On Thursday, Facebook pushed back against an explosive story in the New York Times which alleged that CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg “ignored warning signs” about foreign exploitation of the platform, “and then sought to conceal them from public view.” On Twitter, Facebook’s former chief security officer, Alex Stamos, also defended the platform’s approach to unearthing the misinformation campaign. He suggested that, if Facebook failed, it did not fail alone.
Left unsaid in all this is an uncomfortable fact that, among all the institutions that did things wrong, one worked perfectly: Facebook, the platform.
Its addictive design and engrained ability to target people with the ideas they most want to hear operated exactly as they were designed. The problem is that few were entirely aware, at the time, of what that could mean for democracy. Worse, even fewer realized how intrinsically linked Facebook had become to the functioning of democracy itself.
How did this happen?
“Technology is a key component of the material infrastructure of our moral and political lives,” L.M. Sacasas, a fellow of the Greystone Theological Institute and the director of its Center for the Study of Ethics and Technology, wrote earlier this year. “It is most consequential precisely when it fades from notice and assumes a taken-for-granted status.”
The reason so many people in politics, media, and even tech — and certainly the general public — ignored or simply missed Facebook’s toxicity in 2015 and 2016 is because they’d grown so accustomed to Facebook’s effects that they stopped thinking about them entirely. Facebook disappeared from their consciousness. It happened in much the same way we don’t think about the hum of our refrigerators, or central heating, or highways. Facebook was just there — a part of life.
Facebook, however, differs from physical infrastructure in one important way: it doesn’t occupy your kitchen or basement. Facebook occupies your brain.
Democracy lives in our minds, and we’ve all tacitly agreed to believe in it so we can live in a functioning society.
It just so happens that a lot of other important things occupy your brain, too, including the ideas and institutions that support democracy. Personal agency, openness and transparency, human rights, equality, representation — in other words, voting, media, politics, and government — are all established and reinforced by collective belief. They are ideas that live in our minds, and we’ve all tacitly agreed to believe them in order to live in a functioning society.
Facebook is successful not only because it has attached itself to each one of these important collective ideas — it’s successful because, for many, it has become a virtual proxy for all of them. In 2015 and 2016 — and even today — democratic engagement means being on Facebook. Eventually, you’re politically engaged in the same way that, sometimes, you’re just driving — the highway is a given.
And this week, across the Atlantic, Facebook’s role in democracy was playing out in a less obvious but more explosive manner.
“If people are outraged, you can do one of two things. You can ignore it and then it dies, or you can react and take it down, not apologise, but then see what the reaction is. When you take it down it’s like an admission of guilt, so you get the double hit with the press,” Andy Wigmore, the former director of communications for pro-Brexit pressure group, Leave.EU, told journalist and author Tim Shipman. “Then you put it back up and get the treble hit with the press. In some cases, within an hour, we would change a headline on Facebook and Twitter maybe five or six times, just to gauge the reaction. We were monitoring how many people looked and shared it, where it went, and reacted accordingly.”
This is how (to echo Alex Stamos) the mainstream media in the U.K. got “played” by people who knew how to use Facebook to coerce mass opinion. If there is still an outstanding question in the U.S. about how Facebook as a taken-for-granted platform for democratic engagement will ultimately pan out, Britain — and its decision a few months before President Trump’s victory to leave the EU — might offer a good benchmark.
Brexit was built on an imperial delusion. As Fintan O’Toole wrote this week: “In the imperial imagination, there are only two states: dominant and submissive, coloniser and colonised.” This core misreading of the world was the impetus for the Brexit campaign, whether it was in messaging telegraphed by Vote Leave and its headline campaigners Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, or by Leave.EU and Nigel Farage. It’s a powerful dichotomy, not only because it suggests the U.K. might somehow upend it and reassert itself as “dominant” (from what is purportedly now a submissive role), but also because it suggests, rather ominously, antiquated ideas about state and human (i.e. racial) dominance and submission, too.
On its own, this idea — that you are either dominant or dominated — is a deep misinterpretation of reality. Fueled by social media, it proved to be a vehicle for mass confusion and vile scaremongering about immigrants and foreigners.
“We knew that if we were on immigration we were winning, and if they were on the economy they were winning,” Leave.EU’s Aaron Banks told Shipman, adding they quickly realized “that even though the headline polling — Ipsos MORI and the like — didn’t show immigration as the only issue, if you started to take into account things like education, schools, that sort of thing — it added up to immigration being the only issue that people cared about.” And so, immigration was the issue Leave campaigners talked about, and what social messaging from Leave groups focused on, too.
Banks was, in large part, correct. We can’t say that immigration was the only reason people voted for Britain to leave the EU — they were also told the economy would soar and that millions of pounds would be invested in the National Health Service — but it certainly appears to have played a role.
Exit polling showed that, “by large majorities, voters who saw multiculturalism, feminism, the Green movement, globalisation and immigration as forces for good voted to remain in the EU; those who saw them as a force for ill voted by even larger majorities to leave.” More recent polling shows that immigration lingers still for Leave voters: 55 percent ranked it as the most important issue facing the U.K., making it the issue they still care about most. Only 53 percent of Leave voters said Britain leaving the EU was most important, and only 47 put health atop the list.
Facebook provided a way for the Brexit campaigners to directly target what people cared about most.
“Political parties with broad programmes allow citizens with different and varied interests to collectively organise and shape policy,” writes Jamie Bartlett in The People Vs. Tech: How the Internet is Killing Democracy (and How to Save It). “Big data, however, points to a more personalised model: work out who people are, find the one thing they care about, and zero in on that.”
Facebook provided a way for the Brexit campaigners to directly target what people cared about most. The platform allowed them to impose their false imperial worldview — about imperialism and sovereignty and, yes, immigration — where it had the most effect: in people’s minds, altering the way they perceived the world around them. As Wigmore told Shipman, this targeting was frequently achieved by stoking outrage and provoking an emotional reaction. It got people engaged in what felt like a national debate about the future of collective concepts on which their society rests: politics, the media, and their communities.
In short, these messages targeted people’s interpretation of their democracy. But the manipulative methods in which they traveled — Facebook among them — were largely taken for granted. And that manipulation isn’t over.
“Left unchecked, the continued evolution of these techniques will change how we form political choices, what sort of people we elect, and even whether we think our elections are truly free and fair,” Bartlett writes.
We can’t ignore the platform upon which democracy now operates.
Theresa May stood in the House of Commons in London on Thursday for nearly three hours, fielding questions from MPs about a proposal outlining how Britain might exit the EU in the spring. It’s entirely possible that she needn’t have bothered. The plan has been roundly criticized by both sides of the debate. For Leavers, it doesn’t separate the U.K. cleanly enough; for Remainers, it’s a deal that’s worse than the current arrangement. It is very likely that, even if this withdrawal deal goes to a vote in Parliament, it won’t pass, no matter how many questions May is willing to answer.
The proposal has also deepened a divide within May’s own Conservative Party. Despite telling the public that her cabinet backed the plan, a number of ministers and junior ministers resigned Thursday. That included the minister ostensibly in charge of figuring out how the EU exit will happen, Dominic Raab. In resigning, Raab said: “No democratic nation has ever signed up to be bound by such an extensive regime, imposed externally without any democratic control over the laws to be applied, nor the ability to exit the arrangement.”
He was talking about the European Union’s influence on Britain. But he could have been talking about Facebook.