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Facebook is hardly the only threat to our online privacy

We’ve heard a lot in recent weeks about how Facebook is vacuuming up enormous amounts of personal data from its two billion users and selling that information to advertisers who target ever-more precise demographic and geographic groups.

A friend who knows a lot about social media warned me the other day: “FYI ‒ if you haven’t seen much about it yet, watch for stories about how the Facebook privacy issues are going to pale in comparison to what Google is tracking.

“Looks like it is far more data and somehow (it) can even track you if you don’t use Google products, which is exceedingly scary.”

We are living in a daunting new world, indeed, when it comes to privacy. The core of the criticism of the technology companies is this: In the old days, data pertaining to individuals were theirs alone, not anyone else’s. That’s what privacy used to mean.

But today technology companies can grab anybody’s personal data and convert it into an impersonal commodity to be sold and marketed for corporate profit.

Lurking behind this market dynamic is an argument that has raged for many years: How should technology companies like Facebook, Reddit and Google be defined?

Are they publishers or are they merely aggregators?

If they are publishers, consider the business model set by old-fashioned newspapers which took responsibility for the accuracy, community value and good taste of news items they published.

To exercise this responsibility, they hired reporters and editors to check whether the facts behind news stories were accurately set out and that their stories were balanced and not propaganda. Those folks were dismissively called “gatekeepers,” and often reviled as busybody elitists for meticulously trying to be accurate and fair.

But are tech companies instead are essentially aggregators, sweeping up already-published reporting from news sources and pasting it together without taking responsibility for accuracy?

If so, they are merely another distribution platform.

The difference is important, because there are economic and legal penalties visited on publishing companies that violate the responsibility for accuracy. Biased newspapers can be sued for libel (expensive) and those that get the reputation of being either biased or inaccurate will find their readership (and profit margins) declining.

Publishers traditionally spend a lot on fact-checking, which usually involves hiring reporters to sniff around to make sure news items are accurate. But because aggregators don’t claim the material they distribute is accurate, they can pass off the task of deciding “what’s news” into a mathematical model, an algorithm that measures whatever content wins the most eyeballs.

That then winds up at the top of the page.

Guess what: It did not take long for tech companies to discover it’s a lot cheaper to make editorial decisions by algorithm software than by a bunch of (relatively) expensive editors and reporters.

So, not surprisingly, the tech industry for years argued fiercely that it had nothing in common with publishing. The economics of the argument introduced another dimension. To an algorithm, the content of a post or nature of an idea is irrelevant.

Accuracy or fair-mindedness are also not considered; it is all  merely a matter of measuring public engagement, which can be done simply by adding up eyeballs. The item that draws the most eyeballs is the one that gets the most reader interest and, therefore, the one that is most valuable as a commercial commodity.

These social media dynamics have resulted in at least two consequences ‒ both of them bad:

1)   A fake news post on social media looks and feels a lot like a real news item, i.e. one that accurately portrays an actual event.

When an essential part of the job of publishers was to distinguish between fact and falsehood, something enforced by fact-checkers and gatekeepers, readers approached their publications with the presumption that materials so presented were accurate.

But social media posts, whose “validity” is determined largely by a computer measurement of how many people are looking at something, can be either true or false.

The average reader may well not be able to determine the truth or falsehood of any given item. That’s what gatekeepers did in the old days, and the false items weren’t published. Now, they too often are.

Hence, the term “fake news.”

2)   Human nature tends to urge us to cluster with other people who are like us. Fair and natural enough.

But this tendency also clusters people into their own bubble of shared attitudes, biases and prejudices. Once there, it’s hard for most people to push themselves to break out of their own little bubble, regardless of the facts.

This is why historian Timothy Snyder’s words ring so scary: “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle.”  

Sad to say, it seems that the rise of social media as the dominant information medium worldwide is largely responsible for the rise of the purest “fake news.”

Not to be confused, however, with politicians who often use “fake news” to mean any story they don’t like, often because the story is true.

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