Social networks, architects of the degradation of public debate

Manipulating news trends on Twitter, using recommender algorithms for political purposes, meddling in election campaigns from abroad, amplifying divisions, destabilizing democracies… The list of things that can be done with digital politics is very long. But these same tools offer researchers unprecedented insight into these disturbing phenomena. This is shown by researcher David Chavalarias in toxic data, published at the beginning of March 2022. This essay, sometimes paralyzing detailed operations, is also fed by the Politoscope, a tool for monitoring the French political twitter sphere (16 million accounts tracked), mentioned several times in our columns (in an article published earlier in Science and the future and our colleagues from Study), and the author of which is the supervisor.

Sciences et Avenir: With Politoscope, you work on the French political sphere of Twitter, but your book starts with the American case, the January 6, 2021 riots at the Capitol in Washington. Why ?

David Chavalarias: I have worked for many years on social and influence dynamics, of which the Politoscope project is a part, but I have never had time to collect my observations. The trigger was the explosion of American democracy, the sudden events on Capitol Hill. This was the culmination of a long escalation in public debate that echoes what has been seen in France, especially since the Covid-19 pandemic. I told myself that it was time to generalize my research in order to linearly understand the phenomena related to complex systems.

The interest of social platforms lies in providing access to a large amount of data, we are not talking about the use of databases intended for research, much less “hacking”. But what data are we talking about?

Indeed, there is a lot of data on forums or social networks. Unfortunately, most of their data is closed. Only Twitter is almost the only major social network offering an API. (software interface that allows you to “plug” one software into another to exchange data and functions, editor’s note) to extract content. This is why so many studies use Twitter. Facebook has a time limit for collecting data from users and their friends. This is what led to the Cambridge Analytica case that industrialized this collection. Facebook has since shut down everything. As for the forum, some of them like Reddit also offer an API, but for the most part nothing is offered. When possible, very specifically, we recover all text content, images, videos, interaction data (who responds to whom), but also, very importantly, the timestamp and sometimes, albeit very rarely, geolocation.

How has this digital environment changed how researchers work?

Previously, in order to understand social dynamics, it was necessary to conduct surveys, questionnaires, which could be cumbersome to set up and expensive. There we have social networks that have become a space for discussions, debates and even deals. Through these interactions, we can observe social dynamics and better understand social structures. The result will not necessarily be equivalent to physical reality, but we can accurately compare them. And all this in cohorts of several hundred thousand people.

Your book aims to demonstrate the impact of digital technology on reality. Was this vision always real?

For a long time, the prevailing view in the academic world was that what happens in one case has no consequences for another. But with the introduction of digital technologies in all sectors of society, we understand that this is not true. The question doesn’t even come up anymore. The beginning of this realization, “roughly speaking”, we can date the Arab spring, 2011. In France, especially after the Yellow Vests movement. The question today is rather how digital infrastructures change social relations in the physical world.

Could the assault on the Capitol in January 2021 take place without digital tools?

I do not think. It must be understood that the assault on the Capitol is the culmination of a digital strategy deployed by the Kremlin and the government over the years.alternative law American (part of the American extreme right, approx. ed.), reinforced by the design bias of major digital platforms. Before the US presidential election in 2016, there was a first stage with Donald Trump’s digital propaganda and false information spread by far-right activists. As part of this digital campaign, the country’s divisions were algorithmically enhanced, to which were added manipulations organized by Vladimir Putin. These important elements of the decline of American democracy could not have happened without social media, at least not on this scale.

In a previous interview, you told us: “Until then, people had their own opinions. Soon they will have their own facts.”. Have we come to this?

This is already the case in the US. For example, more than half of Republicans believe that the election was stolen by Biden. In France, this phenomenon has been identified in connection with the Covid-19 health crisis. We operate in a digital environment where most of the information that the Internet user accesses no longer comes from active search, but is offered to him by platforms in accordance with the logic of recommendation, personalization and algorithmic targeting. However, these proposals are made in accordance with the economic needs of the platform, and not the needs of Internet users. Basically, if the platform detects that you are feeling bad, but this allows it to show you ads related to that condition, it is in its interest to keep you acting bad! Except that this logic applies to all human interactions… There is no need to doubt the desire to cause harm to explain the deteriorating climate on the Internet. The sole purpose of profit optimization platforms is enough.

Social networks, being private companies, can their services be regulated?

The question must be asked whether communication spaces throughout the country should be a public or private good. Let’s take an analogy: before the invention of airplanes, the sky belonged to no one. Then airlines, mostly private ones, invested in it. However, it was unimaginable to allow everyone to decide on their own the routes their planes would fly, because of the risk this posed to the population. State authorities intervened to regulate the use of the sky, in particular through air corridors. In the same way, there is nothing to prevent government agencies from regulating the digital space, since poor governance can seriously damage the collective interests. For example, if this administration goes so against democratic principles that there will be no more democracy.

We will oppose freedom of speech…

The aspect of freedom of expression that we are talking about here is the recognized human right to spread, regardless of frontiers, one’s ideas to others. We could apply this concept to social networks if we were sure that all ideas are distributed equally, without distortion, among the user’s surroundings. But this is not the case, and I give many examples in Toxic Data. Social networks decide in a non-transparent way how a word is broadcast or amplified. That is why the concept of freedom of expression does not apply here. Until the algorithms that govern content distribution become transparent, there will be no freedom of speech on Big Tech platforms.

In the “Kremlin Documents” case (an operation by Russian services to destabilize the American political system launched in 2014, uncovered in July 2021 The keeper, approx. ed.), a US Senate investigation found that the Russian government put pressure on the 2016 presidential election campaign. There was sabotage using completely legal means in a democracy. It’s documented. But if not for the investigation, we would never have known. And even. Facebook and Twitter cooperated, but not Google, which only provided unreadable PDFs to investigators.

You recently published Politoscope maps regarding the ongoing war in Ukraine. What do we see in the French political tweetosphere about this?

Very interesting (see the map on the topic of the war in Ukraine on the Politoscope website, ed.). Because with every political or social conflict, with every division that unfolds in society, I wonder if actors like Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin are intensifying, supporting or even initiating division. However, this time we have news directly related to Russia. Then we see the activation of the same thousands of accounts that systematically fueled divisions in France (over Covid-19, freedom convoys, Guadeloupe, etc.), but this time to convey the Kremlin’s story! All Kremlin propaganda published on websites in Russian is transferred to the French Twittersphere. Through the accounts of unknown people, as well as individuals who opened the store.

These people don’t necessarily work for Vladimir Putin, the Russians don’t pull all the strings, there’s no need to even promote this hypothesis. All it takes is a convergence of interests that some are trying to steer the country down a path other than democracy.

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