I often liken my research to that of a medieval mapmaker. My research teams and I are charting the “digital planet”. This is a landscape whose contours are being shaped by many actors — by the titans of Silicon Valley and their counterparts elsewhere, by venture capitalists and entrepreneurs, by regulators desperately attempting to keep pace, by half the world’s population that now has access to the internet and by many in the remaining half dying to be let into the club. In its early stages, mapmaking is an imprecise art. One cannot definitively fill in all the land masses or bodies of water. Our medieval predecessors closed such gaps with dire warnings, such as “Here there be dragons” or resorted to images of serpents, elephants with gigantic teeth, and, of course, dragons.
My team and I are still tracing the outlines of the emerging digital landscape using a “Digital Evolution Index” that we created and a soon-to-be-released “Ease of Doing Digital Business” ranking of countries, among other measures. We find that on this emerging map, the dragons, serpents and elephants with dental issues are representations of what we fear the most, the loss of trust: We may be awash in data, but we still have no good ways to separate the tangible from the virtual, the human from the algorithm, the real from the fake.
When challenged to fix the problem of, say, fake news and pernicious rumours, perhaps the most palpable breakdown of trust, the hapless leadership of the digital platforms lacks the imagination to figure out solutions. In fact, they seem to be adding to the problems. Consider everybody’s whipping boy these days: Mark Zuckerberg. The latest story to break on this front is that, not only is Facebook and Facebook-owned WhatsApp among the largest transmitters of misinformation, Facebook — the company itself — may be the creator of misinformation. According to the New York Times, it paid an “opposition research” firm to spread misinformation about the billionaire George Soros. The reason: Soros’ foundation funded the Open Markets Institute, which, in turn, was critical of Facebook. This isn’t the first instance of concerns over Facebook fathering — not just furthering — falsehoods. A lawsuit, filed by an aromatherapy fashionwear company, alleges that Facebook’s numbers for the number of users that are targeted by advertisements were vastly inflated, to the extent that the reported number of target users reached in a particular demographic exceeded the total number of Facebook users belonging to that same demographic.
Where are the digital planet’s dragons that are likely to be lurking? In other words, who are the most vulnerable? I fear that the digital dragons congregate in the parts of the world with the least safeguards — among users in the developing world. Moreover, WhatsApp, which is more popular for spreading news in the developing world than Facebook, may be more vulnerable to manipulation for many reasons. For one, it is end-to-end encrypted, making it hard to manage or trace the content. Second, Facebook, the company, has stepped up fact-checking on its main platform, Facebook, but not on WhatsApp, largely because the pressures from American lawmakers are focused on the main platform.
Among developing nations, India, of course, is a prime case study. The country has experienced a slew of violent incidents and killings incited by rumours over WhatsApp. The BBC recently released a report that suggests that in India, narratives that relate to Hindu power and superiority, national pride and “personality and prowess” of Prime Minister Narendra Modi are powerful in spreading rumours over social media. With an election around the corner, this means there is even more opportunity for mischief ahead. Interestingly, while neither end of the political spectrum comes across as clean, according to the BBC study, the volume of fake news messages from the right was much more prominent. I recently met the Egyptian activist and originator of the Arab Spring, Wael Ghonim, who made an interesting distinction that the right sends messages that focus on fear while the left focuses on shame. Well, fear travels further and faster.
Unfortunately, India is far from alone. Of course, we now know that neighbouring Sri Lanka and Myanmar witnessed similar (and even worse) rumour-triggered atrocities. While Facebook made some superficial and incremental changes in response, it appears they did little to anticipate similar issues elsewhere. Consider Brazil as an even more recent case in point. There were widespread false rumours of Venezuelan interference in Brazil’s elections and about now-president, Jair Bolsonaro’s opposition distributing baby bottles with penis-shaped tops at schools. The rumours were started on WhatsApp and were reinforced over Facebook and Twitter.
Now that we have a sense of where the dragons lurk, who are the dragons?
Back in November 2016, Zuckerberg said that fake news influencing the US election was “a pretty crazy idea.” However, by the time he made that statement, insiders at Facebook already knew that this was simply not true. Today, after many hearings and public eatings of humble pie, Zuckerberg and his colleagues still have no long-term plan for countering the problem. One reason is that the spread of rumours gets attention and feeds the social media business model that does well when more people click and share. Zuckerberg is like the dungeon master from the Dungeons and Dragons game whose job is to be the game organiser. It is high time we realised that a clueless dungeon master who does not take responsibility for the game he has organised is also the dragon to be feared the most. The rumour-mongers that use the platform are the lesser dragons.
It is high time we held Zuckerberg and other digital dungeon masters to higher standards. They must now put their game design genius to work, to take responsibility for what is propagated by their platforms and to reinvent their business models that are designed to monetise attention at any cost. It is essential that they figure out how to grow profitably while keeping the digital planet civil, productive, honest and safe. And free of dragons.