UBC assistant professor Taylor Owen spoke about the negative impact of social media technology at a conference held Friday at UBC Okanagan. Photo: Barry Gerding/Black Press

Dark side of the internet being exposed

UBC prof says our democracy and economy faces social media governance challenges

The innocent novelty of the internet providing a voice for public discourse is now showing its darker side, becoming a threat to both our democracy and economy, says a UBC assistant professor.

Taylor Owen, who has focused his research efforts on the implications of emerging digital technologies for state power and control, says the internet 25 years later has evolved from a public forum to being controlled by a few major platforms, such as Google and Facebook, that have found a lucrative way to monetize our collected online data for both the political and economic advantage of their clients.

“The end result is the structural problems that exist today are allowing bad actors to use these platforms that threaten our democracy by dividing people into fragmented groups politically,” said Owen, citing how that has allowed fringe political groups to connect with a like-minded audience and augment the propensity of fake news.

“We have started to see the fragmentation and radicalization of our populations.”

RELATED: Social media addiction damaging to youth

Owen offered an update of the technological revolution in how we communicate at a two-day conference entitled “Human, Machines and the Future of Work,” hosted at UBC Okanagan campus on Friday.

Owen said while the public debate tends to focus on content and how it should be interpreted between reality and fiction, he said more attention needs to be spent on how the Internet industry is currently structured, something the big player platforms in the social media world don’t want attention drawn to.

Owen said what is different from the earlier development years of the Internet is not the sharing of information, regardless of the content, but how big data is using our data reading and consumer habits to make money while “nudging” us to act or think in certain ways.

“The big players have found a way to make money off the Internet through data collection. Artificial intelligence now plays a role in tracking what we do online, and using that information to sell to others seeking to reach a particular audience,” Owen said.

“Facebook places a commercial value of $28 a month on every North American user, $16 for Europe and $1.50 for the rest of the world. So after year after year of 20 per cent plus growth, Facebook user growth has stagnated the last two years, which may be a sign we are starting to see a backlash against how our data is being used and the privacy issues that debate opens up.

“What we need to be asking ourselves is when we open up Facebook, why we are seeing the information that is targeted to us individually and how that is being done.”

RELATED: Reporter calls out immigration photo on social media as fake news

Owen said in the U.S., where the Internet has little governance oversight, the impact of social media’s negative influence is being played out in how political debate in that country has become polarized, fake news has become a national talking point and people are losing any sense of objectivity.

“If you look at the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton had millions to spend on her campaign and was in tight with the major social media platforms perhaps in a questionable way, yet Trump prevailed in the election with less resources but an understanding of how to communicate his message directly to his voters,” said Owen.

He cited Trump’s use of the Cambridge Analytical resources to target 50,000 micro-ads on a daily basis during the campaign, and the Russian influence where Facebook groups were set up a year in advance to build a following and two days before the election those sites began posting information to suppress interest among Clinton supporters to vote.

“That information was weaponized in such a way for political advantage that it impacted the election,” he said.

RELATED: Has social media passed its peak?

He said corporate shareholders and private citizens are beginning to understand the implications of monetizing and target marketing our data, and the pushback for government intervention will feed off that growing resentment.

“I think one of those points of no return is the idea that money is being made of white nationalism and white genocide target marketing, which I think for a lot of people is just going to far, to where we start asking in greater numbers what is the impact of all this collected data and what damage is it imposing on our dmocratic government,” he said.

He feels self-regulation among the big industry players will never work, in the same way that self-regulation didn’t work for U.S. financial firms and ultimately triggered a financial collapse back in 2008, leaving network governance that speaks to privacy rights and how our data can be monetized in a more transparent way.



barry.gerding@blackpress.ca

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Investigators comb through Chilliwack house following standoff

RCMP say investigation involves report of an early morning shooting

Fraser Valley Health Foundation annouces fifth annual golf tourney

Proceeds will benefit medical facilites across the Valley

No need to get out of your car at food truck festival in Abbotsford and Langley

Annual event takes drive-thru approach during COVID-19 pandemic

Chilliwack dad rescues his two young daughters after truck plunges into Cultus Lake

“I used every single one of my angels that day,” said Dennis Saulnier

District warns residents to be prepared for floods

Fraser River may reach levels at highest in 8 years, forecast says

22 new COVID-19 test-positives, one death following days of low case counts in B.C.

Health officials urged British Columbians to ‘stand together while staying apart’

Facing changes together: Your community, your journalists

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world in ways that would have… Continue reading

Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation woman, 26, fatally shot by police in Edmundston, N.B.

Police were conducting a well-being check at the time of the incident

Stray dog with duct tape around muzzle spotted in Abbotsford

Pooch has been spotted over two days, but has escaped capture so far

Seniors to receive up to $500 in promised COVID-19 emergency aid in early July

The Liberal government first promised the extra help in mid-May, but had to create a new system to deliver the aid

VIDEO: Revelstoke bear wanders into Animal House pet store

Staff got ready to chase it out with a broom

New study is first full list of species that only exist in Canada

Almost 40 per cent of them are critically imperilled or imperilled and eight are already extinct

White Rock council considers allowing alcohol in waterfront park

Council mulls business-boosting measures, including picnic benches

Most Read