Facebook has a serious problem on its hands and from what they have been saying, and doing, it sounds like they are in denial or actually don't care. The big problem is what we've come to call 'fake news'.

Before I elaborate on that, I will disclose and admit that I am biased. Just over two weeks ago I decided to go 'cold turkey' and deleted my account on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn (I'm still on Twitter, although now my tweets auto-delete after 7 days). Apart from it not adding much value to my life and being somewhat of a distraction, it was also becoming clear that it creates an echo chamber and more scary for me was the privacy issues (which have to do with micro-targeting of ads) which also link to fake news.

Facebook allowed for (and then turned it off) ethnic and location targeting of ads. The same applies to Instagram. This is partly how 'Orange Man' could determine what topics were most talked about and which would 'trigger' reactions from people who are likely to vote for him. Facebook then allegedly, allowed such ads to run on its platform. In turn influencing so many people with, in most cases, what was 'fake news' simply meant to reinforce certain narratives and have people share them further influencing their circles of influence. This apparently also happened on Instagram where ads were also targeted based on location and some keywords.

Why is this a problem? (After all propaganda and lies have existed for as long as humans have been around)

First of all...

Seriously though, it circumvents democracy. On television, radio and other old-school mediums such 'ads' wouldn't be allowed and if they are political ads, they would be announced as such. In turn, as we've clearly seen in the 2016 US elections, people believe the ads because they (we) trust what Facebook labels as news or what it allows to be advertised, the same way we believe and trust the ads that are run on radio, newspapers, and television. This is because of what we have been used to but also because we expect a certain level of truth in them based on the platform used to advertise. Yes, it was apparently 'Russians' who ran the fake Facebook accounts that were used to push fake news and advertise fake news articles but this is also a Facebook problem which, unfortunately, I do not have a concise solution to. The problem is not just a politically motivated one but an incentive issue too as some young people somewhere in Macedonia also figured out what triggers some Americans, gamed Facebook groups and directed traffic to their 'fake' blogs where they would earn ad money from people reading inflammatory fake articles.

Couldn't Facebook anticipate abuse?

It is also not a new problem that just emerged now. Back in 2010, a simple experiment involving 12 fake Facebook profiles was run by the crew at COINAGE. What it revealed is something we know today (on an 'industrial' scale) know, that it is easy to not only catfish people via social media but more importantly to 'trigger' their thoughts and influence them. Heck! Facebook themselves ran a similar experiment quietly.

I'm rambling.

My point is that unless Facebook does something soon, those healthy MAU numbers will drop over time (how long? I don't know) Which in turn means fewer people will click on ads over time because we'll now be anticipating that they are likely fake. To their credit, Facebook has been trying, but not hard enough, to solve the problem with the release of tools and hiring teams to for this purpose.

This is also a problem inherently unique to social media platforms, and not necessarily to search engines (read: Google) despite them also running ads for decades now, because of the way ads are targeted on Facebook and how they are not clearly marked.

As a South African with elections coming up in 2019, I think what we witnessed with Bell Pottinger is small compared to what could happen when power is at stake. Elections can be influenced at a micro level where you can target a certain race of people in a specific area and 'trigger' them to vote a certain way because you already have a good idea of what they are talking about there and what their main complaints are. Failing which, for the areas, you somehow know that no matter how much you try to influence they won't vote for you, hire hackers.

You should be worried too.

P.S. "Everyone is talking about Bitcoin and the blockchain and I'm confused."

First of all, did you read this?

This article first appeared on 16 October 2017 in the iAfrikan Weekly Digest Newsletter, a Pan Afrikan weekly digest of the most important stories of the week which includes insights and analysis on the most topical story of the week. Subscribe here to the weekly digest and receive it every Monday morning at 06h00 Central African Time.

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