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Is Facebook More Like a Newspaper or a Video Game?
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Over the weekend I listened to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (as narrated by Nick Offerman.) It’s an enjoyable book, though something of a polemic, and easier to understand if you know that Twain hated Sir Walter Scott (among other things he blamed him for the Civil War). As you may or may not know, Scott was a well-known novelist of the time who romanticized the entire medieval period, and, when you read Twain’s novel, it’s apparent that it was born out Twain’s dislike of Scott specifically and of the idealization of the medieval period more generally.
One of Twain’s major goals was to show how backward everything was during the medieval period, and how awful things were for the great majority of people. Consequently one of the major themes of the book is the importance and wonder of progress, and on that front I may revisit it in more depth, but for now I just want to pluck one fact out of the book to set the stage for this post’s subject.
If you’re unfamiliar with the story, an engineer is sent backward through time to the era of Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and Camelot. Where, in the course of various adventures, the engineer attempts to modernize ancient Britain by implementing such things as the telegraph (and telephone), a new monetary system, and the abolition of slavery. All of it spiced up with the liberal application of dynamite. But of all the things this engineer considers important, Twain lays particular emphasis on the creation of a newspaper. As I recall it’s one of the first, if not the first thing the engineer turns his mind too once he has a free hand.
The importance of newspapers specifically and the free press more generally, was not only important to Twain, of course, it has been a major feature of American ideology going all the way back to the founding. And it has generally been seen as something which by itself counterbalances all manner of possible abuses. For example, this quote from Jefferson sums up the role of “papers” nicely:
The people are the only censors of their governors: and even their errors will tend to keep these to the true principles of their institution. To punish these errors too severely would be to suppress the only safeguard of the public liberty. The way to prevent these irregular interpositions of the people is to give them full information of their affairs thro’ the channel of the public papers, & to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people. The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers & be capable of reading them.
This was written while Jefferson was ambassador to France, and if you’re familiar with his later long running battle with Hamilton (which occurred mostly in the newspapers of the time) it’s possible he may have eventually moderated this absolute support. But I’ll have more to say about that later.
To our examples of Twain and Jefferson we could add the First Amendment, of course, and also dozens of other historical quotes all supporting the freedom of the press. Though, as I said in the past, despite all this historic support, there have been some people who have recently started to question unlimited freedom of the press. Still this mostly comes up with reference to hate speech. When you’re talking about being informed about politics, almost everyone from Jefferson, down to the present day has felt that absolute freedom to discuss politics is central to the American ideology and particularly central to the workings of democracy. At least... everyone thought this... until Russia came along... and started buying ads on Facebook…
Okay, I might be exaggerating the impact, but the alarm over the issue is interesting. Particularly the question of where Facebook fits, when we’re talking about freedom of the press and newspapers and all the things which have been so important back to the very beginning of the republic.
When speaking of where social media fits, if nothing else, it’s definitely clear that the rules of the game have been dramatically changed. To illustrate this I’d like to start with looking at the money spent by the Russians. Lots of people go on and on about the Russians tampering with the election, but how much money and influence were they really throwing around? For me this appears to be the part of the story getting the least critical attention, but the part which is potentially the most fascinating. To keep things simple let’s look just at what was spent on Facebook.
From what I can tell there are two numbers floating around, $100,000 and $46,000. I think one number is earlier in the year, and one number is right on the eve of the election, but I’m happy to add the two of them together to get a grand total of $146k being spent by the Russians on Facebook. In fact let’s be even more conservative and assume that some spending hasn’t yet been uncovered and double it, and then round the whole thing up to $300k.
Having come up with a total, the first question I want to ask is, how does that compare to what the candidates themselves spent on Facebook? Well the number there, as far as I can tell, is $81 million for both candidates, which means the two candidates outspent the Russians (even using our very conservative figure) by 270x (or 3/10ths of a percent.) And, as I said this is a conservative estimate, TechCrunch, a site, which as far as I know, doesn’t have any conservative leanings, looks at the more narrow pre-election spending and concludes the Russians were outspent by 1,760x (or 6/100ths of a percent.)
