• R E J Saunders

Facebook and Twitter are not the root of our woes

Like most global citizens I watched the storming of the Capitol was horror, and then a week later basked in the reflective joy of Joe Biden’s inauguration. In the space between those two events a milieu of conversation erupted both over former President Trump’s Twitter ban and the root cause of the Capitol insurrection. Many talking heads both in the media and academia posited that social media, namely Facebook and Twitter, were the gravitational centres driving the alt-right and Qanon. I propose that while superficially they have a point, the actual root of both the insurrection and the deliverance from go far deeper and hidden within the internet. That actually it is the intersecting connections we make with each other and the platforms we use, filtered through cookies, scrapers, and other internet background code that patch together a quilt of identity that shapes the very notion of internet identity and collective understanding.

Donald Trump did not project into a vacuum; millions of people both followed him in Twitter and absorbed themselves with his utterances. This cascade of consciousness splashed into all our lives, even those of us like me who never opened a Tweet or paid more than a cursory attention to them. His vicarious presence seeped into everything because those who did pay attention and hung on his every word made them vital, urgent. Unless they consciously blocked every cookie on every site they visited, in the background this urgency accumulated and spilled over onto every other site they read and interacted with in the form of adverts, design elements, YouTube videos, and even what songs were played.

This trail, these fingerprints, was the manna that fed marketing machines, both for sneakers and for political parties. If Brenda in Ohio liked a Tweet, or John from Nebraska commented in r:/thedonald, then those cookies were silently record all those interactions. Next time they interacted with a third-party website chances are they would be served up with content that reflected their Trumpist adoration.

Personalisation is a hot topic, with Eli Pariser laying out in The Filter Bubble just how mediated our online experience is through the clicks we make, the friends we like, and the content we search for. I would say it extends beyond the obvious into this hidden layer of the internet, the companies that actively record and monitor our footprints. The root of the Capitol insurrection lies in how that personalised version of the internet was shaped by likes and comments, which in turn fuelled political adverts, search results, videos, and music. Yes, Twitter, Fox News, and Facebook server up content to digest and get wrapped up into a filter bubble, but without our digital fingerprint that would be parked at the door of those apps.

Without realising it we are all in our own versions of online. Those who profess MAGA and Qanon do so in the fullness of understanding that this is their reality as they have been guided to understand it. Controlling and shutting down a specific platform may prick the immediate boil, but the underlying symptoms will persist because the cookie crumbs carry it through the hidden mycelia of the internet.

There are many vested interests in this hidden information exchange, as outline by Cathy O’Neil in Weapons of Math Destruction. For all the money Google and Facebook accumulate there are dozens of data brokers working in the shadows, selling data on to interested parties, and users have absolutely no control over who sees what data and what is done with it. Yes, there is a need to corral and reign in ‘big tech’ like Google and Twitter, but it is the shadow tech firms that keep leaving cookie crumbs for them to follow.

This data, hidden from scrutiny even by the European Union’s GDPR unless users actively opt out every time they land on a page or use a browser plugin like Ghostery, shapes the conversations we see. With MAGA and Qanon the broader internet filtered downwards towards content that reinforced that worldview, hammering home talking points, reengaging with tweets, highlighting talk radio, radicalising one click at a time. Even benign sites still feature adverts and third party paid content not on the original site’s servers drawn down based on those cookie trails.

This is the invisible hand that led Pied Piper from Kansas, Florida, and West Virginia to Washington. Yes, those who assaulted the Capitol acted of their own volition, spurred on by former President Trump, but the world view presented to them one click at a time was far more than one platform. It was a whole ecosystem, an entire digital platform economy hoovering up cookie trails to amplify and cosset them in their own version of the internet.

Cutting Trump off from Twitter lanced this boil only after it festered, but it had the effect of tamping down the radicalisation if only for a week or a month. Long term, I would suggest that alongside critically engaging with Facebook and Twitter, western democracies need to reign in and effectively control those organisations who act as data brokers. Our interactions on the internet are not defined by a single platform and corralling or shutting down one platform only scatters its adherents to the wind where they find deeper and darker spaces to inhabit.

Education is critical to effective navigation of the internet. Cookie blockers, denying permissions, blocking adverts, and bringing the cookie crumbs shift user perspectives out of the filter bubble. The tools are there, and with effective legislation and oversight the worst excesses can be brought to heel. Nothing is guaranteed, as we generally like to find our own like, but by sweeping away the cookie trail we can start to reorientate our perspectives and hopefully prevent any further insurrections.


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