What's Left 2018-03-22 Volume 105

by Editors (What's Left) last modified 2018-08-14T08:47:19-04:00
Citizens’ Press sat down with five commentators to discuss the current Facebook scandal involving Cambridge Analytica. The dialogue has been edited and presented here to help inform the broader discussion of Facebook on the left.

Citizens’ Press's JBB sat down with five commentators to address the current Facebook scandal involving Cambridge Analytica. For some background on this, read The Guardian’s article here and see The Real News’ report here.

Hogarth is a UK expat, retired university administrator, sociologist and socialist activist based in New Brunswick. She is a regular contributor to Leftnews.org.

Roxanne Dubois is a Franco-Ontarian labour activist and occasional writer. Based in Toronto, she spends most of her time organizing, educating, and activating young people and precarious workers. She scribbles stories in different forms and continues to believe in a better world.

Simon Archer is a labour lawyer in Toronto interested in the regulation of work in the new economy.

Graham Cox is a socialist organizer, union researcher, and open technology activist living in Toronto. Graham is the editor of the Citizens' Press, Leftnews.org and What's Left.

Ben Lewis is Communications Lead for the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) and Editor-in-Chief of OCUFA's journal of higher education, Academic Matters. Before working at OCUFA, Ben served as a member of the New Democratic Party of Canada's first digital communications team, and as the Communications Coordinator for the Canadian Federation of Students.

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CP: Thank you for participating in this roundtable discussion. I’d like to start out by simply asking the question: What does Facebook do? What I mean by that is that while most of us know what Facebook is, and may even be users, it is rarely understood how this free service can result in a multi-billion-dollar company. What is Facebook’s business model?

Roxanne: On the surface, Facebook is an online platform that allows people to interact. Some of us have seen the evolution of the platform through the years from being a communal status-sharing space to being a tool that must be built in to any campaign of political work. Personally, I find FB is most useful for keeping track of events happening in my network. But like other social media, we have seen it used to provide a wider audience for groups or social movements that were being ignored by the mainstream press. That the platform began and has continued to be a giant information-selling advertisement is undeniable.

Simon: A “free service” is not valued as a business at over \$500 billion, even by a bubbly irrational market. Facebook says about itself that it is a “platform” on the internet – that is, it claims to be merely a passive medium of communication between people who use it, and that is the way many people think about it. But that claim is contradicted by a number of things Facebook does quite actively: most importantly, it sells advertising, but also it curates news feeds, it creates some of its own content (or commissions it from others), and most recently, we found out again, it sells user information for profit. And in each of these activities, it looks and acts like traditional media and advertising business. It has ambitions to become not just one of many forms of access to information and exchange on the internet, but the main, and only, form of access. And that is an indication of its business model: to become the monopoly provider of news, inter-personal exchange, and access to the internet, generating revenues through sale of access to its users’ eyeballs and personal information.

One of the implications of these activities is that they are often regulated activities. Advertisers must conform to consumer protection standards; media producers must conform to media and telecommunications standards; gathered personal information must conform to standards of privacy law, among other things. There may also be new types of standards necessary for these new platforms, such as ones that create direct responsibility on platform owners for managing content on the site that offends other laws, such as prohibiting forms of hate speech or violence, or regulating the use of the platform for – most recently – manipulation of democratic practices. Facebook seeks to deliberately avoid some of these standards (notably telecommunications standards), and avoid in particular the kind of scrutiny often brought to monopoly providers of goods or services, because they imply potentially significant new costs to offering a supposedly free service. But in reality, using Facebook isn’t actually free: the costs of it are just hidden from users, for now.

Hogarth: As we all know Facebook’s business model is to give the customer a free app, ask the customer questions that seem insignificant to the user like “What is your favourite colour for t-shirts?” However, to Facebook they can mine that data and sell it in aggregate form so that advertisers etc. can target the individual on their Facebook page, or use that to target specific issues. In my opinion, this is not much different from other apps such as Chrome, or in fact any app that one downloads on your phone, tablet or computer. The real problem with Facebook is that they hide the security settings, use language that is vague, and they have no intention of changing this, nor their business model.

Ben: At a fundamental level, Facebook’s business model is about collecting data that can be standardized and used by advertisers to more effectively target and persuade Facebook’s users. Depending on your perspective as a user, your data is either being used to personalize the ads you see so that they are more relevant (that is the line Facebook would like to sell) or target you with ads that are more likely to manipulate you into buying a product, service, or ideological viewpoint. I think many people are aware that the data they provide influences the content they see, but I think far fewer are aware about how much additional data Facebook is able to learn about them through their interactions both on and off the platform. Interacting with another user or liking a post allows Facebook to learn so much about your relationships and interests. With hundreds of millions of users, all of this information can be used to make some frighteningly accurate guesses about things you haven’t told Facebook, including your ethnic background, class, job, favourite vacation destination... the list is endless.

