Since the scandal broke about Facebook data being leaked to Cambridge Analytica, a New York-based political consultancy which served the Trump and Brexit campaigns and used the data to channel propaganda to susceptible voters, I’ve seen at least two people I follow on social media suggest that it’s time to close our Facebook accounts and it’s become fashionable to ask the question as a matter of when I’ll delete my account, not if. Yet I’ve not seen many people close their accounts (although, if they were not on chat, I would not notice it immediately) and my feed is as lively as it was before. I’m not planning to close my account just yet and this is why. (More: Philippa Willitts, Dean Burnett.)
First, there is no real alternative. There have been other social media systems before and since Facebook but none of them have the flexibility and feature set. When Google launched Google+ a few years ago, I immediately said I would not be switching because it lacked any kind of group or discussion forum feature, which is why I suspect it never caught on, despite having access to Google’s existing user base (and despite Facebook’s reliability problems at the time). MySpace foundered not long after Facebook came on the scene, largely because its home pages were often saturated with graphics and animations which made browsers crash or at least slow down drastically while Facebook’s was clean and uniform (it was set up so that artists could promote their work, and has retreated into providing this niche service). Other niche social media apps have disappeared because they could not compete with Facebook (Friends Reunited being the best-known example). If I was to close my account I would simply lose contact with most of my friends — my friends in the learning disability activism community in particular — because along with Twitter, that’s how I keep in contact with them; I have never met most of them and do not have their numbers. The alternatives are just as problematic as Facebook — they are also data-mining companies (this is how they can make social networking available free of charge) and are also notorious for using data for profit and for colluding with various secret police forces, particularly China’s.
Second, the data breach and the use of the data is consistent with how social media already works: the “echo chamber” effect. People already select the channels they want to read news and views from, be they left-wing or right-wing, and the content will be skewed accordingly. As is documented elsewhere, they get the impression that the whole world thinks the way they do, and sometimes get a rude awakening when a general election does not go the way they expected. So the propaganda that supposedly tipped the balance in favour of Trump was targeted at people already receptive to it. I don’t believe that they (or their computer programs) are really clever enough to precisely target the propaganda at swing voters.
Third, I doubt the propaganda that resulted from this breach had as big an effect as is being made out. In both the UK and the USA, the mainstream print and broadcast media (print especially in the UK, broadcast especially in the USA) is already notorious for its right-wing, anti-welfare, anti-immigrant and (particularly in the US) anti-science bias. These media already have a record for driving irrational and vicious policies, especially on immigration; the law that requires that any non-citizen with a criminal record be deported, even if the offence was years ago, time had already been served (or it wasn’t that serious) and they had their whole families in the USA (or were an adoptee whose American ‘parents’ had neglected to get them citizenship), traced back to a campaign whipped up by the right-wing broadcast media and the same was true of the “foreign criminals” crackdown in the UK in 2006, which also led to people who had lived in the UK for years being locked up and threatened with deportation over matters that were thought to have been settled long ago. In the UK, where Cambridge Analytica are also known to have tried to influence the Brexit referendum, a number of the biggest-selling daily newspapers had taken an anti-EU stance for years, often peddling downright misinformation, and Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party, had been a regular on TV and radio panel shows such as Question Time. It’s true that both results were narrow and so a small influence could have made all the difference, but there were so many other factors in both cases and CA could not have had any influence in a country with responsible and balanced media.
And let’s not forget that Hilary Clinton won three million more votes than Donald Trump. Trump won the post because of an electoral college system designed for the era of slavery and which persists in counting provincial (mostly white) votes as if they were of greater importance than the votes of people in major cities. He also profited from mounting resentment among American whites of a Black president, which may well have been reflected in the rise in police shootings of unarmed Black Americans in the second half of his presidency and from promises he made to bring jobs back to “rust belt” states in the north and east which had supported both Obama and previous Democrat candidates, promises he has yet to fulfil. The Brexit referendum was held largely because David Cameron wanted to settle the matter within the Tory party and the result could have been avoided had a threshold been set of, say, 60% in favour given the dire consequences of even the vote, let alone Brexit itself.
Donald Trump won because there were enough voters racist enough to vote for a racist; the Brexit referendum went the way it did because of years of mainstream media misinformation. Facebook’s influence could not have been that great. I won’t be deleting my account (on which I don’t post much personal information anyway) because the costs to me are too great and the benefits too meagre. I’m well aware that Facebook has edged competitors out of the market and destroyed the blogging community I was once an active member of, but until there’s a better alternative, I’m staying.
Image source: Geograph, posted there by Neil Theasby. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.
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