Facebook's algorithm will kill democracy, and its got nothing to do with privacy

Apr 2, 2018

You've heard the news: Facebook is in hot water after it was revealed that the personal data of 50 million users was used, without their consent, to elect Donald Trump. #Oops.

Facebook is a democracy killer, and not just because of its lax privacy protections, or its history of serial tax avoidance.

Privacy is only part of the problem

The most democracy-degrading aspect of Facebook is the algorithm that decides what content appears in your feed.

A recent article by Wael Ghonim from the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University highlights why algorithms on major communications platforms need to be regulated: because like alcohol and tobacco, they are destructively addictive by design.

Facebook makes its money by selling your attention. As the saying goes, if you're not paying for the product, chances are you are the product. To keep you hooked, Facebook's algorithm prioritizes "engaging" content. Ghonim's article presents research from Pew which shows that "indignant" posts are shared twice as much as those expressing "bipartisan sentiments".

Evolution is not on our side

So why can't we simply be disciplined and say no to the outrage algorithm? Because it's addictive.

Ghonim quotes a prescient 2009 warning from Danah Boyd, a researcher at Microsoft, who lays it out in dramatic terms: "Our bodies are programmed to consume fat and sugars because they’re rare in nature", says Boyd. "In the same way, we’re biologically programmed to be attentive to things that stimulate: content that is gross, violent, or sexual and gossip which is humiliating, embarrassing, or offensive. If we’re not careful, we’re going to develop the psychological equivalent of obesity" (emphasis added).

What can be done?

A healthy democracy needs healthy, respectful civic debate. We need democratic leafy greens, not Facebook's trans fat.

So what can be done to save democracy from the "psychological obesity" Facebook induces? Here are three ideas.

1. Close the loophole

Canadian tax policy is set up to reward companies who advertise with Canadian media organizations, but a loophole in the Income Tax Act means that these provisions don't apply to digital ads. As a result, Facebook's ads are 26% cheaper than they should be. All told, our tax policy subsidizes Facebook, Google, YouTube, and other foreign tech monopolies to the tune of $1.3 billion per year, while sucking the lifeblood out of the Canadian media and journalism organizations that safeguard our democracy.

FRIENDS is working to close this loophole. You can support us by making a donation, and you can even write to Prime Minister Trudeau to demand action.

2. Make 'em pay

More Canadians -- all Canadians, not just millennials -- first hear about news on Facebook than any other single source. Yet Facebook does't employ a single journalist. And even though its business depends on a steady stream of "engaging" content, Facebook makes billions without paying a dime to the people who actually create that content, including trusted news organizations like the CBC.

Facebook is a publisher, and it should be treated that way. It should be held responsible, within reason, for promoting blatantly false and misleading content, and it should pay the people who create the content from which its billion dollar profits are derived.

3. Who do you think we are?

Facebook's algorithm profiles you, then shows you content based on who it thinks you are. Yet Facebook doesn't share its user profiles with the users they're profiling. It's your data: shouldn't you have a right to know?

The European Union thinks so. In 2018, the EU will be granting citizens the "right to an explanation" regarding decisions that algorithms make about you. In other words, Facebook has to tell you why they think you should see one article and another.

Canadians expect and deserve to live in a thriving, healthy democracy, and that democracy can't exist if companies like Facebook control the flow of civic information. We're pushing Ottawa to defend Canada from this onslaught.

Daniel Bernhard @sendinthewolf is the Executive Director of Friends of Canadian Broadcasting.