Silicon Valley on the rack

This morning the Today programme carried a big piece about Twitter, Google and Facebook being up in front of a US Congressional Committee to explain how it was, during the last Presidential election, their platforms seem to have been exploited in highly undesirable ways, one of which appears also to be illegal.

The ostensibly illegal way concerns the manner in which 126 million Americans were exposed to Russian-backed election content. 120 “fake Russian-backed pages” also created 80,000 posts that were seen directly by 29 million Americans but were probably actually seen by many more through sharing, liking and following.

Now whether you were glad or sad that Donald Trump won is sort of beside the point. What is at issue here is the way something as fundamental as the system for electing the President was so easily manipulated. Did someone fall asleep at the wheel? And if “Big Tech” can get something like this wrong, what else might be amiss?

Remember Hilary Clinton got more votes than Donald Trump but her votes were “maldistributed”. The Electoral College got Trump across the line, not a numerical majority. The implication is that micro-targetting specific demographics in swing States was to some degree or other responsible for the outcome and micro-targetting is what the big platforms claim to be good at.

Before anyone in the UK starts getting uppity or superior about maldistribution, similar things have happened here, most notably in the 1951 General Election (no, I don’t remember it!). That year Labour got its largest ever number of votes and nearly 1% more of the share of the votes than the Tories but they got 321 seats to Labour’s 295. Winston Churchill was Prime Minister again. Enough already with the history lesson.

Now if there is one thing which is bound to get the attention of politicians it is someone else messing with the well- understood mechanisms and methods by which their elections are conducted.

I doubt anyone imagines, even for a moment, that any of the businesses currently on the rack positively wanted or intended to help Trump or harm Clinton. In a sense it is much worse than that. They were tricked or gamed by outsiders who obviously understood their technology better than they did and knew how to bend it for their own dark ends.

I guess if your motivating spirit is “move fast and break things”  or you believe it is always better to apologise than seek permission, something like this was inevitable.  But the gods will have their terrible revenge and we might be witnessing the beginnings of it on Capitol Hill right now.

So did Silicon Valley get Trump elected? That seems unlikely but what is astonishing, even shocking, is that nobody can say they didn’t or that there is even room for reasonable doubt. And this is all coming to light after the event with each of the companies acknowledging they had no idea they were being played in the way they were.

Saying “oops, sorry” somehow doesn’t cut it.

Turning to the UK again, I wonder how much of the EU referendum vote can be explained by similar skullduggery?

The ability to micro-target specific demographics to sell corn chips or holidays on the Costa Brava is one thing. But when that sort of power starts to engage with electoral politics it is very worrying particularly if, at the same time, it also allows unambiguous lies and the grossest distortions to be peddled with impunity or play into filter bubbles.

The truth is in a first-past-the post Parliamentary system such as ours the outcome of a General Election is determined in a relatively limited number of seats by a comparatively small number of voters.  It is one of the reasons I became a convert to some form of proportional representation.

I trust the powers that be are on the case.

About John Carr

John Carr is one of the world's leading authorities on children's and young people's use of digital technologies. He is Senior Technical Adviser to Bangkok-based global NGO ECPAT International, Technical Adviser to the European NGO Alliance for Child Safety Online, which is administered by Save the Children Italy and an Advisory Council Member of Beyond Borders (Canada). Amongst other things John is or has been an Adviser to the United Nations, ITU, the European Union, the Council of Europe and European Union Agency for Network and Information Security and is a former Board Member of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety. He is Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John has advised many of the world's largest internet companies on online child safety. In June, 2012, John was appointed a Visiting Senior Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science. More: http://johncarrcv.blogspot.com
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