But wait? You may be saying. I heard that the Russians reached 126 million people, isn’t that 40% of the country? Surely that has to represent more money than the $146k or even the $300k we’re talking about? Perhaps. As far as I can tell Facebook will sell you impressions (a fancy way of counting every time your ad gets loaded whether or not the person even notices it) for a half a cent. At that rate 126 million impressions would have cost them $630k, so still very much within the realm of numbers I’m talking about and it only takes our worst case scenario from 270x, to 129x (still less than a percent) as much spending. But also, Facebook gives you a break if your content is particularly viral, meaning that maybe they got the impressions for less than that. Also, I assume that Facebook, at the point where they have to appear before congress and explain themselves, would make sure they reconciled the amount spent with the number of people reached, but maybe not. Either way I don’t think it changes the fact that the Russians spent a relatively tiny amount. This comparison becomes more extreme when you look beyond the candidate’s Facebook spending to the total campaign spending, which clocks in well north of a billion dollars. (This site gives the total money raised by both candidates at $2.35 billion.) Of course then you’d want to look at total spending by the Russians across all platforms, but you still get a situation where the money spent by the candidates is hundreds of times greater than that spent by the Russians.
All of this leaves us with two possible conclusions: Either, the Russian money was a drop in the bucket, and it had no effect on the outcome of the election. (And everyone should get over things.) Or, social media spending, particularly of the kind the Russians did, is disproportionately effective, and that for a measly 150k (or 300k, or 600k) they were able to buy the presidential election for Trump, when it otherwise would have gone to Clinton. Now, to be fair, this was a close election, and in close elections you have the benefit of being able to point to any single factor and credibly claim that it could have swung the election (2000 is great for that sort of thing). And thus, I suppose, it’s even possible that there’s a third option. That each dollar the Russian groups spent on Facebook was about as effective as a dollar spent on TV ads, or canvassing, or what have you, but that the race was close enough that it still made the difference in who won.
If it’s the first, that the Russian spending made no difference, then there’s not much of a story, just the typical Monday morning quarterbacking that’s going to happen after any close election. Democrats can’t accept that they lost “fairly” and so they focus on nefarious outside influences to explain the election. It wasn’t that Clinton should have campaigned more in Michigan (or at a minimum kept her TV ads there running in October), it was the evil Russians (cue Boris and Natasha.)
This is certainly a possible explanation, and perhaps even the most likely, but it’s not very interesting, so for the rest of the post I’m going to assume that social media did have a disproportionate impact on the race, and to be fair there is more evidence than just the Russian angle. When even the Economist is running a cover story titled Social media’s threat to democracy you have to figure that I’m not the only one who thinks that social media spending might have been disproportionately effective. For example, if we look beyond the Russian angle, many people think that it was Trump’s (technically Jared Kushner’s) mastery of Facebook that explains why he won. This section from The Economist is particularly interesting:
The Leave campaign...experiment[ed] with different versions [of Facebook ads]... dropping ineffective ones. The Trump campaign in 2016 did much the same, but on a much larger scale: on an average day it fed Facebook between 50,000 and 60,000 different versions of its advertisements...Some were aimed at just a few dozen voters in a particular district.
As I said in the beginning, there’s a strong bias in American towards considering the press, and particularly the newspapers, to be the good guys and going out of our way to give them as wide a latitude as possible, particularly in reporting political matters. If that’s correct and the press are the good guys, what changed with Facebook? Why is it different than a newspaper? Why is its effect malevolent where previously, on the balance, the press was considered to have a benevolent effect? (There is an argument that it doesn’t, but for the purposes of this post we’re going to assume that Twain and Jefferson were correct.)
I think that quote about the 50,000 ads a day gives us a pretty good idea of the difference.
The first place where most people are inclined to place blame is the hyper-partisan character of the ads Trump and the Russians (and to a lesser extent the Democrats) were showing on Facebook. And I agree this is tempting target, but remember how I said that we would return to a discussion of Jefferson? Well, when Jefferson, who, remember, was a strong supporter of freedom of the press, was waging his titanic battle against Hamilton. That battle mostly took place in the newspapers of the time, and the partisanship and venom of those newspapers makes our own disagreements seem pretty mild. And these weren’t obscure newspapers, these were the major papers of the time. Thus I don’t think hyper-partisanship is a very good candidate for the difference between newspapers at the founding of the country and social media today.
The next place people look, and a place I’ve gone to myself, is the idea that Facebook is just too big. Senator Al Franken (yeah the guy who used to be on SNL) just recently gave a speech about this issue. Wired titled it the Speech that Big Tech has Been Dreading, and in it Franken not only called out Facebook, but also Google and Amazon, saying the following:
Everyone is rightfully focused on Russian manipulation of social media, but as lawmakers it is incumbent on us to ask the broader questions: How did big tech come to control so many aspects of our lives?
Now whether Facebook has too much control or whether they’re big enough to be a true monopoly is certainly up for debate, but you can see where a large number of people get a significant amount of their information from this one source. In other words, there are a lot of people who spend 4 hours a day on Facebook, but don’t spend five minutes reading something like New York Times. Now if Facebook ended up showing these people a broad selection of news from all over the political spectrum this dominance might not be a problem, but as we all know, Facebook targets you with ads they know you will like. And beyond that they provided Trump and the Russians with the ability to target ads down to the level of the individual. As the Economist pointed out, in addition to those 50,000 ads, they were also running ads which were aimed at just a few dozen voters in a particular district. All of which brings me to my next point.