This is the dataset that Cambridge Analytica exploited and, from a strategic perspective, it is an incredibly powerful tool for those who have access to it, including Facebook and an unknown number of Facebook app developers. That’s why Facebook is so valuable — to advertisers it represents one of the largest pools of potential customers available, with detailed demographic information, and the tools to target them with persuasive messages.

I think it’s also important to acknowledge that Facebook isn’t the only company that works this way. Google and Twitter and many of the companies that offer “free” services are doing the same thing.

CP: Is Facebook a valuable tool for organizing? In light of the recent scandal, what does this mean about the security of our information on Facebook? Is this a wake-up call that organizing should be done offline? How do we bring people together, and where do we go from here?

Hogarth: Facebook has been used for organizing events -- marches around the world -- and presumably those using this app have found it useful. Are apps the way to organize going forward? In some countries at the present time it unfortunately one of the few options. Maybe dedicated activists and software makers could come up with a list of alternatives.

Roxanne: I’m not the greatest FB fan, but even I will admit that there has been some good organizing that has used the platform as a way to amplify stories. Every time FB has added new features, such as pages, groups, FB Live or stories, advertisers have adapted to use them and try to reach a wider audience. So have campaign organizers.

Despite the potential, I think we have to remember valuable organizing principles that everyone involved in political work should know. We move people by talking to them, by building relationships and by engaging directly. If I look back on the last ten years, the times I changed people’s minds or convinced them of anything was in person. If we forget this lesson, other forces will be doing political work in our place. Regardless of how much space and time technology takes up in our lives today, we still have to remember to put the phone down and talk to one another. Shocking, I know.

Ben: There are two ways to look at this. First, as a tool for organizing, it is useful for building awareness about an issue and connecting people. But, as always, the scales are heavily tipped in favour of those with money. More money means more influence. And so those with more money will always have more power on Facebook.

The second way to view Facebook’s value for organizing is whether it compromises organizing efforts. We’ve seen this manifested when law enforcement uses the tool to monitor the interactions of activists in open (and closed) groups and when complex demographic data is used to pre-emptively target individuals who data analysis predicts might challenge the status quo.

It is not a secure organizing space. But that does not mean it cannot be used for organizing. In the real world, we are routinely forced to organize and engage in insecure spaces. But it is vital to remain aware of when you’re in a safe space or potentially under surveillance.

The one final note I would add is that I don’t think Facebook (or any other social media platform) provides a meaningful organizing spaces unto itself. Online social networks provide fairly shallow organizing opportunities. In order to really be effective, offline on the ground mobilizing remains absolutely crucial.

CP: Should people even use Facebook? If so, are there things they should do or avoid doing if they choose to use it? To what extent is privacy an issue?

Hogarth: It is OK to use any app, including Facebook, as long as the individual realises that their personal data, and their friends’, end up in the public domain, and can be used by data web crawler programs.

Ben: I think there is an aspect of Facebook, or some other social network, that provides a valuable social supplement to peoples’ lives. It can be really valuable for keeping in touch with friends and family in faraway places (that’s really the only reason I still use it). But, as I have said above, I think it’s so vital that people realize it is first and foremost a commercial space, controlled by a corporation that has access to and sells your data. It’s important to be very purposeful and thoughtful about how you use it. Nothing you post is private. In fact, nothing you type is private, whether or not you post it. Facebook records everything so it can learn more about you.

Roxanne: It is hard to tell people to stop using a platform when it is so widely recognized as the most used platform. I have often heard people say that without an alternative, we don't have a choice. As organizers, we have to be where people are and develop strategies to advocate for a better way. I have always followed what happens in the open-source community where people reject the profit-driven agenda that exists everywhere else, and try to find people-driven technological options. We can learn a lot from what they have done since the very beginning of the Internet.

One example that is good to share is that we tried using Facebook to amplify the work we do at Citizens' Press. The Facebook page was meant to share some of our original content, but also share daily articles from the Left that were worth people's attention. We found that we got some participation, but that what really drove people to our website was always the original content we produce, a historic network of followers, and a solid RSS feed. Now, I should add that the majority of Citizens' Press contributors are not on FB, and perhaps that has something to do with it. But in the end, it wasn't the use of FB (or lack thereof) that allowed us to grow our audience or to produce relevant content.

Graham: Facebook, like all platforms funded by advertisements (like Google, Twitter, Instagram) are designed in a way that privacy is undermined. In fact, internet service providers (in the US) have advocated that they be able to sell browsing data to ad companies. Data ad companies vacuum up all data they can on browsing habits of all internet users. Generally, privacy online is quite difficult to get right when it involves corporations that make profit off selling your data.

