'One of our greatest challenges in the digital era': Worrying about democracy means thinking about Facebook

Less than a year ago, the future of Canadian democracy seemed to hang on the question of electoral reform. In October 2017, the new concern might be Facebook.

Minister is worried about the 'filter bubble' and what's happening to the democratic process online

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sits with Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg at a session on gender parity, in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 22, 2016. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Less than a year ago, the future of Canadian democracy seemed to hang on the question of electoral reform.

In October 2017, the new concern might be Facebook.

"It has never been easier to get engaged than it is today. Digital technologies empower us by offering us multiple ways to connect," observed Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould at a recent event in Ottawa.

"However, as we all know, the same digital technologies can be used toward some not-so-good ends, such as the spread of misinformation online, injected into the public discussion by those who masquerade as legitimate media sources or individuals."

Gould was marking the launch of Facebook's "election integrity initiative," the first phase of which will involve a media-literacy campaign and guidance to prevent hacking.

The algorithms that online platforms use to select what content we see are creating echo chambers of similar perspectives, Gould said, referring to the so-called "filter bubble." She quoted an American activist who has argued that it is "easier than ever to hear only what you want to hear. And that doesn't make a good citizen."

This, Gould suggested, "is one of our greatest challenges in the digital era."

"Social media platforms," she continued, "must begin to view themselves as actors in shaping the democratic discourse and protecting our democracy from those who would seek to harm it."

In 2017, in the wake of Donald Trump's election to the American presidency, these are the things anyone concerned with the health of a democracy needs to be thinking about.

And now Gould and the rest of us have less than two years to think and, if necessary, act before the next federal election campaign.

At the risk of stirring bad memories, perhaps another special committee of Parliament is in order.

The American experience

In the immediate aftermath of the American election, the concern was hacking: that a campaign's private emails could be stolen, particularly by foreign actors, and released online to disrupt or influence an election.

But the conversation has broadened into a larger concern about what is happening to the democratic process online.

And that concern has landed heaviest on Facebook.

A week before Gould's most recent remarks on the topic, The Atlantic published a piece entitled, "What Facebook did to American democracy."

"The point is that the very roots of the electoral system — the news people see, the events they think happened, the information they digest—had been destabilized," wrote Alexis Madrigal.

Madrigal laid out a series of issues. Facebook has become a significant point of distribution for news and information, but it is designed to feed its users more of the content they are likely to enjoy and that has the potential to create echo chambers that polarize the electorate.

Meanwhile, Facebook's personalization and user data have also allowed political actors to launch narrowly targeted ad campaigns that can escape wider public notice and accountability. And the connectivity and openness of Facebook has allowed misinformation — so-called fake news — to spread and made it easier for foreign and malicious actors to make trouble.

All of that doesn't explain how Trump became president. But his election has raised questions about what all these things are doing to American democracy.

Those questions should be asked of the situation in Canada, where Facebook claims 23 million active users. 

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The filter bubble, fake news and ad targeting

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, has questioned the idea of a filter bubble, arguing that, by connecting us with friends and relatives we previously would have lost contact with, Facebook has actually increased the range of views we are exposed to. 

Elizabeth Dubois, a communications professor at the University of Ottawa, also argues the echo chamber effect could be overstated.

"There is clear evidence, particularly within Twitter, but to some extent within Facebook research, that there is a filter bubble," she says. "That said, most people consume information from a bunch of different sources."

Facebook has recently introduced a feature that points users to "related articles," in hopes of providing access to additional context and fact-checking.

That could also have an impact on the spread of misinformation and Facebook says it is taking additional actions to crack down on "inauthentic" content and accounts. All of which could at least limit the damage, as Facebook believes it succeeded in doing during the recent German election.

But it is the advertising on Facebook that Dubois says is "the biggest thing we need to worry about, particularly looking toward the next election."

Since there are few rules around political advertising online, Jeff Larson of Propublica has helped create a tool to help track how political ads show up in social media feeds.

New rules for online advertising?

A political ad broadcast on television or radio is necessarily broadcast widely, with rival parties and journalists thus easily able to scrutinize its content and criticize any excesses or falsehoods.

But ads on Facebook can be targeted at highly specific audiences, making it difficult, if not impossible, for observers to keep track of what voters are being told and by whom.

On Friday, Facebook said it will be launching features that allow users to see who has paid for an ad and who the ad targets.

But Taylor Owen, a professor of digital media at the University of British Columbia, has suggested the federal government could demand "complete transparency of all paid content of any kind shown to Canadians during the election period," including information 

Bruce Anderson, a former political strategist, has similarly argued these issues can't be left up to Facebook and other online giants like Google and Twitter.

As Anderson suggests, all of this could be fertile terrain for a committee of MPs.

A Canadian advantage?

"I'm looking at a lot of things and I'm considering a lot of things," Gould said in a recent interview.

"This is a really new space and a new conversation that we're having. I'm mindful of the fact that technology has changed very rapidly and will continue to change into the future."

The traditional institutions of American democracy were struggling and the electorate was already polarized before Facebook became a concern in 2016. 

That much might mean Canada is in better stead to deal with the impacts of online disruption.

But the real advantage for this country is that we have an opportunity to worry about these things before election day, as opposed to after.

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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. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.