Social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter “informationalize” your private data — to use a term popularized by the futurist Alvin Toffler in the 1980s. They offer you a free account in return for information about your interests. Then their robots send you news and advertising programmed for you. As you use the programs, they learn more about you from posts with online “friends,” keeping a record of your choices to greatly enrich your information profile automatically. You still have your freedom of expression, but you have unwittingly created an open channel for others to invade your life.
In the 2016 election, the Russians weaponized social media by feeding you fake ads with misleading suggestions about both presidential candidates but slanted in favor of Donald Trump. Robots targeted ads based on your age, gender, religion, political leanings and the content in your posts and messages. A robot, not a person, accepted the ads online, routed them to you, then allowed you to distribute those you “liked” to all your friends, suggestive of your endorsement. In this way about 3,000 Russian ads on Facebook eventually reached more than 120 million Americans. Not a bad return for propaganda.
Even outrageous suggestions became “weapons” in favor of Trump. Someone in the office of an acquaintance in Charleston reported that she saw on Facebook that the Clintons were murderers; of course, she would not vote for that woman. She could not know that such fake news was written in Russia.
We have a hands off policy of no regulation for freewheeling Silicon Valley companies, whereas Europe is concerned about “fake news” in elections. In both French and German elections this year, officials shut down thousands of Twitter accounts that were spreading false news and rumors.
As a retired computer science professor at USC, I can tell you about an easy way to avoid getting duped by the robots on social media: Do what many of my former colleagues do: Stay away from social media. We value our privacy too much to have these accounts. We keep our views on many subjects to ourselves, and we get our news from sources we trust. We decide what to believe and who knows what about our lives. No social media robot can turn our information into a weapon of electoral propaganda.
Robert L. Oakman