[EDITORIAL] #AnimatED: Facebook, please make democracy-friendly algorithms
2017 is the year when technology and government challenged our values and humanity.
In the name of public safety in the Philippines, we accepted and cheered for the daily killings in the drug war. In the virtual world, we attacked and ridiculed each other, fomenting hate and violence. Liberal democracy as we knew it was turned upside down.
We weren’t alone.
Around the world, the foundation of other democracies crumbled as voters elected leaders who turned away from the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms like in Turkey, Egypt, and Venezuela. In Myanmar, elections may have helped fuel violence against the Rohingya as populist politicians make a scapegoat of minorities.
In Europe, the growth of the far right heralded the collapse of mainstream parties such as those in France, Germany, and the Netherlands. In the US, the Democratic party is struggling to recover from its loss. In the Philippines, the Liberal Party is largely decimated.
Elections of leaders like Trump and Duterte immediately changed policies on climate change, migration, human rights, and the South China Sea.
Technology hit a tipping point and transformed global power structures. At its core: the exponential spread of information on social media.
It was a perfect storm in the Philippines: the failure of elite politics to deliver democracy’s promise coupled with cheap armies on social media, which replaced facts with emotions and created alternative realities.
How it happened
Moore’s law, that the amount of computing power on a chip doubles every 18 months, was always behind every innovation and industry disruption, from Google to Airbnb to Uber.
In 2017, social media and networking technologies took globalization and the information revolution one step further, erasing boundaries of nation states, and hitting societal fracture lines around the world.
Terrorist groups like ISIS, also known as IS or the Islamic State, had effectively used social media for asymmetrical warfare and recruitment as early as 2013, winning the propaganda war against much more powerful countries armed with expensive weaponry.
Now more than ever, information equals power. Whoever controls the public narrative wins the war.
2017 formalized a global shift from controlling the internet through censorship to flooding social networks with hundreds of millions of social media messages with a clear goal: to tear down trust in traditional institutions of power.
This gives new life to information warfare tactics from the Cold War era.
Roots in Russian disinformation
“Disinformation works like cocaine,” said Yuri Andropov, former Russian KGB chairman and former general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. “If you sniff once or twice, it may not change your life. If you use it every day, though, it will make you into an addict – a different man.”
2017 shattered the idea that social media can empower people, instead becoming a tool for authoritarian governments and despots around the world to roll back democracy. (READ: 30 countries use 'armies of opinion shapers' to manipulate democracy – report)
We saw its roots in Russia’s political information warfare in the Ukraine in 2014. Three years later, the US Congress is investigating Russia’s role in its presidential elections, where social media distributed “fake news” to tear down Hillary Clinton, allegedly paving the way for the victory of Donald Trump. (WATCH: Zuckerberg under fire for Facebook's deal with Rodrigo Duterte)
Facebook, where 67% of Americans get their news, said political ads from Russia “appeared to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages.” Analysts compared that with the Russian military doctrine on information warfare to fuel “the protest potential of the population.”
In 2017, social media splintered the public space essential for democracy.
Algorithms bad for democracy?
Technology platforms are the new gatekeepers, but they’re not impartial arbiters of truth. They are capitalist enterprises designed to make money from their users. Instead of human professionals armed with standards and ethics, machines programmed with algorithms of popularity create mob rule.
Facebook, where nearly 97% of Filipinos on the internet get their news, uses algorithms based on the principle of homophily, or like attracts like. The more you click, the more you get, reinforcing your prejudices and exacerbating hatred, deeply polarizing our society in ways we never thought possible.
These algorithms work well for engagement for the platform, but they also shape what we see and how we see the world. Facebook's commenting and moderation policies also strip protections given to journalists by the Philippine and US Constitutions, creating the Fourth Estate.
As Maria Ressa said when Rappler received the Democracy award last month, “We are seeing free speech used as an excuse for posts that incite hate and violence deployed against journalists, activists, and anyone perceived to be critical of government. The excuse of free speech is being used to stifle free speech.” (READ: What happens when the government uses Facebook as a weapon?)
What can we do?
The first step is to understand our new world today. This is the reason why Rappler maintains a database of Facebook accounts based on impact and scale. These fact-based, data-based analysis form the foundation of our stories on social media and the propaganda machine. The data shows us that no effective counter-narrative or distribution network has scaled like the pro-Duterte networks on Facebook.
The second step is to curate your own news. Be self-aware. We may not all agree on what they mean, but let’s agree on the facts. Anchor your views on facts.
A third, medium-term step is media literacy. Join groups to fact-check. Tell your friends and family and avoid sharing anything you haven’t verified.
Fourth, choose and support at least one news organization. While the platforms control the distribution of news, journalists remain the ground-zero of facts. We thank all of you who joined the first crowdfunding campaign for news in the Philippines.
Finally, we at Rappler appeal to the technology platforms to assess and act quickly to make their algorithms friendlier to democracy, especially in more vulnerable, emerging democracies around the world.
2017 has brought many surprises, but like Alice traveling through Wonderland, we hope 2018 brings us out of the rabbit hole.
Happy New Year! – Rappler.com