Problematic platform

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the House Financial Services Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, DC, on October 23. MANDEL NGAN/AFP

If you want to know what happens to a country that has opened itself entirely to Facebook, look to the Philippines,” wrote Davey Alba in BuzzFeed News last year.

“It’s a society where, increasingly, the truth no longer matters, propaganda is ubiquitous, and lives are wrecked and people die as a result – half a world away from the Silicon Valley engineers who’d promised to connect their world.”

Fifty years ago on October 29, the first message over what would become the internet was sent from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

The prototype, called Arpanet, was a project funded by the US government to create “a network that would allow computers to communicate and share resources”, recalled Leonard Kleinrock, a UCLA computer science professor and one of the project pioneers, in a story in Los Angeles magazine.

“The first message sent on the internet on October 29, 1969, was ‘LO’ – because the network crashed after the first two letters . . . But we ended up with the most potent message possible. ‘LO’, as in ‘lo and behold’.”

That historic “lo and behold” moment was the dawn of the digital age. Humankind has since been helped immeasurably by the global interconnectivity the internet has engendered. But in its wake have also come unforeseen complications and dangers.

It seems but fitting that just a day after the 50th anniversary of the transmission of the very first internet message, Facebook, the giant social media platform that has become one of the defining features of the online era, was slapped a £500,000 ($645,000) fine by the UK’s data protection watchdog over the Cambridge Analytica (CA) data scandal last year – a reminder of the pitfalls that can result from the improper use of the now-indispensable technology.

CA’s office in London is shuttered now, but once upon a time, the British political consulting firm rode high on its supposedly cutting-edge work in data mining and analysis for powerful figures in many countries, and how these could be deployed in innovative ways to target voters.

Until it was revealed that it was violating data privacy laws – specifically its undisclosed acquisition of the personal data of some 87 million Facebook users, which it then used to craft campaign ads and messaging aimed at discrediting opponents of its political clients.

While Facebook denied complicity, the unwarranted access to its users’ data spawned problematic consequences in many parts of the world.

“Cambridge Analytica had built a ‘psychological warfare tool’, which it unleashed on US voters to help elect Donald Trump as president,” wrote Issie Lapowsky in Wired.

But what CA chief Alexander Nix described in jargon – “behavioural microtargeting, psychographic profiling, predictive analytics” – translated to something visceral and dangerous online: an unprecedented flood of disinformation and misinformation, hate speech and “fake news” churned out by shadowy, highly organised troll armies.

And Facebook, with its two billion users, was the preferred platform for such campaigns. Nix claimed credit for “Crooked Hillary”, the vicious tag that doomed Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

On top of helping Trump win the US presidency, CA also stoked the deeply divisive Brexit campaign.

On a separate front, Russian operators were said to have wielded fake Facebook accounts that reached as many as 126 million Americans in the 2016 elections.

Next to the US, the country that saw the most number of Facebook users’ data pillaged (1.2 million) by CA was the Philippines, where free Facebook is the only internet for millions of people.

CA’s parent company claimed in its website that it had successfully rebranded a politician as “a strong, no-nonsense man of action” in the 2016 elections.

In the run-up to those polls, the country was witness to a startling sea change in the political environment – the corrosive, well-funded weaponisation of social media, which has continued to this day despite Facebook’s intermittent attempts to remove fake accounts.

“Can Mark Zuckerberg fix Facebook before it breaks democracy?” asked the New Yorker in September last year.

That appears unlikely – even as Twitter has announced it is to ban all political advertising, Facebook said it would continue to accept unvetted political ads, ensuring that disinformation and false claims will continue to run riot in the platform (consider the implications of that in the 2022 Philippine elections).

As the writer Aaron Sorkin (of the film The Social Network, about Facebook’s beginnings) noted in exasperation, in an open letter to Zuckerberg: “Right now, on your website, is an ad claiming that Joe Biden gave the Ukrainian attorney general a billion dollars not to investigate his son.

“Every square inch of that is a lie and it’s under your logo. That’s not defending free speech, Mark, that’s assaulting truth.”

Philippine Daily Inquirer/Asia News Network