Notes from a Crime Scene: Facebook

Conversations with colleagues and clients at the beginning of 2020 when we began working from our homes (to the best of our ability) revolved around whether science would be able to quickly create a COVID-19 vaccine and whether regulators would approve it fast enough. A vaccine would allow us to return to our everyday lives. It never occurred to me that a large segment of those same colleagues and clients would currently be refusing to take the vaccine, and that I would still be intensely arguing about this with some of them. What happened over the past 18 months?

Local context is important. Generalizing is rarely appropriate, but it is hard to disagree with the fact that we Bulgarians are not a trusting people. We wait for someone else to praise a product before a purchase, for our neighbors to try a service before we do so ourselves. It is also true that our institutions do not deserve our trust, and that governance during the pandemic occurred largely through the shouting and threats of a general in military garb rather than through scientific argument and more humanistic explanations. The above is inevitably a contributing factor to our low vaccination rates. But is this the entire reason?

Online Anti-Vaccine Propaganda Is Yet Another Iteration of a Problem Whose Roots Are Growing Stronger and Deeper, Both at Home and Abroad

The same problem made Brexit possible and allowed a dangerous clown like Donald Trump to win an election. Technology is connecting us more than ever before, yet it is also responsible for the worst polarization in recent human history.

Brexit became a fact after the “leave” camp secured a small lead in a referendum, which was voted on while manipulation, lies and disinformation on social media — mostly Facebook — influenced the electorate. The effective design of disinformation is painfully familiar: Target the undecided with ads and content that arouses their biggest personal fears and sensitivity about specific subjects.

There is no controlling mechanism for what everyone sees on the wall, and since everyone’s wall is individually curated, it is not even possible to investigate the effect that content on a wall has, or to even compare one wall with another.

Technology, perfectly exploited, can create a parallel reality that has no point of contact with the reality the rest of us inhabit. This is why the British feared refugees and immigrants who did not exist, and objected to Turkey’s supposed entry into the European Union — even though Turkey itself was not interested in joining.

It is not simply lies. Social media platforms have become a lucrative megaphone of fear, hate and division. There is no control over how content originates, over the true authors of disinformation or even those who finance disinformation, because it’s easy to hide behind another company or an intermediary.

Worst of All Is the Fact That We Do Not See the Lies and Disinformation Our Neighbors Live with When We Ourselves Are Not Targeted

We see a fraction of the total amount of disinformation; we cannot even imagine what all of it looks like. The same Brexit model worked for Trump’s presidential campaign. Ironically WikiLeaks, a project created in the name of democracy and freedom of speech helped. The same thing is happening with anti-vaccine propaganda.

Sadly, this time the purveyors of disinformation don’t even need to pay for spreading it. It is happening for free, as radicalized consumers of anti-vaccine propaganda spread it themselves. Today, thanks to technological giants, fear and hate flow freely and go completely unpunished. And in the context of downplaying the risks of COVID-19 and ignoring the benefits of vaccines, this can be fatal.

We live in a global, online experiment in which we have made ourselves the lab mice, all the while democracy is disintegrating. After more than a century of laws and rights we fought hard for, technology is destroying both. And no one is resisting.

It Seems That Government Is Incapable of Regulating Transnational Corporations

It is yet a different matter as to whether governments even want to try. Consumers will not protest as they are slowly boiled alive in a stew of disinformation. This failure to act is connected to the mistaken belief that democracy is durable, and to insufficient civil engagement and insufficiently humanistic education.

There is an urgent need to reevaluate the primacy of individualism, a belief system in which at least three generations were reared, and to reassess a return to communal values (and the commitment that requires). There must be an effort to elevate the authority of science. This won’t happen if scientific fact is constantly opposed by pseudo-scientific “facts” pushed by pseudo-scientists seeking fame and fortune.

The spread of pseudo-science and lies, naturally or through secret financing, is incompatible with democracy and freedom of speech. This is sabotage and it is subversive. It is the weapon of a cold war that will have dramatic consequences. The danger is not that Trump won the election in 2016, or that Great Britain left the European Union.

The Most Important Question Is How We Should Protect the Social Contract

Will we ever be able to conduct a free and fair election again? Will trust between compatriots ever make a comeback? Will an impartial media, distinct and free from the influence of social media, exist? Will we survive?

It is time for an awakening and for resistance. We cannot allow social media to be our main source of news and information. It is time to demand a meaningful response to the fact that technological giants are sharply disrupting democracy’s most fundamental machinery and dissolving our societies. While we share cute cat pictures, these weeds will continue to take over everything we hold dear unless they are destroyed.

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