Life in a social world

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Director of Research at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism talks about privacy, Cambridge Analytica, Facebook, ad targeting and political campaigns.

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There are two fundamental values that are in clear tension in the way in which digital media operate today, where one is our desire for highly personalized and tailored services, that are convenient, that fit our needs and that serve us content that we're interested in, advertising that might be aligned with things we are actually interested in, and then our interest in privacy and data protection. GDPR is an attempt by the European Union to shift the balance away from an internet that has been premised on very large scale data collection, to enable the provision of highly personalized services, with the potential risk that people were unaware of the degree to which their privacy was being compromised, by large scale data collection on the internet, and put more emphasis on protecting the privacy of individuals, ensuring that data that is collected is not misused and first, and foremost, the most important, ensure that there's always clear and unambiguous consent to the kind of data that is being collected and the ways in which it's being put to use. The consequences of GDPR for news distribution and news provision is yet to be seen, we know that increasingly, people expect the content they see on the internet to be personalized and tailored to their particular interests, and that personalization is premised on the collection of data. So, if GDPR turns out to seriously undermine technology companies and media organizations ability to collect data on individuals, with their consent, as the GDPR rightly requires, it'll also undermine their ability to effectively personalize content and thus let people see less relevant material and material that is less appealing to them. The other side of this is the economic underpinning of the way in which information is provided online, which is overwhelmingly still relying on advertising, and that advertising in turn is premised on targeting, based on the collection of private information. Here again, the question is: what is the balance that would be struck between the commercial considerations that require some form of data collection and then the entirely legitimate and fundamental right of citizens to make sure that their privacy is respected, and that their consent is secured, before data is collected on them. We are yet to see really how this is going to play out in terms of digital advertising space, whether post GDPR we are going to continue to see advertisers find that digital media and targeted advertising online, is the most attractive platform for them and thus continues to move money into this environment, to fund technology companies but also, of course importantly, the provision of journalism.



We are working through these years, I think, in a very large scale of public conversation around the infrastructures of free expression and the private companies that provide much of that infrastructure: Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and other companies like them. It's clear that revelations, like the revelations around Cambridge Analytica’s collection of data from Facebook and over their retention and re use of this data for political purposes, provides an occasion for a public discussion around what kind of infrastructure is that we want for free expression, and what kinds of trade-offs are we comfortable with, and what kind of responsibilities do we expect the private companies that provide much of this infrastructure to take on, and how do we judge them when they fall short of honoring those responsibilities. It's clear that while there's been no measurable effect, so far, on the overall use of Facebook, of the revelations around the way in which came Cambridge Analytica collected the data and made use of that data. It's clear that it is one of several stories, that is beginning to change many people's perception of the company and the way in which the company protects the privacy and interests of its users. Now, will Facebook be able to respond effectively and convince people that they are trustworthy stewards of their best interest? We will see, these are early days and Facebook is clearly responding on a very large scale to these revelations, whether they can convince users that they have their best interests at heart is an open question. Another side of this discussion is the way in which different generations perceive the media that they rely on. Facebook initially was a media primarily oriented for younger users, it's clear that over time it has become ubiquitous, it's now a platform for almost everybody with internet access. A very large share of the European population is using Facebook across all generations and all groups. This is changing the perception, for many younger generations, of how they use this platform and the role they play in their life so we're seeing people move away from Facebook. Not entirely, but to move some activities out of this large platform to more specialized tools, whether messaging applications or photo sharing sites like Instagram, micro blogging sites like Twitter or Snapchat, and the like, to write at different platforms that they then use for different specialized purposes. So, Facebook is still central, but we see people move out to all these other environments. In part, because Facebook through its growth has become quite an unmanageable space for some of us, where we are connected both with close friends and more casual acquaintances, both with perhaps our parents as well as other members of our family, professional connections, people we have come across on holidays, and the environment of a social media platform where everything we do, unless we control the purposes settings quite closely, is available to all these very different people, makes it a very difficult space to navigate socially, so we see this emphasis on quite, sort of, inoffensive content on Facebook, and people then moving more potentially controversial conversations out in more private spaces, like messaging apps, like WhatsApp, where people can control more carefully who do I talk to about what, while we stick to the generally appealing, quite soft stuff on Facebook. Baby pictures, what we have for dinner, or a nice vacation, something we like or didn't like on TV last night, we see these more private and edgy conversation moved to more private spaces, where people can control who they talk to and what they talk about.



It's really, really important to focus on the way in which political parties and political campaigns themselves, have actively made use of the way in which our data, as individual citizens, is collected online and the way in which it enabled all sorts of different actors, whether advertises a news organization, a social movement or interest groups or, in this case, political campaigns and political parties to target their communications, to tailor their messages and to reach people in a very sort of narrow way, if that's what they seek to do. These technologies are most developed in the United States and less developed in many other parts of the world. I would say there are several main reasons why this is so. First of all, in the United States, we have incredibly well funded political campaigns, that wage very high stakes battle for the most important political offices in the world. The U. S. presidency, for example, and those are able to spend literally tens on sometimes more than tens of millions of dollars on building up their data infrastructures and their targeting capacities. There's nothing in Europe like this. So, first of all it is about money. The American campaigns are much, much more well funded, and are seeking every advantage in a very high stakes game over who gets to occupy the White House. The second side of this, essentially, is a question of a history of the individualized targeting, where in the US, because it's a two-party race and where turnout is often very low, the premium is very much in mobilizing your partisans. You win, essentially, by turning out your base in every single local matter in a two-party first past the post system, again most of Europe is very different from this. Multi-party elections, much higher turn out, so the emphasis is less in mobilization and less as individual targeting, and much more about the ways in which different politicians can convince the public that they represent a narrative that is appealing for the common good, and for the identity and values of individual citizens. Finally, of course, there is a regulatory backdrop to this, which is that for a long time, even before GDPR, the traditions of data protection and privacy in Europe and the United States have been very different. In the United States, the government itself collects voter files, that are made available to political campaigns. Very detailed information, that provides the spine of all this targeting online, that's not primarily about digital technology, really, is about voter files the state collects and make available to political campaigns. In most of Europe, political parties do not have access to this kind of data, because the state does not collect information and make it available to political campaigns. This means that the spine that enables the kind of fine grain targeting we see in US campaigns, is often not really possible to the same extent in Europe, where political parties don't have access to this kind of state-provided individual-leveled data.