Does Facebook’s business model disrupt the political information markets?

Facebook is engaging in a war against misinformation and divisiveness in the United States as perpetrated via social media, according to published reports by Bloomberg and The Atlanta Journal Constitution. Having done a 180 degree turn from its position last year that its platform was not used to cause a disruption of public opinion leading up to the 2016 presidential election, Facebook is using artificial intelligence tools to identify inauthentic posts and user behavior.  With teams comprised of data scientists, policy experts, and engineers, Facebook is blocking fake accounts and vetting news stories posted on its site.

Critics doubt that Facebook’s attempts to thwart future social media influence will outweigh its incentives to distribute fictional political stories that keep people glued to Facebook while providing advertisers with millions of pairs of eyeballs.  Facebook, according its 10-K annual report, garners almost of its revenues from advertising.  In 2017, advertising made up 98% of Facebook’s revenues.  According to Facebook’s 10-K, at the top of the list of factors that could adversely impact advertising revenues: decreases in user engagement, including a decline in the time spent using the company’s products.

Having used Facebook for eleven years, I witnessed the increase in the use of the platform as a tool for political engagement.  Facebook has expanded opportunities for voters to vet politicians and their policies.  I have seen a significant number of posts, including memes and video, that got the facts wrong; that showed no knowledge of process, politics, or economics.  Cynicism, fear, passion, inaccuracies, sincerity, patriotism, anarchy, and indifference all run rampant on Facebook.  But do I buy the argument that messages placed on Facebook by Russian agents spread so much misinformation that America became suddenly divided overnight? That “Russian interference led to a Trump victory?

No.  The divisiveness was already there.  Giving a couple hundred million Americans the ability to quickly share their thoughts, accurate or not, on the political news of day simply tore away the scab.

Further evidence of divisiveness in American politics: print, broadcast, and cable media.  American media is meeting the demand of a divided public, with Fox News occupying the Right and MSNBC and CNN serving the frenzied Left.

What Washington may truly be afraid of is that politicians have less control over the channels through which they are vetted.  On the one hand, Jeffrey Rosen, president of the Constitution Center, shared the following with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg:

“Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms have accelerated public discourse to warp speed, creating virtual versions of the mob.  Inflammatory posts based on passion travel farther and than arguments based on reason.  We are living, in short, in a Madisonian nightmare.”

On the other hand, Americans may be taking to Facebook, YouTube and Twitter in search of alternative opportunities to criticize the political packages and action plans that politicians offer in exchange for votes and increases in taxes.  The divisiveness may be stemming from an increased lack of enchantment with democracy itself.  After all, according to Professor Yuval Harari, democracies are “blips in history” depending on “unique technological conditions” and losing credibility as democracy faces more questions about its inability to provide for and maintain a middle class.

Democracy is hard up to explain why almost all the nine million jobs created post recovery from the 2007-2009 recession have been “gig work” paying little to no benefits.  Democracy has yet to come up with a solution to a wealth gap that the Left invests time in describing, laying blame at the feet of the rich yet coming up with no solutions for a society that prides itself on equal access to the ballot but still comes up short on adequate access to capital.

To the question whether Facebook’s business model has disrupted the political information markets, I would, for now, answer yes.  Facebook has contributed to bringing unreasonable, uninformed voices into the arena. I for one do not want to be lead or have policy fed by impassioned, unreasonable voices, no matter what part of the spectrum they fall on.  What the political class may have to look at for in the near term is that democracy may be less of a facilitator of a peaceful transfer of power between its factions as the mob continues to peel away the scab.

 

 

Advertisements

The State’s role in integrating artificial intelligence into America’s economy

Artificial intelligence has the capability of creating another resource that can be optimized or consumed by a nation-state.  Increases in computing power and better designed algorithms along with access to increasing amounts of data translates into an increased amount of information that can be extracted via machine learning.

Venture capitalist Nick Hanauer postulates that a nation’s prosperity is a function of the rate at which we solve problems.  If he is correct, then problem solving requires that we maximize the amount of available information to find the best answer.

If information is the jet fuel for a Fourth Industrial Revolution economy, data is the oil that has to be extracted and refined. Companies such as Amazon, Facebook, and Google are using machine learning to provide better customer and subscriber experiences with their product.  They are among the largest of the data miners.  Their efforts, along with those of other technology companies is expected to contribute to economic growth beyond a baseline (no-artificial intelligence) scenario.

For example, Accenture reports that labor will see an increase in productivity of 35% by the year 2035 due to the application of artificial intelligence.  Annual growth rates in value added to gross domestic product are approximated at 4.6% by 2035. With capital and labor (due to a cap on the capacity of cognitive ability) reaching their limits as contributors to increased economic growth, artificial intelligence, taking its place along capital, labor, and entrepreneurship as a factor of production, is expected to help the economy exceed its current limits in three ways:

  1. Automating physical tasks as a result of artificial intelligence’s ability to self-learn;
  2. Augmenting labor by giving labor the opportunity to focus on creativity, imagination, and innovation; and
  3. Diffusing innovation through the economy.

