Recently, I’m sure that many of us have read various articles about how Facebook, Google and other social platform algorithms are being manipulated by media companies, Russians, trolls, government agencies, and so on in one mass effort to manipulate us all to do one thing or another. There have been numerous calls for legislation, censorship, content guidelines and so on to prevent this sort of thing from continuing.
I think it’s good that the public is starting to get an understanding as to how much these internet platforms can be used to manipulate us. I do not, however, think we are going to see any of this change, and it’s for one simple reason. When you sell advertising as your business model, you have always been in the manipulation market. Think about it. When I was younger, advertising “taught” me that lots of former athletes drank Miller Lite, eating your Wheaties made you strong, Tang was so cool astronauts drank it, and only the hottest, strongest, independent women wore En Joli.
I’m pretty sure we can call that manipulation. The only difference was that advertising wasn’t aimed directly at me as an individual, it was aimed at society in general. And in some respect, we all sort of knew we were being manipulated.
Fast forward to the 21st century, and we have all this amazing technology built into Facebook’s algorithm designed to build a profile of each of us as individual users of the platform. The goal is to provide us with more of what we want, in exchange for our time on the site, and the ads we consume during that time. Naturally, that information gets used when it comes to figuring out how to advertise to us.
You see, these attempts at manipulating us aren’t a by-product of bad actors misusing the technology. They are the whole point of the technology. It exists to build a profile about us so that advertisers can manipulate us a whole lot more directly than they do with mass media ads.
I highly recommend this article by John Battelle, because I absolutely agree with him:
The stock is trading at $186 or so today; it began the year at roughly $120. As we all know, a stock price is the market’s estimate of future earnings. If Zuckerberg decides to really “fix” Facebook, well, that stock price will nosedive. And that will lead angry shareholders to sue the stuffing out of the company, and likely demand the CEO’s head on a pike.
If you’ve read “Lost Context,” you’ve already been exposed to my thinking on why the only way to “fix” Facebook is to utterly rethink its advertising model. It’s this model which has created nearly all the toxic externalities Zuckerberg is worried about: It’s the honeypot which drives the economics of spambots and fake news, it’s the at-scale algorithmic enabler which attracts information warriors from competing nation states, and it’s the reason the platform has become a dopamine-driven engagement trap where time is often not well spent.
To put it in Clintonese: It’s the advertising model, stupid.
What Russia did, technically, is no different than what AT&T does, or the Obama campaign probably did, or Amazon does every single day. We’re only appalled because it was “bad” people doing it, but really who decides which advertisers are bad actors and which aren’t when the whole point is to manipulate us into acting a certain way? Buy a product, support a candidate, join a cause, hate your neighbors, discriminate in employment or housing, etc. What is the difference, really? We can argue all day long about the various morals at play in these different scenarios, but they always come down to advertisers using the technology to manipulate users.
It’s not a bug, it’s the whole freaking point.