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Misinformation Was Always Dangerous. Social Media Has Turned It into a Viral Sickness

Facebook’s reach is being used to create division, spread hate and harm democracy. And the corporation doesn’t care.

Mitchell Anderson 16 Sep

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The Tyee.

In 1486, a German priest named Heinrich Kramer published a manual called Malleus Maleficarum or the Hammer of Witches. Kramer wrote the book as an act of revenge following his expulsion from Innsbruck by the local bishop after he tried — and failed — to convict a woman he was sexually obsessed by of satanic practices.

Eventually reaching 30,000 copies, Kramer’s book detailed the theory and practice of witch persecution that catalyzed a frenzy of female torture throughout Europe and claimed at least 40,000 victims. History teaches us that indulging petty ignorance can be decidedly deadly, a lesson we ignore at our peril.

Dangerously dumb ideas of course continue today. Thousands recently took to the streets in Montreal and Vancouver to oppose mask mandates that could save thousands of lives. Many also proudly pledged their support for Donald Trump or QAnon conspiracies about a secretive cabal of Satan-worshiping elites who for some reason harvest the blood of children.

The world has always had whack jobs. However, the multiplier of social media has made spreading outlandish ideas ever more dangerous, especially at a time when there are plenty of other very real problems that demand our attention and action.

Cities on the West Coast choke in smoke from historic wildfires driven by accelerating climate change. Increasing human encroachment into the natural world propelled this pandemic, and others. Democracy in the world’s largest economy apparently hangs in the balance.

Dealing with any of these crises individually would be a huge challenge. An added burden is that almost three-billion people now see the world through the personalized and profit-driven filter of social media.

As detailed in his insider exposé Zucked, tech consultant Roger McNamee describes how it’s more profitable for Facebook to promote content causing fear or outrage than things that make people happy. Manipulating people’s attention for profit naturally leads to adversarial value silos, creating a society where opportunistic populists leaders like Donald Trump flourish. This was not an intentional goal, just an accidental side effect of maximizing users of an intentionally addictive platform.

As McNamee warned in the Guardian, “The platforms create ‘filter bubbles’ around each user, confirming pre-existing beliefs and often creating the illusion that everyone shares the same views. Platforms do this because it is profitable. The downside of filter bubbles is that beliefs become more rigid and extreme. Users are less open to new ideas and even to facts.”

Such lucrative algorithms have real-world consequences. Exhausted first responders in Oregon had to plead with local citizens to stop spreading baseless rumours that Antifa activists were somehow responsible for the devastating wildfires rather than tinder dry conditions exacerbated by climate change.

Online QAnon enthusiasts apparently believed the best thing they could do was to insert their bizarre political views into a disaster response that put 10 per cent of the state population on evacuation alert. Armed vigilantes roamed the fire zone looking for leftist leprechauns and threatening journalists. A local sheriff’s department had to respond online stating, “THIS IS NOT TRUE! Unfortunately, people are spreading this rumour and it is causing problems. Rumours spread just like wildfire and now our 911 dispatchers and professional staff are being overrun with requests for information and inquiries on an UNTRUE rumour.”

The political dumpster fire unfolding in the U.S. has also been made worse by social media. Four years ago, Facebook was famously implicated in co-ordinated foreign interference in the 2016 American election. Cambridge Analytica accessed the online information of over 80 million Americans to aid the Trump campaign. On the eve of another divisive election, Facebook continues to refuse independent researchers access to internal data to clarify how this happened.

America is not the only country being undermined by social media. This month a former Facebook data scientist penned a 6,000-word memo describing her firsthand experience on how the company failed to prevent the platform from being weaponized to subvert democracy around the world.

“I’ve found multiple blatant attempts by foreign national governments to abuse our platform on vast scales to mislead their own citizenry, and caused international news on multiple occasions,” wrote former Facebook data scientist Sophie Zhang in a document obtained by BuzzFeed. “Although I made the best decision I could based on the knowledge available at the time, ultimately I was the one who made the decision not to push more or prioritize further in each case, and I know that I have blood on my hands by now.”

According to Zhang, citizens in Azerbaijan, Honduras, India, Ukraine, Spain, Brazil, Bolivia and Ecuador were all manipulated by co-ordinated Facebook-based campaigns using fake accounts or bots. However, Facebook management apparently prioritized potential public relations problems over preventing civil unrest around the world.

“It’s an open secret within the civic integrity space that Facebook’s short-term decisions are largely motivated by PR and the potential for negative attention,” she said adding, “In the office, I realized that my viewpoints weren’t respected unless I acted like an arrogant asshole.”

There is no doubt that many principled people like Zhang work for online giants such as Facebook. However, other than acting as whistleblowers, their influence seems limited within a corporate culture that seems like a top-down, tech-bro treehouse.

In her 2018 book Brotopia, Emily Chang documented how Silicon Valley apparently has an even worse record of gender equity than Wall Street. Less than one-quarter of employees in tech companies are women and they earn half what men do. Women-led companies attract only two per cent of venture capital. Chang and others describe how within many companies, attending sex parties or afternoon outings to a strip club are a routine part of the workday.

Sexual harassment in the valley seems so pervasive it makes Mad Men look woke. And if female employees don’t like being hit on in the workplace, they might want to find another career. Almost 1,000 publicly traded Silicon Valley companies require employees to sign away their legal rights to sue for harassment. Problem solved.

Does this sound like a cohort that should be trusted to curate personalized news in an era of dangerous disruption? Facebook now has more followers than Christianity. And to be clear, decisions made by the company are essentially those of CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg, who controls 58 per cent of the voting shares, is worth about $100 billion and personally controls the largest news distribution outlet in the world. How much wealth and power are enough? Apparently more than that.

In a recent interview reported in the Guardian, Zuckerberg “hopes” his company does not lead to the collapse of society, while evidence to the contrary seems all around us.

Ignorance has always been endemic. While fighting COVID-19, climate change and democratic decay are all urgent priorities, we cannot do so in the absence of accurate reliable information.

People such as QAnon conspiracy theorists and some Trump supporters feel the need to fight a secretive global apparatus trying to harvest their personal data and manipulate the information they see.

Instead of imaginary foes, I can think of one such organization hiding in plain view.  [Tyee]

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