top of page

Education in digital information, a key element of our "societal transition"

By  Baptiste Carpentier and Thomas Busuttil - 02/02/2017

Opinion makers have changed: 51% of global internet users say they use social media as a source of information

Opinion makers have changed


51% of global Internet users say they use social networks as a source of information (12% even make it their main source of information[1]). And they are 28% among 18-24 year olds, an age group that considers television today as secondary in access to information.

In a world where Facebook has 1.71 billion active users per month, 1 billion for YouTube, 500 million for Instagram or even 313 million for Twitter, we can see to what extent traditional media are dominated and will continue to be overtaken by this tidal wave of immediacy and virality. These two characteristics which make it possible to clearly distinguish the media of yesterday, which took the time to write and reflect, from the social networks where the act of drawing information first is almost as important as information as such.

In this context, one can ask the question of the role of “opinion maker” of Facebook and its colleagues. And especially what the substitution of old media by this new media order entails as consequences even though users are often far too little informed about uses and their consequences (what the Anglo-Saxons rightly call media literacy).


Small groups with considerable influence


That social networks supplant traditional media is, as such, nothing shocking or revolting, especially since they also have a number of advantages and benefits for users, be it speed of information or the freedom of expression they offer. But there has long been something awkward about the speed of the spread and the bliss of society in the face of social networks. Because the endless discussions on the videos of small cats are one thing, just like the stranglehold of the GAFA on the personal data of billions of people. But what would happen if in the end the power of these actors was used (almost) without their knowledge?

A recent article by Rue89[2] perfectly illustrated this already, unfortunately, well-established reality. This article, originally a post from Olivier Ertzscheid's blog, tells how a far-right group allegedly managed to hijack Facebook's content filtering algorithm to remove the testimony of a victim of police violence during of a demonstration against the labor law. Indeed, by declaring this content as not respecting community standards, a small organized group of individuals would have carried out a Massive Denial of Opinion Attack (or DDoO, see the definition of DDoS[3] attacks to understand the parallel with the practices of certain hackers) and to have the post automatically removed by the algorithm (algorithm which is mainly based on the number and frequency of this type of declaration).

This raises fundamental questions, firstly, about the transparency of Facebook and its colleagues on algorithmic processing and, consequently, about the will, philosophical or even political, of these players, who must also respond like any company to pressure of their shareholders.

Secondly, this type of action shows that it is possible to carry out real censorship by circumventing the operation of the platforms, which constitutes a serious attack on one of the foundations of our democracies. It is thus a long time ago when one could smile when reading the latest case of Google bombing (ancestors of DDoO) or virtual vandalism[4]…


The birth of “social disinformation” networks…


Beyond the DDoO carried out by organized groups of rather small size, one can also ask the question of the mass movements which result from this type of action or more broadly from the use of social networks. And the identification as "word of the year" by the post-truth Oxford dictionary following, in particular, always the election of Trump, but also Brexit, is revealing of what is being played out on the web. This term refers to “the primacy of the emotional over the objectivity of the facts in shaping public opinion”[5]. It perfectly illustrates the persistent and even growing lack of confidence of the population, and of users of social networks, in particular vis-à-vis traditional media and politicians. Put in parallel with the phenomenon of "illusion of the majority"[6] of social networks, which transforms a rare or even exceptional case or situation into something common, we can quickly end up with a shift from the social network towards disinformation. network, which is all the more worrying since it is instantaneous and difficult to control, as we have seen with the case of DDoOs. It even makes The Verge news site say that Trump is turning Twitter into a state-run disinformation[7] machine now that he's elected. However, we can ask ourselves the question of the responsibility of users vis-à-vis the step back they could take from the outrageous remarks that the candidate and now President Trump[8] may have made...


