The innocent novelty of the internet providing a voice for public discourse is now showing its darker side, becoming a threat to both our democracy and economy, says a UBC assistant professor.
Taylor Owen, who has focused his research efforts on the implications of emerging digital technologies for state power and control, says the internet 25 years later has evolved from a public forum to being controlled by a few major platforms, such as Google and Facebook, that have found a lucrative way to monetize our collected online data for both the political and economic advantage of their clients.
“The end result is the structural problems that exist today are allowing bad actors to use these platforms that threaten our democracy by dividing people into fragmented groups politically,” said Owen, citing how that has allowed fringe political groups to connect with a like-minded audience and augment the propensity of fake news.
“We have started to see the fragmentation and radicalization of our populations.”
Owen offered an update of the technological revolution in how we communicate at a two-day conference entitled “Human, Machines and the Future of Work,” hosted at UBC Okanagan campus on Friday.
Owen said while the public debate tends to focus on content and how it should be interpreted between reality and fiction, he said more attention needs to be spent on how the Internet industry is currently structured, something the big player platforms in the social media world don’t want attention drawn to.
Owen said what is different from the earlier development years of the Internet is not the sharing of information, regardless of the content, but how big data is using our data reading and consumer habits to make money while “nudging” us to act or think in certain ways.
“The big players have found a way to make money off the Internet through data collection. Artificial intelligence now plays a role in tracking what we do online, and using that information to sell to others seeking to reach a particular audience,” Owen said.
“Facebook places a commercial value of $28 a month on every North American user, $16 for Europe and $1.50 for the rest of the world. So after year after year of 20 per cent plus growth, Facebook user growth has stagnated the last two years, which may be a sign we are starting to see a backlash against how our data is being used and the privacy issues that debate opens up.
“What we need to be asking ourselves is when we open up Facebook, why we are seeing the information that is targeted to us individually and how that is being done.”
Owen said in the U.S., where the Internet has little governance oversight, the impact of social media’s negative influence is being played out in how political debate in that country has become polarized, fake news has become a national talking point and people are losing any sense of objectivity.
“If you look at the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton had millions to spend on her campaign and was in tight with the major social media platforms perhaps in a questionable way, yet Trump prevailed in the election with less resources but an understanding of how to communicate his message directly to his voters,” said Owen.
He cited Trump’s use of the Cambridge Analytical resources to target 50,000 micro-ads on a daily basis during the campaign, and the Russian influence where Facebook groups were set up a year in advance to build a following and two days before the election those sites began posting information to suppress interest among Clinton supporters to vote.
“That information was weaponized in such a way for political advantage that it impacted the election,” he said.
He said corporate shareholders and private citizens are beginning to understand the implications of monetizing and target marketing our data, and the pushback for government intervention will feed off that growing resentment.
“I think one of those points of no return is the idea that money is being made of white nationalism and white genocide target marketing, which I think for a lot of people is just going to far, to where we start asking in greater numbers what is the impact of all this collected data and what damage is it imposing on our dmocratic government,” he said.
He feels self-regulation among the big industry players will never work, in the same way that self-regulation didn’t work for U.S. financial firms and ultimately triggered a financial collapse back in 2008, leaving network governance that speaks to privacy rights and how our data can be monetized in a more transparent way.