Why you shouldn't blame Facebook for what ails democracy
The trend toward authoritarianism and polarization predated the data scandal
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.
"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.
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."
Worries about the health of Western democracies — laid out in international surveys by Freedom House and The Economist's Intelligence 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."