… and a blurring of the boundaries between real and virtual


We can continue to look for what will shape public opinion on social networks tomorrow. Because the game of influence is probably only beginning with this new weapon represented by Facebook, Twitter and the others. But perhaps most important to observe is the blurring of boundaries between real and virtual. Let's take the example of connected objects and artificial intelligence with Google Home, Cortana (Microsoft's Home Hub) or LG's latest Robot Hub presented at CES in Las Vegas. These tools, which should be present in the near future in all homes with an Internet connection, are in the process of being structured and acquiring the necessary skills to enable them, tomorrow, to make the basic decisions that will simplify your life: ordering detergent because your stock is exhausted, canceling an appointment with the hairdresser because you are sick, etc.


But what about deeper, “existential” decisions? Shouldn't we be concerned about the ability to manipulate, or rather influence (let's stay positive because technology offers wonderful opportunities!) of a tool that will select the articles or LinkedIn posts for us to read during breakfast or will we optimize our agenda and suggest the “right” people to meet? And it's not just a whim of a few technophiles or geeks, these innovations of today will be part of our daily lives tomorrow. We can clearly see here that when it comes to influence, borders are disappearing and that it is probably more relevant to extend the scope of observation and vigilance to the entire digital ecosystem.


Significant risks of losing our societal achievements and our ability to meet the challenges of tomorrow


These new media are at the same time a great opportunity for NGOs to be more visible and to have more weight in public opinion. You only have to look at the latest L214 campaigns to realize that the association is largely surfing on the post-truth... But at the same time we must remain vigilant because the risks of "euphemizing the real" are very present in our society which is increasingly subject to fear and mistrust. We must remain vigilant because what we may take for granted may no longer be so tomorrow. This is the case of climate change in the United States, for example, whose anthropogenic origin and speed have been questioned by the candidate Trump, with the influence that we can imagine on his 16.9 million followers and even well beyond with the media coverage it enjoys. And we could broaden the reflection to human rights, animal welfare, the right to abortion (cf. the offense of obstructing abortion and the law voted by the National Assembly on December 1, 2016 [9]), welcoming refugees, and many more.

It is interesting to see that lobbyists are probably no longer the people that civil society and the most militant must fight. Because with the pragmatism that characterizes them, they still spend the majority of their time seducing politicians in the backyards of the National Assembly or the European Commission while the playing field of influence has changed and is today much larger today.

The influence of social networks and tools created by the major digital players could call into question the great societal achievements of our democracies and our ability to meet the challenges of tomorrow by allowing the denial of situations and observations that are nevertheless very real. They constitute, if no vigilance is put in place in terms of uses, formidable machines to feed immobility and conservatism when a transition must be set in motion.


For a true digital education and the development of digital activism in favor of the common good


As more and more signals show us (increasing scale of natural disasters, chronic lack of water in different regions of the world, conflicts for access to natural resources, increase in the number of cancers or people suffering from obesity , rise of nationalism, etc.), a transition towards a more sober, more respectful and why not happier society must begin. Some actors are already working on it, but we realize through what has been said previously that social networks and digital tools are absolutely key to engaging and ensuring the role of catalyst for this transition. Above all, it is not a question of going against the development of digital technology and connectivity, but of ensuring that they do not alienate users (and therefore citizens) and do not dispossess them of their reason and their critical sense.

This is why it seems necessary to campaign for a real digital education that goes well beyond learning how to use the web and good practices in the protection of personal data. It is necessary to favor the taking of a permanent step back vis-à-vis the "algocracy" which is taking shape, to develop a critical sense in relation to the post-truth, to the euphemization of reality, to the denial of opinion and all the other concepts and approaches that are still unknown to us. This is why, even if a framework for the practices of the major digital players remains imperative and unavoidable, the real issue concerns the behavior of users, because they are the ones who must have the keys to public opinion and the keys to engage the transition. This is to rebalance the discretionary power of platforms and other powers of the digital world. Because basically, what the case of denial of opinion shows is that Facebook does not control everything, that it is not all-powerful. There is a vast space for digital activism to unfold. In all that it can have of positive. Some NGOs, as we have seen, have started to do this, but we can all, at our level of ordinary citizens, continue to take the time to read in-depth articles, to take a step back from the movements of opinion following Trump's last post and to act on the web to counteract these dynamics of misinformation and take advantage of the richness of the networks and exchanges offered by the "Web".

bottom of page