August 17, 2018
Have we yet reached peak Zuck?
Democracy is by far the worse political system ever devised, in terms of protection against corruption and meddling by third parties. Especially in the age of mass media – and now social media – those who control the information hold the true power, rather than politicians.
Companies like Google and Facebook have the power to manipulate what people learn about various candidates and their actions, simply by fine tuning their algorithms to favor one over the others.
Until now, I assumed these companies did exactly that.
But as it turns out, they’re being even more brazen and shameless than that.
“Facebook plays a positive role by helping leaders like you connect with voters,” Mark Zuckerberg told European Parliament members in May.
The CEO’s appearance was meant to clarify Facebook’s influence on global politics—one of several testimonies that arose from this year’s Cambridge Analytica scandal. Yet, despite the interrogation of Zuckerberg and other tech leaders, questions about their companies’ intimacy with election campaigns have gone largely unanswered.
But an investigation from the Campaign for Accountability, a nonprofit and ethics watchdog group, reveals new details about the political embeds of Facebook and Google. It calls the discreet relationship a conflict of interest, and a surprisingly unregulated one. Campaigns receive free tools and services, it says, while platforms curry insights and powerful political allegiances.
They’ve literally got guys attached to various political campaigns, gathering information and giving “advice” about their media presence. Needless to say, these embeds probably spy on the candidates they don’t like and give valuable information and propaganda tools to their preferred candidates. At the very least, they’ll use the data they gleam from their relationship to fine-tune their own algorithms in order to favor the results they want.
“We are so close with [the campaigns] that we are typically sitting in their offices or having daily calls,” said Ali Jae Henke, a Google employee embedded in a 2016 Republican presidential campaign.
Sometimes Google’s embeds switched between roles—problematically, between ad sales and lobbying, the Campaign for Accountability found via LinkedIn. Google’s head of international elections outreach, Lee Dunn, formerly led the company’s White House outreach, for instance. In this latter role, Dunn had lobbied the Trump administration on digital taxes and copyright. Google’s team lead for US politics, Rob Saliterman, sold ads to campaigns while simultaneously lobbying lawmakers on various policies, the report notes.
We’re hitting levels of corruption that shouldn’t even be possible.
Trump, and the populist wing of the Republican party, need to understand that if they don’t take action soon to curb this flagrant manipulation of the political system by social media mega-corporations, there will come a point where they can never win another election, no matter how popular their policies are, because no one will hear about them.
Social media platforms need to be regulated. All users need equal access to all of a platform’s tools and services, free speech must be rigidly enforced, and popularity algorithms need to be made transparent in order to prevent these companies from boosting their pet political preferences.