Learning the news: Weaponizing social media

Engaging social media is like living in a house with no walls, only windows that make your every move open to the world, writes Roger Plothow.

Except for those in deep denial, there’s general agreement that various parties, including some from Russia, engaged in an aggressive and broad attempt to alter the outcome of the 2016 elections, mostly through social media like Facebook.

It’s going to happen again.

So far, at least, it’s impossible to determine whether the 2016 elections were in any way changed by these nefarious efforts. Despite promises by Facebook, however, it’s all but certain that the “weaponization” of Facebook will be part of the political playbook in 2018.

Technology almost always progresses faster than our ability to use it. That is probably even more true of social media, whose reach and invasiveness blow past nearly anyone’s skills to manage them. This includes Congress, which hasn’t passed any significant legislation to mitigate the impact of social media on our electoral process. In short, much of what’s illegal on legacy media like newspapers and television is completely legal online.

That leaves the people running social media – and Facebook remains far and away the big dog in that game – to self-police. And they are terrible at it.

“Facebook specifically has done a terrible job with an impossible task,” a senior digital ad buyer with the Republican party told CNN.

Democrats agree.

“With no requirement on the part of the Internet companies to make political ad spending public, the door is left wide open to come in and buy advertising,” said Oren Shur, who directed Hillary Clinton’s direct of paid media.

Add to this the fact that everything – everything – you do on social media is monitored with the idea of monetizing it, turning your interests into profit by pushing subtle advertising your way that matches your interests. Every post, every click, every action (even hovering over a link) is tracked and turned into data. In short, social media is being weaponized against you.

You might say, “I want to see things in which I express interest.” Do you? Do you really want what amounts to artificial intelligence knowing more about you than you may even perceive yourself? And do you want that information used to alter your online environment that makes it your own very personal bubble?

“On TV, in the pages of a newspaper, or on a yard sign, there’s no question about what an ad is,” two CNN reporters wrote recently. “But on Facebook, things are different.”

Advertising on Facebook are called “Sponsored Posts.” Any owner of a Facebook page can buy these posts that appear in front of people who don’t follow those pages.

Engaging social media is like living in a house with no walls, only windows that make your every move open to the world. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and the rest aren’t going away – they are still growing. Without a combination of laws that regulate how these media may be used for political purposes and a higher level of understanding by the billions of people on social media, there’s a train wreck in our future of proportions we can scarcely imagine.

Roger Plothow is editor and publisher of the Post Register. This is part of weekly year-long series on media literacy.