Over the last several weeks, the social media giant Facebook
has been on the hotseat for its dealings with a consulting firm called
Cambridge Analytics. Evidently,
Facebook shared the data of more than 80 million of its users with the firm, which
was working for the Trump election campaign at the time. The details are rather murky and one’s
view of this particular breach depends on one’s political affiliation. So rather than get down into the mudpit
to sling more mud about this specific incident, I would rather take this
opportunity to examine a more basic and far-reaching question. What is the proper role of a huge
social media company such as Facebook in a democracy?
To answer that question, we need to have some notion of how
a well-functioning democracy works.
Political scientists generally regard a democracy as consisting of a
government run by elected representatives. The people (or some chosen subset thereof) get to vote for
these representatives, and in turn the representatives construct and operate a
government which observes certain rights of the people and subjects them to the
rule of law.
Speaking from an engineering point of view, a democracy can
be considered to be a kind of control system. Things needing the government’s attention affect the
votes and opinions of the masses, who elect representatives to do something
about these things. The
representatives enact laws that ideally decrease the gap between the way things
are and the way things ought to be.
That gap is never wholly closed this side of Paradise, but the narrower
it gets, the better the democracy works.
Notice that in the description I just gave, the phrase
“the way things ought to be” is really a statement of morality or
justice. In a country of over 300
million people, you are never going to get perfect agreement on anything, let
alone matters of morality and justice.
But the beauty of democracy is that if most of the people broadly agree
on something that the government can or should do, the democratic system has a
way to deliver it. And sometimes
it even does.
Control systems have feedback loops, and in the most general
view of such things, what is fed back is information. And the same is true, broadly speaking, of democracies. The people inform their representatives
of their opinions about various matters by voting, as well as contacting them
directly. The representatives vote
and pass bills using this information, and the information solidifies into
laws, which are sort of like operating instructions for both the government and
the people. Anything that
short-circuits or distorts this process is a potential threat to the proper
functioning of a democracy. In
particular, any influence that can sway voters unduly or by fraudulent means must
be carefully observed, and if necessary, dealt with somehow to restrain it from
distorting the flow of information.
Newspapers have been around longer than the U. S.
Constitution, and in the very early days of the country, some steps were taken
to repress the freedom of the press.
But wiser heads quickly realized that to let the government say what
could and could not be published was a gross distortion of the democratic
process. And so the First
Amendment was passed to guarantee freedom of speech. In doing so, the founders regarded the people as being wise
enough to judge what opinions and alleged facts they should pay attention to in
casting their ballots. But the
proper functioning of the system relies on that judgment, and ever since then
there has been a tension between two extreme positions that the media can take
in political activities.
One extreme is to attempt complete objectivity: to report everything of significance in
as unbiased a way as possible, and to let the voters make up their own
minds. This extreme was never
approached very well, but in the glory days of the major city newspapers of the
early and mid-twentieth century, the Associated Press came close, motivated as
it was by its desire to sell its stories to newspapers of as wide a range of
political persuasions as possible.
And when mass media required huge investments and consequently had only
a few outlets (such as the three major TV networks that prevailed for the first
thirty years or so of network TV), viewers usually got basically the same news
from everywhere. Maybe it was
slanted somewhat, but at least everyone was working from the same page.
But Facebook is as different from that as you can get, and comes
closer in some individual instances to the other media extreme of total
partisanship at the expense of reason and even truth. Add to that the fact that huge parts of Facebook are a
mystery to everyone outside it.
The old brick wall between the editorial and the advertisement sides of
print journalism has vaporized, and the opinion writers are the readers are the
advertisers. Instead of a clean,
easy-to-analyze feedback loop from the media to the voters to the government,
we now have a messy tangle of voters who are the media, and who are also maybe
Russians with secret axes to grind, and political operatives using data from
millions to target certain groups without letting them know what is going
on. And it is all being done for
profit, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But unlike the old simple lines of profit from print
advertisers, whose ads could usually be clearly distinguished from editorial
matter, the motives of Facebook and its paying customers are confused, obscure,
and sometimes even contradictory.
Can a democracy function when such a confusing mess plays a
significant role in elections? Our
democracy is still functioning, in the sense that we still have a Senate and
House of Representatives, a President, and a government. But whether the flow of information
back and forth has been hijacked by an influential few, or whether the voters’
collective wisdom will rise above even this level of confusion to lead us to a
better place, are open questions that only time will answer. I just hope the answer is something we
can live with.
Sources: An article by Stephanie Bodoni carried
in the Apr. 7, 2018 edition of the Austin
American-Statesman entitled “Facebook to engage Europe on data
scandal” was the motivation for this piece. I also referred to Wikipedia articles on the U. S.
Constitution and the First Amendment.