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Wednesday, 25 October 2017

“You have to believe in us, because we say so! We are benevolent companies, that keep a keen eye on your interests, even if you can’t control us!”. Welcome in the Information Black Hole of Google and Facebook

What goes around, comes around!

A few days ago, my dear, hardworking neighbour Anita approached me. She was crying and at the brink of mental exhaustion.

Anita was a woman, who was struck hard when her husband divorced from her more than ten years ago. He left her behind with three (just) teenage children to care for, with no job and seemingly a grim future full of heartship ahead.

But when the going got tough, the tough kept going: Anita started an online company in sports lingerie, which she built into a success, due to excellent quality lingerie, working days of 15+ hours and a customerfriendliness that was second to none.

However, one year ago Google changed “the rules” regarding SEO (i.e. Search Engine Optimization). Her previously reliable website, that served her well and generated many satisfied customers, was suddenly obsolete meaning that she did not end high enough in the search results anymore. And everybody with a mom-and-pop online store knows what that means: no ranking means no customers!

She was forced to redesign her whole website to the tune of tens of thousands of Euro’s. And a lion share of this money was consumed by consultants for new and improved SEO, in order to get the good ranking back that would bring her new customers.

Already then she was complaining that the expenses for the new website were eating a large chunk off her annual sales. But when she would not have done it, she would have been out of business soon. Not due to failing quality of her products or dissatisfied customers, but for online invisibility, as no-one cares about the third page of the search results.

And then came last Friday, with our small meeting on the street 

Anita bursted into tears when we talked: she was still struggling with the new website and due to the continuing problems with SEO on her website, she had missed 40% in sales in one single month. A disaster… 

She would like to take a break, as she had worked so hard for such a long time, but she couldn’t do so, as there were so many things to do every day.

And Anita was bothered by the enormous influence that Google had on her company. Not only by changing the rules for SEO, forcing her to make vast investments, but also by putting the results of its own affiliated webshops in the top of the search results. Just because they can…

Personally, I have always wondered about Google and the products and services that it delivers:
  • Why are so many people – including yours truly – willing to offer free content on Blogger, turning it into a huge success and source of income for Google?
    • And why do none of the vast revenues coming from Blogger flow back towards their unpaid bloggers, except for income generated by the Adwords ads?
  • Why can Google charge so many bills for clicks to their advertizers, while I as a blogger got hardly any clicks in the time when I still had ads on my site? And that in spite of the fact that I wrote new, original content on a day-to-day basis (in those days)?!
    • Of course, I did not write clickbait and as a blogger I probably made every mistake in the 'successful writer’s book', which has cost me a lot of potential clicks. But still, where do all the clicks go and who gets them?! Am I just to suspicious about this and is everything fair and square?!
  • And last, but not least: Who controls Google as a near monopolist in the online advert business and checks if they indeed do what they promise to do to their countless corporate customers?!

The answer to the last question is that probably nobody and no company can ever check and control Google, except for Google itself. In other words: it is their Information Black Hole and every online writer, webshop, news media outlet and online storechain is trapped in it!

When – in the days before online –  normal persons and (SME) companies put an advert in a newspaper, they always got a free copy as proof that the advert indeed existed and was displayed according to the preliminary agreed conditions and formats.

The same was true for radio or TV commercials. These commercials were aired on radio or TV and every company could check itself if its commercial was broadcasted correctly and at the right time.

But with Google?

“Yes, we targeted your online advert to your target groups. We did that exactly as you wanted. You can’t check that, unless you belong to your own target group. Only then you can see your own adverts. That is the way we work!

You simply must believe us, because we say so! We are benevolent companies, that keep a keen eye on your interests, even if you can’t control us… at all! So please pay us our money and don’t bother to investigate things further. We are totally honest and the fact that we manage all the data at places and times invisible for you, does not say you can’t trust us”. 

Or something like that…

Even if you do feel confident about the trustworthiness and reliability of Google – which I use at this very moment, I admit – you must agree that near-monopoly positions seldomly lead to better quality, better service, more customerfriendliness and more confidence among its customers. Especially when such companies are hiding between walls of unapproachability and meaninglessness for the average Joe Sixpack, when it comes to their goals, targets and business model.

