Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Social Media Nuclear Option

I'm concerned that the rules of engagement for social engineering in elections may be changing under our feet. 

There's an old axiom about congress that says don't watch for changes in the laws, watch for changes in the rules. This principle is the basis for the dramatic naming of the so called 'nuclear option' to allow overriding a filibuster by simple majority.

The governing rule in social media has been political neutrality. The political leanings of most social media users have shifted from the left to the center as the internet population stretched beyond the young and tech savvy. Throughout this shift, social media from Facebook to Reddit have been adamant in their neutrality and deference to free speech. Incidents of alleged censorship even led to minor insurrections on Reddit and attempts to establish new "pure" news aggregate sites (see Voat).

Should we trust that news aggregators and social media are politically neutral?

Censorship is just one form of political influence. In the pre-internet days it might have been a deft weapon, but now that every user has a plethora of side channels for communication, censorship is easier to identify. Mark Zuckerberg is adamant that Facebook is politically neutral and opposed to "fake" content. Validity of news is relatively easy to check - tools like snopes make it straightforward for concerned users to call out blatant falsehoods.

What's harder to identify is content manipulation. Recently a Reddit administrator was shamed and publicly apologized for making effectively untraceable changes to the content of users' comments. News sources reported on Wikileaks' release of Clinton campaign emails while acknowledging that they have no way to determine whether the emails were manipulated.

Still, content manipulation can be combated with tools like digital signatures that fail if the content of a post is manipulated.

The knot in my stomach comes from the mechanisms that govern Facebook's news feed, Twitter's tweet stream, Reddit's front page, and all other corners of social media where users see content filtered and sorted by proprietary algorithms designed to show us the most interesting and most popular content. These mechanisms are secret and hugely influential. From a technical perspective, it would be easy to tweak the algorithm to show five percent more pro-Trump posts or decrease the rank of Bernie Sanders supporters posts.

As demonstrated by Reddit admin /u/spez, such subtle changes can be made with little oversight and zero transparency.  Reddit even notes that their vote counting system is necessarily private to protect against external vote manipulation.

In the land of traditional media, bias in headlines is well understood. Fox News leans right, MSNBC leans left. Their editors curate the stories, and we know what's going on.

In social media, someone or something is curating the stories we read. We don't get to pick between the left and right social media. There's just one Facebook, and we need to realize that Facebook may already be manipulating elections via subtle curation.

I am not claiming that Facebook is manipulating elections. I'm claiming that the capability exists for Facebook to do so in an unchecked and difficult to detect manner. Doing so would be an unprecedented change in the accepted rules and norms of the internet - Facebook's nuclear option.

As long as Facebook's news feed algorithm is proprietary and unverifiable, we need to treat it as potentially malicious.

P.S. The Guardian has a similar op-ed about this topic with additional references.

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