The difference between Facebook and some of these other companies is that it has a near monopoly on the interaction of users as well as collecting the data for pushing ads. So, it is the ad company, the service provider, the regulator, and the platform to sell you things.

To understand why this is problematic, let's use something other than Facebook. You connect to the internet through an ISP (Internet Service Provider). The latest revelations are similar to allowing ISP's to collect data on your browsing habits, email, messages, location data, Fitbit information, and private search history data to tailor what you are allowed to see on the internet.

Imagine that you have been targeted by a company (because of your more than zero wealth) that sells a particular product. Their goal is to make you more likely to buy this product. Add to this the ISP, a company which sees all that you do online (as is the case now). If allowed, this ISP could be paid by the other company to use all this data to tailor the kind of websites you are sent to (even if you want to go to other sites), constantly interrupting your internet browsing with ads, websites, articles, videos, all personally tailored by professional psychologists to get you to buy a product. This is essentially how Facebook works when it comes to serving you up ad content.

But now imagine that the ISP is paid by a particular political party and uses this data, psychology, and your personal profile to get you to vote a certain way or bend the narrative to convince you (without you knowing) that this party is the party you should support. People have fought against these kinds of situations when it comes to monopoly in newspapers, TV and radio station ownership and political advertising. The same goes for pushing back on ISPs to abuse their monopoly position (but have actually lost this battle in the US).

This is essentially what has happened with Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. And there are no real laws of oversight of the use and abuse of all this ad data and monopoly space on the internet to try to abuse their power over broad swaths of the population.

CP: Would any of you go so far as to say that users should delete their accounts and get off Facebook? If so, are there not structural and organizational issues involved with a mass migration off FB?

Graham: As said above, the issues with Facebook come down to privacy, ownership of your online life/products, and how real world use and "policy" differ when implemented and developed by the same company (i.e., self-regulation).

The structural issues with Facebook come out of this. They have to do with the lack of alternatives for the vast majority of people who cannot tell the difference between a corporate project that is spying on everything you do and a platform that is just where you share pictures of cats.

If you want to talk to or keep track of your "friends", grandmother, kids, etc. Facebook makes that easy. So, knowing no better, people use it to communicate. The more people use it, the more other people need to use it to stay in touch. Most folks think it is like an advanced phone network and easier than email. They do not realize -- because no one tells them -- that is it a massive system for spying on them for the explicit goal of manipulating them.

There is a structural issue of moving off Facebook that has to do with where to go and how to get everyone to move all at once.

The “where” question is: What alternative will be better? We do not have a non-profit public option (though, we can argue one should exist). Returning to doing things by email -- owned and run by similar organizations like Google -- is no better at the fundamental level.

Is there a non-profit network with privacy protections in mind? Are people going to pay to use a system that doesn't steal from them and that will secure their data and not exploit them as the product?

The real discussion that needs to happen is what people want as the structure and function of the Internet. Activists need to organize alternative spaces. And we need to do massive outreach on why people should care and move their families. This is not going to be easy.

Hogarth: In any democracy I would hope that we all have the right to use any app that we wish to use. One may as well delete all apps from our devices, access to location by apps immediately categorises where an individual is located for example.

Ben: I think Graham is correct in stating that getting people off Facebook is an incredibly difficult proposition. It is where their friends are already, and the incentive to move to another social network, where their friends are not, just doesn’t exist. Most people will not pay for this service ... which should just further demonstrate how little value Facebook actually holds for most users. It’s appealing because it’s a free and easy way to stay in touch with their friends.

Call me cynical, but if this “Delete your Facebook” movement succeeds, it will be because users have moved to another platform that does most of the same things Facebook does, but which isn’t called “Facebook”.

CP: Currently, there seems to be no large-scale alternative to Facebook that has the same functions, reach and scope. It appears to be a monopoly in terms of the service it provides. That being the case, should there be a “public option” for social media, either public ownership, and/or its operations regulated by legislation?

Graham: The public option is necessary. Either through regulation of companies to put privacy and security first (happening now in Europe) or the establishment of a publicly regulated, publicly supported online space. The Public Post Office is the obvious place for this to happen, but it is not clear how we would get there from where we are now. Government-funded digital services have not been implemented except in rather regressive ways up until now. That is not to say that it could not be done. There was a time not too long ago that there was a call to "nationalize" Twitter when it was hurting financially. That is an interesting idea to be able to start a public online space for regular people to feel secure that their data could be protected by law.

Hogarth: This particular question deals with so many issues -- social media, state watchdogs, ethics, and how we define these concepts in the 21st century. Media itself, papers, television news, wire news all come from a specific ideology. Part of the problem is how to give individuals the tools to evaluate the propaganda that they are continually bombarded with.

