“Fake News” is a red herring.
The digital revolution has produced something more pernicious that is tearing at the fabric of our society. In only 11 years it has fundamentally changed the way we interact with each other as well as with brands. It has shifted the balance of power heavily towards individual users, who now have unprecedented powers of inﬂuence. It has changed the very concept of a product, with instant gratiﬁcation now expected for everything we purchase . It has given rise to the “Shared Economy”, jumbling the relationship between employer and employee. And it has introduced the “Attention Economy”, where addictive techniques are actively used to get us returning to our screens in order to monetise our attention. All of which is raising new, hitherto unheard of questions around ethics, privacy and trade.
We have never been more connected in the history of mankind. And yet ironically, we have never been more polarised as a society, living in silos, echo chambers of conformity. We have lost the art of critical thinking, becoming very easily inﬂuenceable by an invisible “big brother”, whether in politics as can be evidenced in the 2016 US election, Brexit, Brazil, Myanmar, or in business.
It wasn’t meant to be that way. Technology was supposed to connect us, to open the world to us. What happened?
It was the perfect storm, a watershed moment that saw the introduction of the iPhone, Kindle, Android, Twitter and Facebook (opening up to the general public late 2006). From the hardware side, 3G networks became abundant, and Location Based Services emerged. It was the end of the “dial up” connection, and the start of being “Always Connected”. From there it was a small step to becoming “Always Trackable”, which had far-reaching — albeit unintended — consequences.
By leaving behind breadcrumbs, we helped amass a huge trove of private data that has made it possible to not only predict our behaviour but also to infer our personality. We became “Always Predictable”. We might like to be oﬀered products that are similar to the ones we bought, but it is a diﬀerent story when we are passed messages that are based on our personality and vulnerability at a moment in time.
It turns out that only a few Facebook likes are enough to infer our race, gender, sexual orientation, and political leaning. Imagine what you can do with 500. Our ﬁve big personality traits can be extrapolated with an 80% accuracy through click patterns alone. Experiments have shown there’s a huge increase in user engagement when ads are tailored to personality traits (such as extraversion, openness, conscientiousness…). Imagine what you can do with political messages.
So we just entered the “Always Manipulable” phase. We think we have “free will”? 70% of Youtube videos watched come from “Recommendations”. Why? So we can remain on Youtube. Remember that we are not customers of Youtube or Facebook or Google; the advertisers are. And the product they are selling? Our attention. Persuasive (read “addictive”) techniques are actively used to get us returning to our screens so that our attention can be monetised.
We are spiralling into our own echo chambers, silos of conformity, where Fake News made their appearance. No illegal hacking was required to manipulate us. We have seen the inﬂuence of social media not only on the US 2016 elections and Brexit, but also on the Brazilian elections
(through Whatsapp) and the way the Myanmar regime used Facebook to stoke hatred against the Rohingyas.
So if democracy is predicated on the exercise of free will and the exposure to eclectic views, what does that say about the state of our democracy today?
Nevertheless the potential for good is huge. Digital technology has given an important voice to the “long tail population”, the civil society, giving it a collective power that can topple governments (eg Arab Spring). More recently it has helped launch the “Gilets Jaunes” movement that has made the French government stop, listen and react. And it can hold the powerful to account, as in the #metoo movement.
It starts with us, individuals. We need to understand there is no free lunch — nor free application —, and our private data is ours. We need to understand what we are signing as Terms and Conditions. When we look at a new product, let us also look at its business model. This does not mean stopping all social media activity, but rather to understand the costs and take an informed decision whether it is a price worth paying. Let’s not sacriﬁce our freedom on the altar of convenience.
Governments also have a big role to play. We need digital savvy political leaders who are comfortable with technology and are able to look into the crystal ball to solve tomorrow’s problems. We need legislation that moves from a reactive mode to a proactive one, creating the space to innovate and preparing society to make the transition. We need an overhaul of our education system (basically unchanged since the Industrial Revolution) to leverage the new capabilities of digital, as well as to rethink the curriculum, preparing our children to be full digital citizens of tomorrow. We need governments to hold big monopolies to account.
Some 10 years ago digital technology has radically changed our landscape. With the advent of even more technological progress, ten years from now our worlds will once again not be recognisable. Let us make sure it’s a future we want to live in.
Dr Hani Dabbagh is a GCSP Executive-in-Residence Fellow and Digital Transformation & Innovation Consultant. With a PhD in Electronics and Information Engineering and a career spanning 30 years within Hewlett-Packard, Hani Dabbagh has over 17 years of extensive practical experience in Digital Transformation. Follow his his blog, "Digital Ramblings."