Streetwise Professor

March 21, 2018

In Facebook’s Farmville, All Animals Are Equal, But Some Are More Equal Than Others

Filed under: Economics,Politics — The Professor @ 7:13 pm

The outrage du jour is that a firm that worked on the Trump Campaign, Cambridge Analytica, had sucked up, and then retained, Facebook data on 50 million users.  The sucking up apparently occurred with Facebook’s approval and knowledge, the retention not.

I am highly confident that this is being treated as Armageddon primarily because of CA’s work for Trump.  Why am I so confident?  Because the 2012 Obama campaign did as much, or worse (a) with Facebook’s knowledge and support, and (b) without attracting anything close to the same criticism.  Indeed, quite the opposite: the Obama campaign’s supposedly innovative use of Facebook data to shape its strategy was the subject of fawning, slobbering praise from virtually the entire media.  Privacy, shmivacy! It helped Obama, so it’s good!  And besides, it proved how much more hip and with it those cool Obama people were, as compared to those fuddy-duddy Republicans.

And as I say, the Obama effort was massive, and occurred with Facebook’s knowledge.

Just like Orwell wrote in Animal Farm: All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.

As it turns out, the Cambridge Analytica effort was less decisive than previously reported, and was arguably irrelevant to the outcome of the campaign.  Perhaps the Obama campaign’s use of Facebook was similarly overhyped.  Not that we’ll ever know, given the media’s clear preference to give the Sainted One’s administration tongue baths, rather than critical coverage.

The rah-rahs that Facebook gave to the Democrats sucking up of its entire “social graph,” and  Sheryl Sandberg’s email exchange with John Podesta in which he said that he looked forward to “working with you” to elect Hillary, and she replied that she wanted Hillary to “win so badly” raise serious concerns about how in Facebook’s political Farmville, Democratic animals are much more equal than others.  This in turn makes it worthwhile to revisit an idea that I mooted many moons ago, and which has subsequently gained some traction: regulating Facebook, Google, Twitter, and other social media.  It relates directly to my proposal to regulate them as common carriers, subject to a non-discrimination requirement.

It is clear that these companies have a political agenda, and that that agenda is relentlessly left and pro-Democrat.  Well, so does the New York Times and the rest of the “elite” media, so why just regulate Facebook et al?

Two reasons.  The first is the one I gave in the earlier post.  That unlike traditional media, due to network effects these companies have market power.  They fit very well into the common carrier framework in that regard.

The recent events bring out another reason.  Whereas the NYT or CNN blatantly broadcast their bias, and it is there for all to see, the same is definitely not true of Facebook, Google, and Twitter.  They can readily engage in partisanship in very insidious ways that are virtually impossible to detect.  The algorithms that Facebook uses to push content, or now censor content; that Google uses to slant search results; and Twitter uses to censor, ban, and shadow block, are utterly opaque to outsiders.  Meaning that whereas if I feel particularly masochistic and decide to read the NYT or watch CNN, I can identify and correct for the bias, I cannot readily do so when interacting with the social media and search platforms.

The second point means that a common carrier-like non-discrimination requirement is not sufficient, given the opacity of the platforms: unlike, say, price discrimination by a railroad, political discrimination by Facebook is unlikely to be observable to those who are adversely affected.  To be effective, therefore, common carrier status would have to be accompanied by a more or less intrusive means of auditing these platforms and their algos.

As a classical liberal, I do not advance this proposal with glee, although as I noted in my earlier post the idea of common carrier regulation is rooted in classical liberal jurisprudence and thought.  But the deep politicization of powerful network industries, and their Animal Farm ethos, pose a serious threat to the political system.  Life is about trade-offs, and the perfect is the enemy of the good.  These platforms are subject to little economic competition, and pose a grave threat to political competition.  They need to be constrained, before they do even more damage.

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  1. Entirely agreed. I dislike the idea of regulation because it extends the state’s reach even further: but the power that these companies have is insidious. Something must be done to ensure that it isn’t abused (more than it has been already), and I can’t think of an alternative approach that could work.

    Comment by Fen Tiger — March 22, 2018 @ 3:06 am

  2. ‘she wanted Hillary to “win so badly”’: but Hillary does everything so badly.

    Anyway, about your post: I’m swithering between bookmarking it to the folder ‘malaise USA’ or the folder ‘slow-motion coup’. Which do you recommend?

    Comment by dearieme — March 22, 2018 @ 3:41 am

  3. @dearieme–She’s certainly a bad loser!

    I think slow-motion coup fits best.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — March 22, 2018 @ 9:00 pm

  4. @Dearieme: That’s a good one!

    For those interested, politifact does an excellent summary of the differences and similarities between what the Trump and Obama Campaigns did. It doesn’t appear (to me anyway) that the Trump campaign was morally inferior to the Obama campaign in this particular respect (maybe the choice of contractor is suspect, but then again, is it reasonable to expect them to audit every single element of every subcontractor’s business? It would be a compliance nightmare!).

