Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Mind Control: A Facebook and Google Election?

Gizmodo broke the story: Facebook's trending topics was secretly (?) curated and manipulated by humans--specifically to kill conservative stories. Facebook says it's not so--but the Senate GOP has launched an inquiry to get some answers. Awesome.

Why Facebook (and Google) Matter

Facebook and Google--both private companies--and both places where people get--but do not themselves create--a lot of their news--are more important than ever in the national electoral landscape. This is proven science--not just theory.

  1. Facebook's "I Voted Button" would allow a user to display the fact that they had voted on election day. In a limited test this created increased social pressure on people who saw the button and correlated to an increase in voting. 
  2. Tests using manipulation of search results (not done by Google) have shown significant impact on voting behavior--especially with late-deciding voters.
  3. Google Correlate, part of their analytics engine, does as good a job of predicting the GOP vote as polls do. Maybe better.
Correlate Results: Telling!
The upshot of this is that big-data and big-news-curating seems to have an inside-track on voting behavior both in terms of influence and prediction. These companies are, for the most part, left-leaning--and they certainly could (and if you believe the allegations, are) influence elections.

Is This Happening? How Bad Is It?

Facebook has a problem: they launched a necessary and beneficial attempt to identify and flag fake news. This is an unalloyed good: fake news is problematic and has become closer and closer to looking like real-news (with added outrage) to drive click-bait. Many of these are of a conservative bent, If part of the problem is that the whistleblower thinks that news stories of questionable provenance weren't promoted, that's could be a perfect storm of conservatives believing fake news and Facebook trying to limit it.

Now, let's be clear: everyone gets fooled by fake news and The Omnivore doesn't have stats to say that conservatives are either fooled more--or targeted more--than liberals. There are plenty of fake-news sources that aren't especially political one way or another. However, when you get into sites like or even The Daily Caller, you are moving pretty explicitly into partisan territory. If a story claims that Lois Lerner is about to be arrested from NewsMax (a conservative news site that is not satirical) is that credible? Or fake news? Clearly it's something of a matter of opinion).

Of course it's also entirely possible that people who work at Facebook are (a) naturally left-leaning and (b) are, in fact, bringing a strong bias to their job. We know that Google has an interest--a keen interest--in politics--could they ever decide to play favorites? It isn't impossible.

What then?

The operative question seems to be: how much control could Google and Facebook exercise? Could they get anyone elected? Can they make a push in a percentage point that only makes a difference in our hyper-partisan culture? Is it somewhere in the middle? Here are a few things to be aware of:

1. The Current Media Environment is Not Natural

We live in an era of fragmented national media. Many outlets are openly partisan. A great deal of news funding comes from what could reasonably be termed "click-bait." There is a monetary return in polarizing news and casting events in a way friendly to a specific audience. These factors likely already have some significant impact. The book Left Turn (Tim Groseclose) uses a somewhat questionable methodology to conclude that if the media were actually "unbiased" the national attitude would look a lot more like Texas than New York.

Whether this is literally true or not, we should consider that if Facebook and Google (or whoever else) were to act to subtly influence voters, they would be doing so in a great deal of "present company."

2. The Electorate Is Not All That Elastic

Our current thinking is that a large percentage of the vote is "locked in." Obama is one of the most polarizing presidents of modern history and his tracked approval ratings are more or less flat. There are dating apps coming out with political filters. We live in a partisan age. As such, it seems likely that (a) movement is limited to a few points on the margins but (b) a few points is all it takes. In other words, even if a Google/Facebook fix were in, it would probably require something like these current conditions to fully weaponize it.

Of course seeing as we have "these current conditions" that may not be too comforting.

3. Big Data Is Powerful

There's a final observation: it is possible that with proper targeting and enough insight, very, very specific political markets could be tracked and moved. If anyone can do this, it would be Google and Facebook. If you could, for example, determine that one county in Florida could sway the 2000 election and focus on that one? You could decide which of the two candidates would win. This is likely beyond current reach--but not necessarily. 

If anyone knows this stuff, it's Google / Facebook. If, in fact, they are training their augmented intelligences on hyper-specific voting groups and specific behavior profiles, the ability to manipulate things might be as subtle as Google's AlphaGo making a series of moves that even grand-masters don't realize the ramifications of until it's too late.

What To Do?

The obvious answer is: don't get all your news from Facebook. That ought to be a given--but, you know, apparently not. The second thing to do is to treat Search Results as personalized (they are--to you--if you use Google) and to look to a spread of sources before any conclusions are drawn. This is hard to do and often little more than frustrating--but it may be a necessity.

A final thing to do is to realize that fundamentally manipulation works best when someone is telling you something you want to hear. That's when your filters are down and confirmation bias carries the payload into your soft, spongy brain. If you are going to your news sources and coming away outraged? Consistently? That should be a yellow flag at least.

Good luck with all that.

1 comment:

  1. 3 Comments:
    1) President Obama is not one of the most polarizing president in modern history. This is a fallacy that grows out of what is, imho, the actual polarizing element - a highly politically gerrymandered electorate that has as a consequence elect radically uncompromising members of Congress. It's these Senators and Representatives that are the most polarizing members of government in modern history. disrespect intended to the Omnivore.
    2) FB and Google, though they could certainly do nefarious things with their data-power, have a truly great-deal to lose by doing so - loss of trust. Once they fall off that cliff, it's really hard, perhaps impossible, to recover from. Therefore I would be greatly skeptical of stories saying they have done so.
    3) I *totally* agree with the Omnivore's "conclusion" paragraph. One of the reasons this "Lefty" reads The Political Omnivore :).