Twitter seems to have learnt the lessons of the 2016 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)

Open letter to EU Member States: Deliver ePrivacy now! (10.10.2019)

Civil society calls Council to adopt ePrivacy now (5.12.2018)

EU elections – protecting our data to protect us from manipulation (08.05.2019)

(Contribution by Chloé Berthélémy, EDRi)