright, source)
Personalised advertising isn’t useful. It’s invasive, and it’s used to build a profile to manipulate you and your ‘friends’.
Using personality targeting, Facebook posts can attract up to 63 percent more clicks and 1,400 more conversions. (source)
There’s several pretty scary implications to where this could take us by 2020:
Public sentiment as high-frequency trading — algorithms compete to sway the opinions of the electorate / consumers.
Personalized, automated propaganda — not just lies by politicians, but auto-generated lies created by bots who know which of your ‘buttons’ to press.
Ideological filter matrices — what happens when all of the other ‘people’ in your Facebook group are actually bots?
So, not only will I not use Facebook, but (like Dave Winer and John Gruber) I won’t link to it. Nor will I accept organisations that I’m part of setting up Facebook groups ‘for convenience’ or using a Facebook page in lieu of a website.
Facebook is designed from the ground up as an all-out attack on the open web. (John Gruber)
The web is a huge force for good. We shouldn’t let inertia and a lack of digital skills turn it into a series of walled data mine.
Get a blog. If your ideas have any value put them on the open web. (Dave Winer)
From a business point of view, you’re mad to put all of your eggs in once basket. Get a website. Facebook’s content is, by design, not indexed by search engines. It’s invisible to search engines.
Look, I get that I’m the nut who doesn’t want to use Facebook. I’m not even saying don’t post your stuff to Facebook. But if Facebook is the only place you are posting something, know that you are shutting out people like me for no good reason. Go ahead and post to Facebook, but post it somewhere else, too. Especially if you’re running a business.
It’s 2017. There are a million ways to get a web site set up inexpensively that you can easily update yourself. Setting up a Facebook page and letting your web site rot, or worse, not even having a web site of your own, is outsourcing your entire online presence. That’s truly insane. It’s a massive risk to your business, and frankly, stupid. (source)
I feel more strongly about Facebook’s threat to the web than I did about Microsoft’s Internet Explorer at the turn of the millennium. Scarily, it looks like Twitter might be going the same way. I blame venture capital and invasive advertisnig.