Sometimes companies are simply too big to NOT fail in the end and Google may very well be one of them!

And then there is the elephant in the room. A company that is so influential and so opaque in structure and modus operandi via its news feeds, pushed messages distribution and search possibilities, that even the company itself can hardly crack its own code: Facebook!

I always had a love/hate relation with Facebook: I loved to hate it very much, because of its mainly dull content (“I have boring friends, y’know”), the overflow of pictures and videos of shiny, happy and successful people having a ball every day and the manipulative way the news and messages from my friends were put (or not put) in my timeline.

I want to choose my news and interesting information myself and I don’t want my news and interesting information to choose me! 

That is why I stick to my online newspapers (at least six per day) and my mostly Dutch and British news outlet websites.

After a few years in which I looked at Facebook very seldomly, but still got a more and more uncomfortable feeling from the company, I abandoned Facebook roughly two years ago. Since then I am careful to not be lured into another subscription, out of curiosity for certain information. Do I miss a lot of stuff? Probably, but it was worth it.

Yesterday I read an utterly disturbing and interesting article in The Atlantic, about the influence of Facebook on the last United States Presidential Elections. It was an absolute must-read and a reading hour very well spent. He are a few interesting snippets of this article:

The Trump campaign was working to suppress “idealistic white liberals, young women, and African Americans,” and they’d be doing it with targeted, “dark” Facebook ads. These ads are only visible to the buyer, the ad recipients, and Facebook. No one who hasn’t been targeted by then can see them. How was anyone supposed to know what was going on, when the key campaign terrain was literally invisible to outside observers?


But the point isn’t that a Republican beat a Democrat. The point is that the very roots of the electoral system—the news people see, the events they think happened, the information they digest—had been destabilized.

In the middle of the summer of the election, the former Facebook ad-targeting product manager, Antonio García Martínez, released an autobiography called Chaos Monkeys. He called his colleagues “chaos monkeys,” messing with industry after industry in their company-creating fervor. “The question for society,” he wrote, “is whether it can survive these entrepreneurial chaos monkeys intact, and at what human cost.” This is the real epitaph of the election.

The information systems that people use to process news have been rerouted through Facebook, and in the process, mostly broken and hidden from view. It wasn’t just liberal bias that kept the media from putting everything together. Much of the hundreds of millions of dollars that was spent during the election cycle came in the form of “dark ads.”

The truth is that while many reporters knew some things that were going on on Facebook, no one knew everything that was going on on Facebook, not even Facebook. And so, during the most significant shift in the technology of politics since the television, the first draft of history is filled with undecipherable whorls and empty pages. Meanwhile, the 2018 midterms loom.

The first red and bold text is to these eyes the million dollar question. A question that is just as applicable to Google with its own targeted ads, as it is to Facebook.

How can people know what is going on within the data warehouses of Facebook and Google, if nobody has control over the data flows that these companies process? And what about the protection of democracy and the truth in (Western) countries, when so much (deceptive) information is hidden and distributed below the radar to anonymous people that nobody knows?!

That brings us to the second red and bold tekst: will societies survive the way Facebook collects and distributes news, ads and (dis)information to unknown people and at what human cost will that be?!

Personally, I don’t care so much about the sheer fact that Russia and Russian agents have meddled into the US public opinion with (fake) news and targeted ads and, as such, have influenced the outcome of the American elections. 

What goes around, comes around!

It is hardly a secret that the United States via CIA, DEA, NSA and the whole alphabet soup of American secret services have meddled in countless elections in Latin America, Middle America, the Far East and Middle East and even Europe. 

And when the elections did not yield the preferred candidate after all, a small revolution was easily organized in the Fifties and Sixties of last century; especially in Latin America and the Middle East. All-in the name of the American defence against communism, aka the Domino Theory! 

So dear Americans: please stop with the whining and the crocodile tears about the interference of Russian President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin into your presidential elections with your own ICT companies and simply cut your losses!

What was worrisome about the United States presidential elections, however, is the fact that a conspicuously deranged and dangerously narcissistic president like Donald Trump has been elected from it, due to both the alleged Russian disinformation campaign surrounding the elections and the extraordinary influence on the average, religious and conservative Joe Sixpack, that the alt-right site Breitbart had acquired via Facebook.