Roxanne: We can't talk about the problems with FB without also talking about the crisis facing the media today. FB is tapping into the fact that mainstream media outlets are in disarray due to the inability to finance media organisations under a capitalist model. Even public media are struggling and reorganizing their content to drive traffic and increase clicks as opposed to provide rigorous, trusted, independent journalism as neoliberal policies have robbed them from necessary resources. When FB has been well used to boost the visibility of social movements, it is in large part because mainstream media were the first to ignore those voices.

So, let's say we start imagining a public option. What kind of media/publishing/sharing platform can actually allow members of marginalized communities to put their stories forward? Whether they are racialized communities, members of the LGBTQ community, Indigenous, or any community that doesn't get airtime anywhere else -- how can we envision a platform that changes the game?

Ben: Should there be a public option? Absolutely. The functionality of Facebook has become so universal, is taken for granted by so many, and forms such a monopoly over the social space that it is a compelling mimic of a public sphere. It’s the ads and all the manipulative, profit-motivated decision-making at corporate HQ that tosses the public sphere comparison into the trash heap.

But I think any attempt to build a publicly managed, secure “alternative” to Facebook is a fool’s errand. While some might use it, Facebook literally owns that space, and you won’t compete with them on their terms.

The way forward is to figure out what comes after Facebook. The goal should not be to build an alternative, but to build a successor. The distinction is important. Like Friendster and MySpace, Facebook won’t be around forever. At some point, a new internet-enabled social network will come along with a new paradigm for interaction. What will compel people to leave Facebook for a new platform won’t be that the new platform is publicly owned or secure/private — as important as those considerations are and as much as I wish people would embrace them. The reason that people will leave Facebook is because another platform offers a new type of social interaction that excites and engages people in a new way (it will just happen to also be publicly owned and secure).

Figuring out what that compelling approach to social interaction is will be hard, but building a compelling publicly owned and managed successor to Facebook, that gives people an exciting reason to use something different, is the best way to get them on a new platform.

CP: What would be the advantages and disadvantages of a non-capitalist social media platform?

Graham: There is the issue of usability. Facebook and Google (and even Slack, for instance) are financial giants with value based on the number of users they can exploit. They use that valuation to spend billions on development of "pretty" products that are fun and (purposely) addictive to use.

You will never get that satisfaction from a non-profit company developing a privacy- and security-focused product. This is because what people think of as "pretty" is actually the addictive parts of the for-profit product -- designed to keep you using the product for longer periods of time so you see more (revenue-generating) ads.

Alternatively, the goal of providing a non-profit communications service that seeks to meet the needs of people is never going to be as "enjoyable" as the for-profit product -- because addiction is not and cannot be the goal. Overcoming this is only possible through real consciousness-raising of the public to put their personal privacy, and the security of their friends, families, and (as we have seen with the interference with elections) their democracy front and centre.

Ben: Obviously, as we’ve already discussed, these platforms would provide greater security and privacy than commercial platforms. They would potentially give users more control over what they see and how they interact with each other. Further, they could provide for some very interesting ways for the public to build on new features that enhance the user experience.

I disagree with Graham when he argues that a publicly built social network can’t provide a “pretty” and satisfying user experience. There are hundreds of open source developers who build some amazingly good looking and satisfying user experiences. There is no reason why a new platform couldn’t be as pretty and satisfying as Facebook. Actually, I bet if you put half a dozen open source developers in a basement for a week, they would design a far more satisfying Facebook experience.

However, Graham is correct when he states that Facebook has been able to leverage everything it knows about its users to build a more compelling and addictive product. That would be something much harder to replicate, but then again, why would we want to? Removing that incentive is kind of the point of building a successor.

Hogarth: Advantages: No adverts! Disadvantages: The data would still be there, and could we be sure that it would still not be used by a group?

Finally, just a note: Technology experts have been talking about the issue of data and its manipulation since the internet started thriving. Experts in this field have written papers and sounded alarms, but with our current media outlets it is the sensational that sells news to the public.

CP: Understanding how Cambridge Analytica and other “influencers” have leveraged Facebook (and other social media) data to influence users, are there even more concerning scenarios in which this data could be used to target people? The revelation that police are using social media data to identify and detain potential criminals – and dissidents – is particularly scary.

Ben: I think there is a real danger that this data is used more and more to interfere in our real-world lives. And it is most likely to start with the most marginalized and vulnerable groups. Do insurance companies use the data to determine rates for their customers? Do employers use the data to hire employees less likely to complain about harassment or unionize? Can this data be used by companies like Walmart to actually keep workers isolated from one another?

It also raises the concern around how this data is used by the state and why it’s important that any successor to Facebook provides users with strong privacy protections.

Graham: I think turning data into a political tool is just starting. Making it an active tool for manipulation is the scariest part. Any monopoly or near monopoly on data gathering (which is all data-gathering ad firms) can be used like that.