Facebook’s success threatens each of us individually and the nation as a whole
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Facebook has become Americans’ primary online connection to friends, families, clubs, schools, businesses, and even politicians. Facebook’’s reach is staggering: 70 percent of all American adults, and 90 percent of young adults, are on Facebook. Seventy five percent of us are daily visitors, dwelling on Facebook for an average of 40 minutes.

Unlike Twitter, Facebook has translated this massive user engagement into a huge financial success based largely on advertising revenue, generating $3.5 billion in profit in the last quarter of 2016 alone.

But there’s a dark side to our favorite website’s success that threatens each of us individually and the nation as a whole.

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Facebook’s financial success is based on a combination of incredible penetration and population level reach, the ultimate big data type accumulation of personal information, and sophisticated tools that allow advertisers to slice and dice us into minuscule market segments.

 

This combination allows advertisers to target us with finely-tuned ads, designed for maximal impact on each thin slice of the population. And then, to complete the deal, Facebook gives advertisers the ability to go into stealth mode: pushing content into our feeds and timelines that masquerades as organic, user-generated content.

In most cases, advertisers use Facebook’s data and targeting resources for somewhat benign purposes — growing a customer base, selling a product, increasing awareness of a service. But the Trump presidential campaign clearly demonstrated how these tools can be used for social and political manipulation.

Before laying out the Trump team’s Facebook strategy and suggesting how we can prevent more large-scale manipulation in the future, let’s review the Facebook marketing recipe

Micro-targeting

 Facebook advertisers select and combine a large number of data points that pinpoint user attitudes, political orientations, buying habits, demographic attributes, and even emotional vulnerabilities. Facebook pulls in and converts Facebook activity — such as messages, comments, shares, Likes, posts, profiles, photos, purchases, and friend networks — into usable data. Facebook also buys and incorporates outside data from credit bureaus and other data banks.

A Mashable article put it in concrete terms: advertisers can target us based on things like relationship status, anniversaries, long-distance romances, recent relocations, heavy alcohol buying, cold and allergy medicine purchases, frequency and type of vacations, birthdays, pregnancies, type of mother (soccer, trendy, etc.), likeness of auto part needs, posting habits, number of credit lines, grocery types, beauty products, restaurant choices, store preferences, household shopping volume, and commutes — and much more.

Personality profiling

Access to big data and sophisticated analytic techniques allows companies like Cambridge Analytica — owned by reclusive, right-wing hedge-fund billionaire, Robert Mercer — to create “psychographic” and scientifically valid personality profiles.

Cambridge Analytica itself boasts an accumulated database of 220 million U.S. adults, with nuanced personality and market segmentation profiles based on thousands of data points per individual. These profiles help advertisers shade the emotional and content dimensions of ads to push our buttons and trigger purchasing, voting, or other behavior.

Stealth advertising

The blurring of organic content and paid advertising is the final component of the Facebook business model and threat. We recognize the ads on the margins of Facebook pages for what they are. But Facebook allows advertisers to “promote” or “boost” normal-looking posts and content, giving this content greater visibility and priority in timelines and feeds.

The Trump campaign strategy.  Trump’s campaign used these Facebook tools to sway key voting blocs — and this most likely helped Trump win the electoral college. The campaign’s digital unit was a home-grown operation built by Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner (with help from savvy marketing friends in Silicon Valley).

Then, Mercer — who Steve Bannon says has had more political impact than the billionaire Koch Brothers--threw his support from Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzDebbie Wasserman Schultz marks 10 years as breast cancer survivor Foreign agent registration is no magical shield against Russian propaganda Let Trump be Trump and he'll sail through 2020 MORE to Trump.  Mercer brought to the campaign big money, long-time associates Steve Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway, Breitbart, and — perhaps most importantly — Cambridge Analytica to bolster Kushner’s team.

A Trump campaign official said the campaign’s strategy in the final months of the campaign was a nuanced, digital version of Republicans’ longtime voter suppression efforts. The Trump voter suppression operation used Facebook’s tools and data to target three groups of lukewarm Clinton voters and persuade them to stay home.

The content that Trump’s team pushed to each sliver of the population in critical battleground states was tailored for each group. Spending up to 45 percent of its monthly budget on digital research and campaigns, the Trump operation reportedly created up to 100,000 different online ads to reach targeted audiences at different times.

In this way, Trump’s operation could send reminders to African Americans about Clinton’s single statement about “super-predators” some years ago; remind Sanders’ voters about charges that Clinton cheated him out of the nomination; and target residents in Miami’s Little Haiti for content accusing the Clinton Foundation of nefarious activities in Haiti.

We don’t yet know if it happened, but the most dangerous kind of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia would have been coordination around Facebook targeting and messaging. Russia’s East European fake accounts and bots drove the spread of fake news, smears, and propaganda. But we don’t yet know if there was coordination between Kushner’s top-down paid campaigns and Putin’s bottom-up “organic” posting.

What Next? The likely digital theft of a presidential election may only be the beginning of “dark web” manipulation. Are other domestic or foreign entities using Facebook and its cousins to target and manipulate us? What is to stop a set of business or political interests using Facebook's tools to create support for, say, a foreign invasion or war?

Our first step should be to understand what happened in the presidential campaign. Facebook should open up its records to a panel of independent experts, who would report back about how the Trump campaign targeted slivers of the population—and whether foreign fake account activity appeared to be coordinated with this effort based on timing, content, and targets.

Facebook’s data could also help us understand if the Trump voter suppression strategy was effective: Did districts targeted with voter suppression stealth advertising lineup for Trump more than nearby, comparable districts?

A second step is to realize that our approach to online data ownership and privacy has been completely inadequate. Online monopolies such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter should be regulated to prevent abuses — just as the government regulates other commercial monopolies to protect consumers.

A recent New York Times column laid out a framework for a new social media/internet data regime in which we own the rights to our own data and online activity. This approach would also create competition among social network platforms, allowing them to interface with Facebook and each other through common socio-graphic data standards (which Facebook has already established for other purposes).

Congress should also pass legislation giving the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) or Federal Communications Commission (FCC) the duty to regulate online advertising: paid content, and the source of the ad, should be immediately and visibly obvious; targeting and profiling should be transparent; micro-targeting should be restricted; and users should give explicit consent to any integration of website-specific data with outside data.

Finally, let’s re-establish personal responsibility by ending online anonymity. Anonymity is not a right, and it encourages irresponsible, uncivil behavior like trolling, harassment, and death threats. Just this week, the destruction of personal responsibility by online anonymity was made clear in a sensational way: The unnamed private citizen who created the video of Trump beating up on a CNN-headed wrestler begged CNN to keep his identity private and promised to stop his racist, anti-semitic, and anti-Muslim posting.

Protecting ourselves and our democratic freedom from the evolving social-control potential of our favorite digital platforms will require overcoming the interests of the corporate giants themselves. But unless we control Facebook, Facebook will continue to help others control us.

Mark Feinberg Ph.D, is a research professor at Pennsylvania State University.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.