With these promises of growth comes the fear on the part of labor that artificial intelligence will eliminate the need for a substantial portion of current jobs.  Even while experts and academics tout artificial intelligence as a complement to labor; as an augmenter of labor’s cognitive skills, there is still the fear that this emerging technology will create a valueless human workforce.  This perception creates a dilemma for a government that sees democracy under the attack globally.  Is artificial intelligence going to exclude millions in the name of efficiency? If so, what use is there from participating equally in an electoral process of the economy leaves you out?

Government will have to prepare a messaging campaign if it is to maintain its legitimacy as a distributor of economic equity in the face of an increasingly digitized economy and society. The potential destructive nature of artificial intelligence is scarier than what has been presented in movies like “2001: A Space Odyssey” or “Terminator.” Immediate benefits of artificial intelligence may flow first to those who already have high tech skills or hold or have access to great amounts of capital. In other words, AI is the ultimate nail in the coffin for the capital gap. Those with access to or control of capital will only see their control over the data and information that feeds it get larger. If you can’t process data or package useful information, you are nonexistent. Just useless furniture. It won’t be some AI robot that kills you off. It will be a human with money and enhanced cognitive skills that decide we are valueless.

As Erik Brynjolfsson, Xiang Hui, and Meng Liu pointed out last month in an article for The Washington Post last month, “No economic law guarantees that productivity growth benefits everyone equally.  Unless we  thoughtfully manage the transition, some people, even a majority, are vulnerable to being left behind even as others reap billions.”

As Professor Yuri Harari notes, technology is not deterministic, however.  It is people who make decisions as to how their political economy will shift and change.  Brynjolfsson, Hui, and Liu note that voters need to urge policymakers to “invest in research that will design approaches to human learning for an era of machine learning.”

The evidence does not show that policymakers are being prodded to move on the issue of artificial intelligence. Not surprising since voters are not knowledgeable about the issue either.  Artificial intelligence is not on the top of any poll responses from voters.  As regards to Congress, the only major action has been companion bills S.2217 and HR4625 where Congress wants the Secretary of Commerce to establish a federal advisory committee on the development and implementation of artificial intelligence.  While the bills provide good working definitions of artificial intelligence and machine learning and has among its concerns economic productivity, job growth, and labor displacement, allowing a bill to sit in committee for ten months is not the kind of speedy intelligence that artificial intelligence needs to be complemented by.

Government’s role in regulating access to personal data

Yuval Noah Harari recent wrote an article for The Atlantic where he posed the question, “How do you regulate the ownership of data?” Professor Harari argues in the article that data is the most important asset today, moving ahead of land and machinery.  “Politics will be a struggle to control the data’s flow”, says Professor Harari.

Last spring saw the United States Congress’ struggle to at least map out a course through the turbulent waters of data privacy as members of the House of Representatives and Senate took the opportunity to grill Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about his company’s handling of personal data obtained from the social media giant by a consultancy.

Part of this struggle may be due in part to the popularity of social media network platforms. Facebook has climbed from a digital bulletin board developed in the early 2000s in an Ivy League college dorm room to a global subscribership of over two billion people.  Former president Barack Obama’s Twitter following is in the millions while the current president, Donald Trump, is not shy or slow to taking to Twitter to either connect with and inform his base of supporters or attack the traditional media for what he perceives as unfair coverage of his administration.

Professor Harari notes that users of social media network platforms have not reached the point where they are ready to stop feeding the “attention merchants.”  Speaking on the difficulty subscribers may have in exchanging personal data for “free” services, Professor Harari points out that:

“But it, later on, ordinary people decide to block the flow of data, they are likely to have trouble doing so, especially as they may have come to rely on the network to help them make decisions, and even for their health and physical survival.”

Professor Harari offered up one solution, nationalization of data, to stem the abuses that corporations may impart on addicted social media and internet consumers, but admits that just because an asset is in the hands of government doesn’t mean things will necessarily go well.  Hence the question, how should the ownership of data be regulated?

The question will require public policymakers and politicians go through the exercise of defining “personal data.”  Would personal data be any characteristic about you? Would it be about any marker, no matter how temporary or permanent, that can be attached to you?  Must the “data” be something that the consumer actually produced?

Politically, attention merchants would want a narrow reading of the definition of personal data.  A narrower reading of personal data means being able to obtain more information pursuant to fewer restrictions. While this outcome would be ideal for corporate entities in the business of brokering data, I don’t see Republicans, even with their mantra of promoting business, enthusiastically endorsing less restrictive collection of personal data given the public’s concern for privacy.