Two social media tech titans sparred last week in Washington. The chief executive of Twitter Jack Dorsey said his company would no longer accept political ads, placing democratic interest over profit. It was a thinly disguised right hook at his counterpart Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and chief of Facebook. Twitter is by far the most political social media platform. Choosing to take down political advertising is a naked declaration of war against Facebook.
Mr Zuckerberg, a Harvard dropout who went on to popularise the social media frenzy, has in recent years had an identity crisis. After a series of scandals involving breaches of data privacy – not to mention his portrayal as eccentric and controlling in the critically acclaimed film The Social Network – he has been widely perceived as someone who cares about little but money and success. Most recently, he has been criticised for not regulating his platform to control hate speech, bullying and government-led misinformation campaigns. There have been calls for him to resign, or at least reign in his domain.
With election fever starting to grip America, and Democratic debates being watched by millions, Facebook and Twitter are becoming even more important. The pinnacle of this madness came earlier this month when Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat hoping to win the bid in next year's presidential election, deliberately placed an ad on Facebook with misleading information – as a goad to the social media platform.
In the ad, Ms Warren wrote that Mr Zuckerberg had decided to back US President Donald Trump in the 2020 election. In reality, neither Facebook nor Mr Zuckerberg had announced their intentions. Then Ms Warren delivered the kicker: “You’re probably shocked and you might be thinking: ‘How could this possibly be true?’ Well, it’s not,” Ms Warren said in the ad, effectively digitally spitting in Facebook’s face.
Deciphering the world of political disinformation and social media is a complicated and scattered puzzle. Joe Biden, for instance, is aiming his ads at voters born before 1975. Two-thirds of Mr Biden's targets are women while Bernie Sanders has an audience of about 50 per cent men. According to an investigation by the New York Times: "Collectively, the 19 current Democratic candidates for president have poured nearly $32 million into Facebook ads this year – more money than they have spent so far on television ads, a striking measure of the social network's ever-rising influence in politics." These ads are geared towards vulnerable or shifting voters who are not yet decided or are not firmly rooted in their political choices. Facebook stores data about which political party you belong to, although this feature can be turned off.
This means the richer the candidate, the more time they can commandeer on Facebook. This heavy spending continues despite party officials raising alarms about the social network's role in American democracy. Ms Warren, for example, spent about $172,000 (Dh631,670) on Facebook ads. And Mr Biden in October alone spent $12,000 (more than Dh44,000) trying to target younger voters. But while US politicians are happy to embrace the positive effects of online campaigning, they are not averse to hitting out when it doesn't work for them. Both Ms Warren and Democratic congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard have called for big tech companies such as Google, Amazon and Facebook to be broken up. Ms Gabbard, an Iraq war veteran who often appears on the Russian state television channel RT, launched a $50 million lawsuit against Google earlier this year for allegedly impinging on her free speech. She accused the tech giant of suspending her campaign's ad account for six hours after the first presidential debate in June. The suspension, Ms Gabbard stated, prevented her campaign from raising money and spreading its message to potential voters. Her lawsuit also complained that emails from her campaign were being sent to spam folders at "a disproportionately high rate" compared to emails from other Democratic candidates.
I rarely use Facebook and as an American who is deeply concerned about the possibility of Mr Trump being re-elected in 2020, I wonder if I am making a mistake by not paying more attention to how people are being influenced for political gain. Does it no longer make sense to read their platforms, follow their policies and watch the debates? It seems as though most people do not take time anymore to develop their own opinions. Instead, they are satisfied with the short, edited and inherently subjective snippets they might see on their social media feeds.
Judging from informal conversations I have had – among them, with my students – people pay attention to what social media is saying. Few sit down with a print newspaper anymore. They get their news from Twitter feeds. So Mr Dorsey saying that he is working hard to stop people from “gaming our systems to spread misleading info” is important. But Mr Dorsey also says: “If someone pays us to target and force people to see their political ad – well, they can say whatever they want.”
This concept is of course terrifying. On the other hand, haven’t societies always found a way to manipulate their citizens for political gain? Is this different from flyers that people used to send through the mail, ads in newspapers or people going from door to door in swing states, trying to convince citizens to vote one way or another?
What makes me hesitant about social media specifically is the rapid evolution in technology. From the ubiquity of screens to the advances in virtual reality, the boundary between our lived lives and our virtual lives is blurry at best. Judging by the last 15 years, this pace of progress does not seem to be slowing down anytime soon. But we are still at the beginning, newborns in a digitalised, futuristic era. We need to listen and watch closely, for what we do now sets a legal precedent that will influence the future of our society.
Janine di Giovanni is a senior fellow at Yale University and a 2019 Guggenheim fellow