You may have noticed that net neutrality was in the news quite a bit this week after US FCC Chairman Ajit Pai tried to slip a release into the pre-long weekend news burial ground stating that he plans to roll back any legislation related to Net Neutrality. In response to this, Netflix released a statement that it opposes any attempts to roll back net neutrality rules. Back in July, when the idea of gutting net neutrality law was first floated under the Trump administration, all of the major platform players such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and Amazon, spoke out against these proposed regulations. But a Google search that I conducted this morning shows news in which Twitter, Pinterest, AirBnB and of course the aforementioned Netflix make statements opposing the new legislation while Facebook and Google are conspicuously absent.
Yesterday, Sandy Parakilas published an insightful op-ed in the NY Times. Titled We Can’t Trust Facebook to Regulate Itself. In this article, Parakilas, a developer for Facebook leading up to the 2012 IPO, describes Facebook as “a company that prioritized data collection from its users over protecting them from abuse.” Parakilas writes:
Facebook knows what you look like, your location, who your friends are, your interests, if you’re in a relationship or not, and what other pages you look at on the web. This data allows advertisers to target the more than one billion Facebook visitors a day. It’s no wonder the company has ballooned in size to a $500 billion behemoth in the five years since its I.P.O.
The more data it has on offer, the more value it creates for advertisers. That means it has no incentive to police the collection or use of that data — except when negative press or regulators are involved. Facebook is free to do almost whatever it wants with your personal information, and has no reason to put safeguards in place.
In my PhD dissertation, completed in 2013, I made this very point from the outside, arguing for strong evidence that Facebook is in essence a media company rather than the technology provider that at that time they claimed to be. There is an important difference between a technology company and a media company of course. A technology company doesn’t tend to make money off of advertising whereas advertising is essential for media companies. What is particularly insidious about Facebook, as highlighted in Parakilas’ op-ed, is that beyond simply providing attention to advertisers, Facebook also mines and sells user data.
One of the hallmarks of the last year of US politics has been a steady stream of messages from the president about “fake news” or the “lying media”. Arguably, this has been a mainstay of Trump’s political strategy since he announced his run for the presidency, and it remains a tactic that he employs, and his followers seem to take at face value. So it’s not surprising to learn that in the US, trust in traditional media is at an all time low. In fact, recent research from the American Press Institute and Associated Press shows that 41% of Americans report having hardly any confidence in the traditional press.
What was surprising for me though, as a Canadian researcher, was learning that this is more than just an American issue. In Canada, Statistics Canada reports that only 40% of Canadians report feeling confidence in the national media. With so much information available from so many different sources, it seems as though we just don’t know who or what we should trust anymore. This is true in 2017 and, unfortunately, my research also shows evidence of this trend as early as our Federal election in 2015. We collected thousands of tweets in the month leading up to the 2015 federal election, and we analyzed a sample of them using corpus analysis software along with human content analysis.
In a world of 24/7 cable news, round the clock Amazon Deliveries, and infinite social media notifications, it’s been difficult to not notice how the ways we interact with each other and information is changing each passing day. Chief among these changes of course is the problem of fake news (#fakenews, I guess) or the spread of misinformation in an online environment. Some people blame Facebook and Twitter, who are currently in the news for the role their platforms played in Russian trolling of the 2016 US election. Their involvement notwithstanding, it seems to me that though the platforms had a role to play in the spread of fake news, it was more a passive role in which they took advantage of human frailty, rather than an active one in which their algorithms spread fake news because it’s more exciting content or something. Allow me to explain.