The Cambridge Analytica affair was messy enough to force Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg into testifying to a US Senate committee. That the founder, and CEO of Facebook, which with two billion users is global, had to testify about the doings of a British firm in a US election, before a US legislative panel, showed at once how the Internet had made nonsense of national boundaries, and how this borderless world was dominated by the USA.
Zuckerberg’s testimony also showed how the ‘new’ media was moving towards a new revenue model for the Internet, one which has raised concerns about the fragility of US democracy, and in fact all the democracy. This is intrinsically linked to the new revenue model, which involves selling information.
The basic model remains what it has been since the emergence of print media: the sale of space. Print media has always depended on the sale of a certain proportion of space in publications to finance the cost of newspapers and periodicals, as well as generate a profit for owners and shareholders. Therefore, paid circulation has not been important in itself, but as evidence to support a publication’s claim to charge advertisers more money for the space they buy. Since advertisers pay good money for space, they want to make the most efficient use of it possible. Thus marketing departments have developed a whole range of tools which play a role in preparing advertisements, and a crucial linkage has been between psychology and advertising.
Thus, when faced with the choice of which washing powder to buy, the housewife might well depend on which has the more appealing advertising. That advertising has reached her through media; print media primarily at one point, then radio and then TV last century, and now through what might be called the ‘new’ electronic media of the Internet.
The problem seems to have arisen with the extension of marketing methods to politics. There seems to be a strange cynicism at work, one which assumes there is no real difference between a choice of washing powders and a choice of candidates. However, whether or not there is an equivalence of outcomes, there is an equivalence of methods. The techniques applied to selling a particular brand of washing powder can easily be applied to selling a particular candidate, the only difference being that whereas the former is sold to a consumer, the latter to a voter.
So what do buyers, or voters, want? To answer that question, you need information. In print and electronic media, marketing people had to conduct surveys and conduct focus groups; in short, carry out activities independent of the media. However, with social media, the information could be obtained from the media itself. It was already possible to track how users behaved online, and combined with psychological research, it is entirely possible to judge whether a particular netizen will buy a particular brand of washing powder. And whether he or she will vote for a particular candidate. Candidates are also told how to tweak their message slightly, so as to appeal to particular voters.
However, before you can predict behaviour, or decide how a candidate should adjust his ad, you need information about the targets. That is what Cambridge Analytica has done: obtained information and tailored Trump’s message. Providing information about online behaviour is thus needed to provide advertising, and that is already an important revenue stream for social media.
Social media, it should be remembered, is free, and kept free. It’s a little like free newspapers, which reflect the reality that paid circulation is not important as a revenue stream in its own right, as a proof to potential advertisers of committed circulation. Now some newspapers are distributed free, and their only revenue stream is from advertisements. In the same way, social media do have enhanced services for which users pay, but basically the model is free. Zuckerberg in his testimony said that Facebook would always have a free version, which was taken by many to mean that there could be versions which would charge a subscription fee. Many newspapers have also put up paywalls, which make the user pay; that is very much like having to buy a newspaper copy.
Zuckerberg identified elections in four other countries while saying that there would be no interference in the November US elections. Apart from those ‘offyear’ polls for Congress, there will be polls in Mexico, Brazil, India and Pakistan. He announced before his testimony that Facebook was introducing a slew of measures to ensure greater transparency in advertising, and preventing fake news from being posted.
It is interesting that Pakistan is holding an election this year, because the narrative of the PPP has been that any election it lost was rigged. Then there is the PTI narrative, which claims that all elections have been rigged, particularly the last, which it lost. The PML(N) seems to be preparing to join this particular bandwagon by its claim that the court decisions against its leader, Mian Nawaz Sharif, have only increased his popularity. Woe betide the caretakers if it loses! In fact, whoever loses, it will be the fault of the caretakers, not the party.
Interestingly, whether or not there is any interference, it will be alleged. As the party which is most adept at using the social media, the PTI has been set up as the fall guy, unless it loses big. It also suits this particular narrative that the PTI is perceived as having links to the intelligence agencies. These agencies are also seen as media-savvy, and likely to use methods favoured by Cambridge Analytica. There is the big difference between Pakistani and US politics that social-media penetration is lower here. However, that does not make as much difference as would be thought, because if a sufficiently clever algorithm is developed, less data could be used to predict voter behaviour; perhaps with less accuracy, but still sufficiently to fix the election result.
Zuckerberg is in an apparently false position. By guaranteeing the fairness of polls outside his native USA, is he not setting himself up for the charge of interfering in other countries’ elections? And isn’t he programming himself for failure, because if there is interference, would it not show that his guarantee was useless? Zuckerberg is only doing what is right under the new capitalist mantra of ‘corporate social responsibility’. In short, he is fully playing a role in preserving share value, and thus stockholders’ interest.
It is interesting that Zuckerberg has been summoned. As he said, there is a need for regulation, but can the USA legislate for other countries? Zuckerberg has been called as the CEO of Facebook. An earlier witness, Charles E. Wilson, the CEO of General Motors was summoned as President Eisenhower’s nominee for Defense Secretary in 195352.3*, when he famously said “for years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa”. Zuckerberg has also got to think about what is good for countries he has never been to. He cannot blithely assume that what is good for America is good for Facebook.
The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.