The fall of western democracy is often pictured as an apocalyptic event of nuclear destruction, a military power grab by a malevolent tyrant or a willing majority opting for autocratic rule. These variations all share a theme of being immediate and noticeable, however one of the most direct threats to democracy is something much slower and much more subtle.
This threat is the control of information.
In Ireland, there have long been worries about Denis O’Brien’s monopolisation of the country’s media outlets. More recently Leo Varadkar’s notorious Strategic Communications Unit has been lambasted for its attempts to direct regional newspapers not to label government sponsored articles as such.
A larger threat is looming though, one with huge potential for damage across the globe. Facebook has again become embroiled in scandal for its complete disregard of ethical responsibility and moderation.
The social media giant was caught up in the Cambridge Analytica last week when it emerged that the platform knew about the harvesting of roughly 50 million users’ information, carried out in order to personalise political advertisements. Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former campaign manager was a key player in the company.
Facebook knew about this activity as far back as 2015, yet took the choice not to inform its users. The purpose of the information collection was clearly in contradiction to the company’s own platform policy, which forbids the transfer of data to “any ad network, data broker or other advertising or monetization-related service”.
These revelations came to light when whistleblower Christopher Wylie revealed the scope of the data-leak. “We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles. And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons.” Wylie told The Observer, who broke the story along with The New York Times. “That was the basis the entire company was built on.”
In a statement released on Friday, Facebook said that when it learned of the violation in 2015 it ordered Cambridge Analytica to delete the user information. It’s emerged though that the data was never destroyed, it seems it wasn’t enough of an issue for Zuckerberg & Co. to do a thorough check.
Here we come to the crux of the problem. Facebook has information of literally billions of people around the globe and it doesn’t seem too concerned about how that information is used. A large chunk of this data was misused in order to influence voters in the US election and yet the company didn’t feel the need to tell anyone.
We already know that the social media site is highly addictive and is having a damaging impact on our youth. We know that its tax avoidance policy is spectacularly brash (the company paid only £2.5m tax on nearly £850m revenue in the UK last year). We know that its lack of action on hate speech has created a platform where pretty much anything can be said without consequences.
What we need to realise is that Facebook has risen to become the number one source of information for many people around the world and yet it does not care if this information is true, it does not care if this information is being used to manipulate voters and it certainly does not seem to care that its methods are creating a political environment where citizens are systematically targeted with things they already want to hear.
The company claims that it is taking steps to remedy these problems, but that in itself might as well be labelled as fake news. Profits are determined by clicks and anything the site does to remove controversy will also remove some of its profits.
As long as you allow the corporate giant to control what you see and ‘control’ what happens with your personal information, then our democracies will collapse into polarised extremes fueled only by the biggest headlines and the biggest paychecks.
You need only look across the Atlantic for proof that it’s already begun.
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