Once upon a time, back when the internet was still young and at least moderately innocent, social media was about relationship.
It allowed friends to keep up to date with each other, old friends to get back in touch, even families spread across different continents to stay connected.
Ten years later, it’s allegedly the tool by which a group of state-sponsored Russian actors delivered the propaganda that swung the 2016 US Presidential Election. In light of the recent revelations about Cambridge Analytica and data-harvesting, the question is, quite simply, ‘how did we get here?’
Whilst Alexander Nix, chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, has claimed that there is no relationship between his company and Russia, the links are certainly there and are part of a broader picture of the ‘weaponisation of information’ for which Russia has become famous. A step back, though, shows that Russia is not the only one at it. They just happen to be the best.
Under pressure to monetise its platform after its hugely successful IPO, Facebook’s algorithms were developed to deliver the goal of keeping people on the site for as long as possible. They learned what you like and provided more of the same, aiming to keep you reading your news feed for as long as possible. One upshot of that is the ‘bubble effect’ of being served opinions that so closely match your own – if you are challenged by something you don’t like, you might go elsewhere.
Put another way, Facebook’s raison d’être is not to ensure that you are the most rounded, informed, socially and politically aware person you can be. It is to generate returns for its shareholders. And, as the whistle-blower Christopher Wylie explained, this also provides a framework within which to deliver information – or misinformation – to highly targeted audiences.
Facebook’s challenge is that ‘fake news’ may offer greater revenues than legitimate news. Truth has been subordinated to profit.
For businesses, and for us, money is a remarkable litmus test of where our true loyalties lie – as Jesus warns, ‘Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’ (Matthew 6:21). And when truth is considered an optional extra, injustice inevitably follows.
The personal information we share online is being deployed to shape opinions that impact our identity, to influence our relationships, and to negatively impact our ability to disagree well. As Christians, therefore, we cannot be apathetic about its use – and its exploitation.
Guy is research director for the Jubilee Centre and the author of Digitally Remastered: a biblical guide to reclaiming your virtual self, published by Muddy Pearl.