Of course the Americans have the legal right to choose their next president at will, even though people outside the United States would rather see that differently sometimes

Nevertheless, the fact that people have been (negatively) influenced and mis-/disinformed at such a scale is very dangerous. As if Pandora's Box has been opened. And it happened in a way that was totally invisible and out of grasp for other people and/or the authorities, due to Facebook's extremely targeted adverts and tailormade news, that are not disclosed to the general public. That's what makes this so bad.

When presidential candidates turn their opponents into black sheep by spreading blatant lies or disinformation in a public debate or publicly broadcasted commercials (e.g. think about the slanderous “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (SBVT)” group from the George Bush Jr. campaign), the opponents can publicly react and debunk such stories. In the worst case, they can go to court with a complaint for slander or libel done by their opponent.

However, when such influencing all takes place under “a cloak of invisibility ”, directly into the minds of common people sitting behind their computers and doing their stuff on Facebook, it can turn into an uncontrollable and dangerous phenomenon. The Russians and Steve Bannon’s Breitbart discovered that already during the Donald Trump campaign, just like a bunch of Macedonian kids (see the aforementioned articles).

Who will be next to pull the same tricks? Xi Jinping? Kim Jung Un? Ayatollah Khamenei? Benjamin Netanyahu? Or one of Saudi Arabia’s ethically backwarded kings or princes?! It’s your pick!

As that is the main risk that Facebook, and the filter bubble they created, form: that people become influenced and ‘brainwashed’ to a point of no return. 
Nobody and nothing can influence their opinions with different news and different opinions anymore, simply due to these people being out of reach, living in their Facebook filter bubble.

It is like a hamburger lover who is forced to eat at McDonalds every single day, because all other restaurants are closed for him. He may still like it after a while, but in the end it might kill him.

That is the same with the filter bubble that Facebook introduced: when people don’t hear news and opinions anymore that counter (and even might throw over) their own opinions and dogma’s, they become brainwashed by their own truths and opinions in the end and stop thinking for themselves at all. In the end they become sheep, all listening to and obeying their demagogue leaders and opinion makers.

Hence the story of the German people in the time before and during the Second World War. These people were not all per sé bad or murderous (i.e. most weren’t in fact), but they all lived in their own filter bubble, presented to them by Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels and their utterly demagogue speeches and radio news. They all thought to fight for a good cause, as it was the only cause they had heard of.

It is a ‘blessing in disguise’ that Facebook at this moment is “only” hunting for your money via personalized ads and personalized services, as well as for all(!) your personal data and your deepest secrets, via your likes, your click and reading behaviour, the news feed that you like and via their sophisticated, deterministic software.

And it is a blessing in disguise too that Mark Zuckerberg – even though slightly creepy and robotic in his behaviour – is not a bad person (at least not now).

But we all should fear the day that Facebook ends up in the hands of people with less noble motives (i.e. like the Chinese or Russian goverment(?) or mob groups from all over the world). Then the massive stockpile of very personal information, coming from more than one billion people, might very well turn itself against us and threaten us in our very existence.

That is the reason that Facebook (and also Google) should perhaps been split up, like ITT and the Bell company in earlier years. And that for the simple reason that there is now too much information and too much power in only a few hands.

Competitors have only the slightest chance to survive the purchase and competitive power of Facebook and Google unharmed; when there is a new market, these companies will inevitably take it over. 

The fact that the global information and advertisement market is almost solely in these two hands and that Google and Facebook control the distribution of nearly all the ad money in the world(!), is eventually killing for the old ‘dead tree’ media, in their role as defenders of democracy and society of last resort.

And when there are no independent and unfiltered media anymore for the people of the world, all the truths and topical knowledge in the world will be sucked up into the Information Black Hole of Facebook and Google, to be distributed at their will.

And besides that: think about the small mom & pop webshops like the one of my neighbour Anita. All these webstores feel that their future is in the choking hands of the information supergiants Facebook and Google.

Think about that, when you entrust all your secrets to Facebook and Google...

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