By Morten Lindholm
A WHILE AGO I developed a habit of listening to inspirational podcasts while running. The other day I was out running and happily consuming my hour of wisdom from thought leaders in storytelling, social media marketing, brand building and company value systems, when I heard one of the speakers say: “Twitter has become so evil and angry – people are taking to Twitter to complain, disagree and share their dissatisfaction.” I am hardly an avid twitter user myself, but the word “evil” in connection with social media started to haunt me.
There is obviously a lot of room for abuse there. When you think about it, people share a lot of things they haven’t verified or often even read. And like most parents, I fear that my kids see stuff they shouldn’t see and follow influencers they don’t understand. Search algorithms profile you and feed you content based on your history of activities online. They probably know more about you than you’d ever want them to. It’s all very disconcerting, I know, but the internet isn’t going away. We already spend 15-20 percent of our time with it every day.
But what should really make us uneasy is the fact that someone may be deliberately using the internet to manipulate us, trying to destabilize democracy and create unrest. Few companies have made as many headlines recently as Cambridge Analytica with its infamous involvement in manipulating the 2016 US presidential election. By now we’ve all expressed disbelief and outrage over the mind-boggling numbers: how Russian agencies managed to reach 126 million American voters through their Facebook profiles alone, published 131,000 tweets through robot-operated accounts and uploaded 1,000 videos to Google’s YouTube service. The fact that they used people’s own data against them to create conspiracy and defraud the US, to set Americans against their own government – that really makes me wonder whether there is indeed evil deeply entangled in the fabric of the internet.
What is even more mind-boggling is how long the scheme remained undetected. It took Facebook six months to realize its data had been stolen and was being used unlawfully. And many people who were manipulated still aren’t aware of what had happened and how they became the target of fraud. After all, many of them never really read through the messages they received. They skimmed, scrolled and browsed. And in the midst of all the scrolling, they became a tool for an attack on democracy. Now that is scary.
Of course, in general the internet has been an invaluable source of good: think of all the knowledge we’ve gained, the help we’ve been able to find, the fun and entertainment it has provided, including the ability to stay in touch with people even when they are on the opposite side of the globe. But all that is true so long as the technology is consumed responsibly and in moderation.
Let me pose a little question: Do you read more than just the headlines you come across on the internet? Do you actually watch through the entire two minutes of the videos that Facebook accounts provide from brands, news outlets and from your friends?
You’ll probably answer: yes, at least sometimes. But if you’re completely honest with yourself, you know that more often than not, you’ll just scroll, snap the top and you don’t bother to get the whole picture. The quantity of the content is just too overwhelming for us to act differently. It’s frustrating, isn’t it? To always just scratch the surface, never get to the bottom of things, never fully understand.
On the bright side, Facebook, Google and Twitter are taking measures to avoid similar situations from happening in the future. They claim they will work together to spot sophisticated threats earlier and coordinate with law enforcement when appropriate. But even if they actually put their money where their mouth is, will it ever be enough?
Anyhow, they’d better behave. Margrethe Vestager and the European Commission are after them!