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Twitter banning political ads ? the tip of the iceberg

November 20, 2019 In Digital Freedom

Twitter seems to have learnt the lessons of the 2019 US elections. After
the revelation of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the link between the
use of social media targeted political advertisement and the voting
behaviour of specific groups of people has been explored and explained
again and again. We now understand how social media platforms like
Facebook and Twitter play a decisive role in our elections and other
democratic processes, and how misleading information, spreading faster
and further than true stories on those platforms, can remarkably
manipulate voters.

When Facebook CEO Marc Zuckerberg was grilled by Representative
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a hearing of the United States House
Committee on Financial Services on 23 October, he admitted that if
Republicans would pay for spreading a lie on their services, it would
probably not be prohibited. Political advertisements are not subjected
to any fact-checking review which could theoretically lead to the
refusal or the blocking of this promoted content. According to
Zuckerberg?s vision, if a politician lies, an open public debate helps
exposing these lies and the electorate holds the politician accountable
by rejecting her or his ideas. The principle of free speech departs from
this very idea that all statements should be debated, and the bad ones
would be naturally put aside. The only problem is that neither Facebook
nor Twitter provides an infrastructure for such an open public debate.

These companies do not display content in a neutral and universal way to
everybody. What one sees reflects what their personal data have been
revealing about their life, preferences and habits. Information is
broadcast to each user in a selective, narrowly defined manner, in line
with what the algorithms have concluded about that person?s past online
activity. Hence, so-called ?filter bubbles?, combined with human
inclination for confirmation bias, capture individuals in restricted
information environments. These prevent people from forming opinions
based on diversified sources of information ? a core principle of open
public debate.

Some parties in this discussion would like to officially acknowledge the
critical infrastructure status dominant social media have in our
societies, considering their platforms as the new place where the public
sphere is taking place. This would imply applying to social media
platforms the existing laws on TV channels and radio broadcasters that
require them to carry certain types of content and to exclude others.
Considering the amount of content posted every minute of each of those
platforms, the recourse to automatic filtering measures would be
inevitable. This would also cement their power over people?s speech and
thoughts.

Banning political ads is a positive step towards reducing the harm
caused by the amplification of false information. However, this measure
is still missing the point: the most crucial problem is micro-targeting.
Banning political ads is unlikely to stop micro-targeting, since that?s
the business model of all the main social media companies, including
Twitter.

The first step of micro-targeting is profiling. Profiling consists of
collecting as much data as possible on each user to build behavioural
tracking profiles ? it was proven that Facebook has expanded this
collection to even those who aren?t using their platform. Profiling is
enabled by keeping the user trapped on the platform and inciting as much
attention and ?engagement? as possible. The ?attention economy? relies
on content that keep us scrolling, commenting and clicking. Which
content does the job is predicted based on our tracking profiles.
Usually it?s offensive, shocking and polarizing content. This is why
political content is one of the most effective at maximizing profits. No
need for it to be paid for.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey is right in affirming that this is not a freedom
of expression issue, but rather an outreach question, to which no
fundamental right exists. To the contrary, rights to data protection and
to privacy are human rights, and it is high time for the European Union
to substantiate them against harmful profiling practices. A step towards
that would be to adopt a strong ePrivacy Regulation. This piece of
legislation would reinforce the safeguards the General Data Protection
Regulation (GDPR) introduced. It would ensure that privacy by design and
by default are guaranteed. Finally, it would tackle the perversive model
of online tracking.

Right a wrong: ePrivacy now! (9.10.2019)
https://edri.org/right-a-wrong-eprivacy-now/

Open letter to EU Member States: Deliver ePrivacy now! (10.10.2019)
https://edri.org/tag/eprivacy-regulation/

Civil society calls Council to adopt ePrivacy now (5.12.2018)
https://edri.org/civil-society-calls-council-to-adopt-eprivacy-now/

EU elections ? protecting our data to protect us from manipulation
(08.05.2019)
https://edri.org/eu-elections-protecting-our-data-to-protect-us-from-manipulation/

(Contribution by Chlo? Berth?l?my, EDRi)