Politics·Analysis

Why you shouldn't blame Facebook for what ails democracy

The good news might be that there are steps governments could take to impose some order on the political activity taking place on social media platforms. The bad news might be that there's a lot more to worry about.

The trend toward authoritarianism and polarization predated the data scandal

SAN JOSE, CA - APRIL 18: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg delivers the keynote address at Facebook's F8 Developer Conference on April 18, 2017 at McEnery Convention Center in San Jose, California. The conference will explore Facebook's new technology initiatives and products. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Amid the onslaught of revelations about Facebook, Twitter and what's been happening online during election campaigns around the world, there's a glimmer of (potentially) good news: governments could take steps now to impose some order on the political activity taking place on social media platforms.

Now, the bad news: social media is just one part of the current threat to Western democracy.

"There's always a danger when you have a scandal like Cambridge Analytica that we attribute a very large problem to the villain du jour," said Ben Scott, a senior adviser to the Open Technology Institute in Washington, D.C. and a former State Department official.

PM asked about Facebook during a stop in Wood Buffalo Alberta 2:30

"It brings to mind the logic that if we solve for Cambridge Analytica, we reverse all these underlying problems which have been weakening democratic institutions for a generation. And of course, that's not true."

Scott was in Ottawa this week to take part in discussions, organized by the Public Policy Forum, on social media and its impacts on democracy — including an invitation-only workshop on Tuesday that was attended by senior federal government officials.

In February, Minister of Democratic Institutions Karina Gould suggested the federal government would only act if online platforms proved unwilling or unable to address concerns about what social media has been doing to the political process. But since then, public concern has exploded over the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

And though not everything people fear about social media's effects on the democratic playing field can be tidily addressed by government action, academics and policy experts see various options for regulating the online sphere.

Cleaning up online campaign rules

Michael Pal, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, suggests existing laws, written to cover the pre-Facebook world, could be extended to include a separate limit for spending on social media promotion and new limits on spending between election periods.

Online advertisements could, for instance, come with real-time disclosures of who paid for them, how much was spent to promote them and the audiences the ads are targeting. Facebook and other companies also could be held liable for breaches of electoral law that occur on their platforms.

"We have this egalitarian set of values that underpins the Elections Act and we have a set of tools, like spending limits and disclosure rules, so let's apply those to what's happening online," Pal said.

Political parties and activist groups also could be required to disclose their use of 'bots' — online accounts that pose as human users but are actually automated avatars deployed en masse to amplify a message.

Regulating social media is something governments around the world are considering, following Facebook's latest data breach. Canada's privacy commissioner is investigating, but it's not clear if there will be any consequences. For now, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is putting the onus of protective privacy in the hands of social media companies. Meanwhile, the European Union has introduced a new law applying stiff regulations to companies that handle the personal information of EU citizens 4:17

New rules and additional scrutiny for Canadian political actors also could indirectly help to limit foreign interference. "The cleaner the domestic campaign finance system is, the easier it is to spot rogue or bad actors," Pal said.

Governments could go further in regulating how online platforms collect data from users, and how that data is used. Scott, for instance, suggests that users be given the right to limit how their data is used to target political advertising.

But Scott also argues for a big-picture view — one that goes beyond blaming social media for everything going wrong with democracy in the 21st century.

It's not all Zuckerberg's fault

"The problems with Western democracy cannot all be laid at the feet of Mark Zuckerberg, nor [Cambridge Analytica chief executive officer] Alexander Nix," he said.

"The tools that they have built and implemented over the last few years are new and while they are pernicious and have likely accelerated negative trends, they did not start those trends."

Is Facebook the new Big Brother? It knows everything about us, and in some cases, it even tracks our calls and text messages.The CBC’S Wendy Mesley talks to leading Facebook expert Siva Vaidhyanathan, who says Facebook is the world’s most pervasive surveillance system 7:33

Worries about the health of Western democracies — laid out in international surveys by Freedom House and The Economist'sIntelligence Unit — predate the furor over Cambridge Analytica and extend beyond the Donald Trump and Brexit phenomena. They're fuelled in part by gains made by far-right parties in Europe and the slide of democratic countries like Poland, Hungary and Turkey into authoritarianism.

Scott describes online "disinformation" as part of a web of democratic dysfunction that includes tribal partisan divisions, widespread distrust of states, widening economic inequality, fragmented media markets and the breaking of norms in democratic institutions.

Not all of what afflicts the American system is necessarily applicable to Canada, but Scott said he figures he could draw a similar flow chart to account for how unhealthy online activity accelerates the larger weaknesses in many countries.

At the same time, Scott said he believes digital media could be used to help address those systemic issues; perhaps online tools could be used to show people how such polarization happens in the first place. But regardless, he said, people need to avoid thinking about this crisis moment for democracy as simply a byproduct of social media.

"I ultimately think we as a community working on the disinformation problem need to understand ourselves as operating arm-in-arm with strengthening the integrity of our elections system against cyberattacks, and strengthening the role of public service journalism at a time when there is less and less money to hire professional reporters," Scott said.

"All of these things are interrelated. And we have to see this as a democracy project and not as a 'regulate Facebook' problem."

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.