When you read the front page of the New York Times, or even of the local paper you know you’re reading exactly the same front page as everyone else. This has largely carried over to the web. When I go to cnn.com I see the same thing my wife sees when she goes to cnn.com. But this is not what happens at all with Facebook, as the example of targeting a few dozen individuals indicates. But people don’t realize this. People see something on Facebook and they naturally assume that this is more or less what everyone is seeing. Consequently they are far less likely to question whether it’s true or not. And even if they do question it, or ignore it, or if it’s ineffective in any way, then the Trump team still has 49,999 tries, each DAY, to get it right. All of which is to say that Facebook (and most social media) is targeted and responsive in a way that makes it a completely different animal from traditional media. The Economist describes it thusly:
The algorithms that Facebook, YouTube and others use to maximise “engagement” ensure users are more likely to see information that they are liable to interact with. This tends to lead them into clusters of like-minded people sharing like-minded things, and can turn moderate views into more extreme ones. “It’s like you start a vegetarian and end up a vegan,” says Zeynep Tufecki of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, describing her experience following the recommendations on YouTube. These effects are part of what is increasing America’s political polarization, she argues.
Even taking into account this increase in polarization, if that’s all there was to it, we’d probably be okay. But on top of everything else, not only do Facebook and similar sites, disseminate hyper-partisan information, act as a near monopoly, convince isolated people that they’re part of a community, and increase polarization, they are also are doing their very best to make all of this as addictive as possible.
This is usually the point where someone comes along and accuses me of being just another old guy who thinks the world is going to hell in a handbasket and just wants the damn kids to get off his lawn. And maybe that is exactly what’s going on. Here’s what the article from The Economist had to say about this possibility:
Social media are hardly the first communication revolution to first threaten, then rewire the body politic. The printing press did it (see our essay on Luther). So did television and radio, allowing conformity to be imposed in authoritarian countries at the same time as, in more open ones, promoting the norms of discourse which enabled the first mass democracies.
Several things are worth pointing out from that quote. First, there at the end, we have another example of past media serving to improve democracy. Second if you boil down the question to whether social media represents a communication revolution, and separate it from the effect it may or may not have had in the most recent election, I think most people would not hesitate to declare it revolution. If that’s the case, perhaps we should move away from considering the narrow question of what the Russians did or didn’t do, since we may be too close to the issue, and examine other examples of communication revolution. The quote mentions two, the more recent TV and radio revolution and the revolution in printing at the time of Martin Luther.
For those who aren’t up on their history. The reason they had an essay on Luther is that we just hit the 500th anniversary of the nailing of the 95 Theses to the Wittenberg church door (if that in fact happened). And as they allude to, one of the big reasons the Protestant reformation happened when it did was the invention of the printing press. Luther himself was a master of the medium and in the 1520s, he was responsible for more than a fifth of the empire’s entire output of pamphlets. At the time one churchman said, “Every day it rains Luther books. Nothing else sells.”
As you also may or may not recall the Protestant Reformation resulted in one of the bloodier periods of European history (the 30 Years War, the French Wars of Religion, the English Civil War, etc.) So that’s one of the revolutions. On the other hand, the TV and Radio revolution was almost entirely peaceful and we can always hope that even if social media does represent a revolution it will be more similar to the revolution brought on by TV and Radio than the one brought on by the printing press. Though, I fear that when you look at ease of control, social media is a lot closer to the decentralized revolution of the printing press, then the centralization of TV and radio.
The only question left, assuming you agree with me thus far, is what we should do about it? The Economist asks the same question and comes up with this response:
What is to be done? People will adapt, as they always do. A survey this week found that only 37% of Americans trust what they get from social media, half the share that trust printed newspapers and magazines. Yet in the time it takes to adapt, bad governments with bad politics could do a lot of harm.
I agree. People will adapt. But remember that Facebook and the other sites can also adapt. The Russians can adapt. And we already read about the 50,000 adaptations the Trump campaign was making every day. I have no doubt we will eventually adapt, but in the meantime we’re trying to hit a moving target, and a lot can happen while we’re working it out.
Finally, given the evident success of this tactic, how much more money and how much bigger is this problem going to be in 2020?
If this post made you hate social media, or if you already hated social media, consider donating to something that isn’t, this blog. Sure I’m not as reliable as the newspaper, but I’m better than your crazy uncle.