    Facebook, on the other hand, has apparently been allowing political campaigns to use some people’s data without requesting permission from that person… On the one hand, I understand the position of: “If you share your likes and status with me, why can I not then share that information with my favourite political candidate?”. On the other hand, this would never be allowed in real life: “Howdy neighbour, I’m just going to put a tape-recorder on this here garden fence while we chat so that I can share your opinions with a political campaign later”. Personally, I feel like this is something they shouldn’t be doing…

    McCain said that there was a strong equivalence between how the Obama and Trump campaigns accessed user data on Facebook.
    The Obama campaign and Cambridge Analytica both gained access to huge amounts of information about Facebook users and their friends, and in neither case did the friends of app users consent.
    But in Obama’s case, direct users knew they were handing over their data to a political campaign. In the Cambridge Analytica case, users only knew were taking a personality quiz for academic purposes.
    The Obama campaign used the data to have their supporters contact their most persuadable friends. Cambridge Analytica targeted users and their friends directly with digital ads.
    Whereas the data gathering and the uses were very different, the data each campaign gained access to was similar. We rate this statement Half True.

    Comment by HibernoFrog — March 23, 2018 @ 7:37 am

  5. SWP:

    The article begs three (2) Q:

    1) If FGT (FB, Google, TW) are common carriers, would not the telecoms, cable & wireless firms also be ‘common carriers’ by the same token? Would this change your position on so-called ‘Net Neutrality?’ Why or why not?
    2) Would a free market solution of conservative alternative(s) to FGT? The shroud has been pierced in FGT’s own phony or alleged lack of bias. Or would that be prohibitive due to costs of entry?

    Final comment is that it appears that since FB chose with whom they would share that data, the Conventional Wisdom is that this is ‘good’ since FB leans hard left. Since Cambridge Analytics scooped the data (with permission) & they supported a Republican & CA decided how to create an App to share the data, that this same act is ‘bad.’

    Vlad doesn’t rate Politifact as objective. They no doubt do lean left.

    VP VVP awaits your reply w/ bated breath [as always].

    Comment by Vlad — March 23, 2018 @ 9:24 am

  6. There is, in fact, a more limited-government option to establishing a regulatory regime over the likes of Facebook: reduce the scope of copyright protection. If a competitor site (one that, for example, had transparent policies, user-elected governance, open source code, and open standards for federating servers, etc.) could scrape the content on FB freely, then we might see some competition and FB’s first-mover, network-effect market power checked. I could imagine a service that logs into your FB account, sucks in all your stuff, filters out what you don’t want, adds in other stuff (like SWP’s RSS feed, yay!) and runs its own ads for funding, or act as a subscription service. Over time, FB would become just another content provider with a news feed competing on quality, price and convenience. They would have to reform or be crushed.

    The barrier is that FB claims a copyright interest in content created by its users. They don’t deserve it.

    Comment by M. Rad. — March 23, 2018 @ 11:04 am

  7. To wit, this case, in my view, was wrongly decided and should be reversed, by legislation if necessary.,_Inc._v._Power_Ventures,_Inc.

    Comment by M. Rad. — March 23, 2018 @ 11:27 am

  8. @Vlad.

    #1 is easily answered by reference to my posts on net neutrality. There I argued that the ISP market power necessary to justify an intrusive non-discrimination requirement does not exist. This is a major difference from Facebook, Google, etc. I find it particularly ironic, therefore, that these firms are the ones pushing the argument. It’s worse than the pot calling the kettle black. It’s the pot calling the bone china black.

    Applying common carrier regulation to ISPs just because it would be desirable to impose it on FGT would be (to quote Emerson) a foolish consistency. The fundamental difference is that the former lack market power, whereas the latter have it in spades.

    #2: Yes, the barriers to entry are substantial. Network effects are very difficult to overcome. (This is the subject of some of my earlier research on competition between exchanges–or lack thereof. I am extending this work presently.

    I am also reminded of O’Sullivan’s First Law: “Any institution that is not explicitly right wing will become left wing over time.” Even many that are explicitly right wing at formation devolve once the ideologically-motivated founders leave. Look at virtually every public corporation–they are almost all in lockstep with the progressive agenda. So I have my doubts that conservative FGTs would remain so, even if they were able to get any traction to start with.

    Re your last point, yes this is what I meant by some animals are more equal than others. I about puked when I was on the elliptical at the gym this morning, in front of a TV showing an interview with Sheryl Sandberg lamenting what had happened with CA and her failure to speak up earlier. The same Sheryl Sandberg who was canoodling with John Podesta and who was at FB when they told the Obama campaign–take what you want! What else can we do to help?!?!

    As an aside, I laugh that people are astounded that Zuckerberg’s public defense has been so bad. FFS, haven’t they seen Social Network? What else would you expect?

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — March 23, 2018 @ 2:47 pm

  9. I am not a professor but it strikes me what Cambridge did was clearly illegal. The intent of Cambridge was to target to biases of the voters not to understand the intent. They then had help exploiting that information to create chaos with the electorate. But since you dislike the left you create a false equivalency to justify what they did.

    Comment by Shane — March 23, 2018 @ 3:13 pm

  10. Anyone signing up with facebook, or myspace, or twitter, or linkdin, or whatever deserves everything that happened. Those people are not the customer they are the product! CA just bought what FB was selling. The only diff between BO use of them, and Trump is that CA kept the data after the election and told FB they had deleted it. Not that I care either way, but if their contract said they were to delete after X days, and they didn’t then that’s breach. Not that I care either way. FB deserves all their market disintegration as well. A massive fail all the way around. Glad I’m not part of anything, and anyone I know who has FB I’ve asked them not to share ANYTHING about me on there. Sadly, I can’t force them to leave me the hell alone.

    Comment by doc — March 25, 2018 @ 6:13 pm

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