The problem with politics isn't just Facebook; it's the way users think about it

How do we heal the USA? Be smarter online
Posted at 4:30 AM, Mar 27, 2018
and last updated 2018-03-27 11:37:50-04

CINCINNATI -- Attorneys general from 37 states and territories, including Ohio and Kentucky, have questions for Facebook in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and other recent revelations about the role the social media platform played in informing the American electorate in 2016. 

And now, the Federal Trade Commission is investigating Facebook's practices following reports that Cambridge Analytica, which consulted with the Donald Trump campaign, received data from millions of Facebook users in the U.S.

Richard Harknett, PhD is head of the Political Science Department at the University of Cincinnati. He's also considered a global cybersecurity expert. Dr. Harknett testified in February before the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on cybersecurity. 

He said senators understand what the country is up against for the coming election cycles. "We were trying to really get at the root of whether or not we're still susceptible to manipulation," he said.

He said the problem is how people view their activity on Facebook and other social media platforms.

"For the most part, people haven't thought about this as a transaction," he said. "But you're paying for Facebook with your personal information."

That information is your likes, posts and shares which are compiled to form your individual profile.  Dr. Harknett said the problem comes when that information crosses the line from being used for marketing -- to being used for manipulation and control. 

"What Cambridge Analytica was doing was taking that kind of formula and applying it to political campaigns," Harknett said. "Can I emotionally cue you to this? I know you like this information, so I'm going to send it to you this way."

Engaging with Facebook content with a 'like,' an angry face or a comment can then trigger Facebook's algorithm to show you more content like that.

Harknett said users of social media need to stay critical, especially of content that enforces their existing ideas, in order to remain informed voters and not victims of a political marketing industry.

"We're seeing the other side not as a sort of competition of ideas, but as a threat," he said. "Our true adversaries … that don't really want American democracy to succeed can see that, and they're taking advantage of that."

It's in a situation such as this one, where "we do have high levels of partisanship; we don't have high levels of critical thinking," that the country is most vulnerable, he said.

And when Americans choose to live in many separate echo chambers instead of in a large, multi-faceted and at-times-challenging society, "there is a legitimate potential for manipulation. That's the reality."

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg now faces an existential fight to redeem his company's image and reckon with its potential effects on global politics. 

On an individual level, Harknett said, each user faces their own, smaller struggle to remain informed, critical and engaged with others who are different from them, even -- perhaps especially -- in the face of a fraught political landscape.

"If I'm a bad guy who wants to really start to mess around with American democracy, 2018 and 2020 look like real opportunities," he said.