Enrique Dans
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Enrique Dans

IMAGE: CC BY-SA 3.0 Nick Youngson — Alpha Stock Images

The new guardians of democracy?

Facebook says it has removed 32 accounts that were being used to disrupt the upcoming US midterm elections. Describing the accounts as part of “coordinated unauthentic behavior”, the company adds that it does not have “technical evidence to state definitively who is behind it,” but that more than 9,500 organic posts were created using the Facebook accounts, backed by some 150 advertisements costing $11,000, and generating about 30 events since May 2017. In total, some 290,000 accounts followed at least one of the pages, aimed primarily at encouraging confrontation around racial issues.

Let’s just reflect for a moment on the use of the term “coordinated unauthentic behavior” I would certainly agree that creating all kinds of tools, pages, false accounts designed to seem more important than they really are, highly segmented campaigns to arouse the passions of certain groups, or generating events to bolster group conscience around certain topics are all threats to democracy. I would also agree that preventing this kind of malicious exploitation of a social tool is necessary. Disrupting elections in this way is very dangerous, even if we know that they have always been vulnerable to manipulation and that we are all free to do with our vote what we wish.

That said… are we sure we want Facebook, Twitter or other social networks that have been shown to be involved in misuse of their networks suddenly becoming guardians of democracy? I do not mean that they can’t or shouldn’t: they’re certainly well-placed to detect and dismantle such activities, but is this the role of powerful private companies largely untouched by recent attempts on the part of governments to regulate their activities and whose objectives are growth, increased turnover and profits, rather than protecting democracy and civil society? Surely that is the remit of the institutions we have created over time such as the different levels of government, which impose rules and regulate the limits of power. Subcontracting this out to private companies with a history of either naïveté or lack of vigilance is, in my opinion, highly problematic.

Let me be clear: as the creators and managers of the systems used by individuals and organizations seeking to disrupt and derail democracy, these companies are best placed to implement initiatives and measures to protect us from fake news. But surely most of the coordination behind such efforts should not be left to these companies, but instead public officials whose job is to safeguard democratic processes: Facebook et al have other priorities that will likely create conflict of interests.

At the same time, structures that would allow public officials to coordinate with social networks to protect democracy would likely involve a level of supervision and control that these companies would not accept, or that would be seen as government interfering in the activities private companies. In fact, in some countries with less consolidated democracies, it is perfectly likely that government would interfere in the activities of the social networks, describing legitimate political opposition and activism as “non-authentic coordinated behaviors”, while at the same time using them to further their own ends.

In short, a complex, multi-faceted problem with no easy answers: in the age of electronic communication, social networks and the ability to segment and target very specific groups of people, whose responsibility is it to protect the democratic process and prevent mass manipulation of the new media?

(En español, aquí)



On the effects of technology and innovation on people, companies and society (writing in Spanish at enriquedans.com since 2003)

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Enrique Dans

Professor of Innovation at IE Business School and blogger (in English here and in Spanish at enriquedans.com)