I did a search on Google last spring. I wrote “Muslims are ... ” in the search window to see what the search engine would return in terms of results. The suggestions that came up were:
1. Muslims are repressing women
2. Muslims are terrorists
3. Muslims are our biggest foreign threat
I did the search again this week. Now, point two had changed to “Muslims are not terrorists.” Otherwise, seven out of eight results were continuing the theme that Muslims are evil/murderers/women haters.
In political discussions, we analyze the success of right-wing extremism from every angle. Is it due to globalization, robots or angry men? Not only.
It Is Not the Propaganda that is Dangerous
Earlier this week, I invited Samantha Bradshaw, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute. We spoke about how governments around the world are building social media armies to both protect and influence their own citizens.
“The propaganda is not new, or dangerous on its own,” she said. “The real problem is the algorithms. I don’t want to sound overly dramatic, but if we don’t do anything about it, I believe democracy is in danger.” Ninety-four percent of Swedish people use the Google search engine. It is our library, our window to the world. But what are we really getting, and how does it work? That is something we don’t really have a view of.
Days after the deadly shooting in Las Vegas, the right-wing blog Gateway Pundit posted a piece that suggested the murderer was a left-wing activist. For a while, this post was one of the top results on Google for those who wanted information on what had happened.
Even on Google-owned YouTube, similar lies spread like wildfire.
The World's Most Powerful Companies
It is strange how little we discuss how democracy in the world relies on two enormous companies whose only motivation is to make money. In the days after the American presidential election, Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg said that it was ridiculous to suggest that his company had influenced Donald Trump’s election.
Since then, a lot has happened. Directly after the election, the focus was on “fake news.” Currently it is being investigated to what extent Facebook and Google sold ads to Russian companies with a connection to Putin during the U.S. election. Propaganda has always existed. But what is new and dangerous about the times we are living in is that these companies are fundamentally changing how our democracy works. “There is a gap between the anger around the world and what is actually happening. I believe that much of this gap can be explained by social media,” author Anne Applebaum said when I met her this fall.
The Algorithms Are Creating a Machine of Fury
What is driving this fury? Facebook makes money through its ability to get people engaged. When we like, share, or comment, we are giving away data about ourselves. This information is then sold to companies, and then back to us in the form of advertising. The algorithms used by Facebook recognize the type of content that affect people emotionally. Facebook is not an evil corporation. Neither is Google-owned YouTube. It just happens to be the case that these companies make money from fueling strong emotions. That’s why subjects such as racism, feminism and other culturally explosive subjects work so well on Facebook and YouTube.
The tech giants change public life in many ways. They suck up pretty much all new advertising funds, causing traditional media companies to go bankrupt. In the U.S., the local and regional media are now pretty much extinct. In its place, we now have this machine of fury. It’s not evil. It is a business model.
The media industry has always served to transform people’s time and attention into money.
In the book “The Attention Merchants,” law professor and internet expert Tim Wu describes how the media industry has developed and refined methods for exactly this purpose over the last 100 years, from last century’s tabloids to the golden age of TV advertising. What is new today are the staggering scale and the technical possibilities for manipulation and monitoring.
Today, Facebook has 2 billion daily users. Google possesses almost 80 percent of the world’s search market. These companies are probably the most powerful in the history of the world. They sit on an incredible amount of data about each and every one of us. They have fundamentally re-engineered our society, both when it comes to human relations and the basis for democracy. They control distribution of information and our public conversations. However, we lack insight into what they do and have no possibility to influence it.
Pressure from the Outside Is Needed
In the last year, I have spoken to several senior executives at both Facebook and Google. The common thread is a lack of self-criticism and realization about the role companies play in our society.
In the United States, the political pressure on Facebook to become more transparent and responsible has finally started to increase. That’s good. In Sweden we give Facebook special discounts when they want to build data centers in Luleå, but other than that, the politicians don’t appear to have an opinion.
According to Wu, Facebook needs to change its business model to stop being lethal for democracy.
One thing is certain: This is not something these companies are going to do voluntarily. What is needed now is increased external pressure, from governments, media companies and consumers. The ball is in our court. If we do nothing, there is a significant risk that the anger will just keep becoming more powerful.