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How Tech Utopia Fostered Tyranny 

Jon Askonas

Authoritarians’ love for digital technology is no fluke — it’s a product of Silicon Valley’s “smart” paternalism

The rumors spread like wildfire: Muslims were secretly lacing a Sri Lankan village’s food with sterilization drugs. Soon, a video circulated that appeared to show a Muslim shopkeeper admitting to drugging his customers — he had misunderstood the question that was angrily put to him. Then all hell broke loose. Over a several-day span, dozens of mosques and Muslim-owned shops and homes were burned down across multiple towns. In one home, a young journalist was trapped, and perished.

Mob violence is an old phenomenon, but the tools encouraging it, in this case, were not. As the New York Times reported in April, the rumors were spread via Facebook, whose newsfeed algorithm prioritized high-engagement content, especially videos. “Designed to maximize user time on site,” as the Times article describes, the newsfeed algorithm “promotes whatever wins the most attention. Posts that tap into negative, primal emotions like anger or fear, studies have found, produce the highest engagement, and so proliferate.” On Facebook in Sri Lanka, posts with incendiary rumors had among the highest engagement rates, and so were among the most highly promoted content on the platform. Similar cases of mob violence have taken place in India, Myanmar, Mexico, and elsewhere, with misinformation spread mainly through Facebook and the messaging tool WhatsApp.

This is in spite of Facebook’s decision in January 2018 to tweak its algorithm, apparently to prevent the kind of manipulation we saw in the 2016 U.S. election, when posts and election ads originating from Russia reportedly showed up in newsfeeds of up to 126 million American Facebook users. The company explained that the changes to its algorithm will mean that newsfeeds will be “showing more posts from friends and family and updates that spark conversation,” and “less public content, including videos and other posts from publishers or businesses.” But these changes, which Facebook had tested out in countries like Sri Lanka in the previous year, may actually have exacerbated the problem — which is that incendiary content, when posted by friends and family, is guaranteed to “spark conversation” and therefore to be prioritized in newsfeeds. This is because “misinformation is almost always more interesting than the truth,” as Mathew Ingram provocatively put it in the Columbia Journalism Review.

How did we get here, from Facebook’s mission to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together”?....

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Jon Askonas is assistant professor of politics and a Fellow at the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at the Catholic University of America.

Jon Askonas, "How Tech Utopia Fostered Tyranny," The New Atlantis, Number 57, Winter 2019, pp. 3-13.