We’re now in a period that’s strikingly reminiscent of the early days of HFT: the intersection of automation and social networking has given us manipulative bots and an epidemic of “fake news”. Just as HFT was a simplified boogeyman for finance, “fake news” is an imprecise term used to describe a variety of disingenuous content: clickbait, propaganda, misinformation, disinformation, hoaxes, and conspiracy theories.
Social networks enable malicious actors to operate at platform scale, because they were designed for fast information flows and virality. Bots and sockpuppets can be used to manipulate conversations, or to create the illusion of a mass groundswell of grassroots activity, with minimal effort. It’s incredibly easy to deploy bots into a hashtag to spread or to disrupt a message — quote stuffing the conversation the way a malicious HFT algorithm quote stuffs the order book of a stock. It’s easy to manipulate ratings or recommendation engines, to create networks of sockpuppets with the goal of subtly shaping opinions, preying on proximity bias and confirmation bias.
In fact, until a very notable event in November 2016, there was no public acknowledgement by Twitter, Facebook, or Google that there even was a problem. Prior to the U.S. Presidential election, tech companies managed to move fast and break things in pursuit of user satisfaction and revenue, but then fell back on slippery-slope arguments to explain why it was too difficult to rein in propaganda campaigns, harassment, bots, etc. They chose to pretend that algorithmic manipulation was a nonissue, so that they bore no responsibility for the downstream effects. Technology platforms are simply hosts of the content; they don’t create it. But as malicious actors get more sophisticated, and it becomes increasingly difficult for regular people to determine who or what they’re communicating with, there will be a profound erosion of trust in social networks.
Markets can’t function without trust.
There are some good analogies and ideas in that article. But the nut of it is that technology companies like Twitter and Facebook have failed to serve their users because users are only important if they read ads and buy crap. But somewhere, deep down inside of these companies are people with families and friends that they are hurting by in-action. Zuckerberg and Dorsey may have been idealistic at some point. But now I see them as gluttons consuming the world for their egos.
Remember when we didn’t call things “long-reads” like it was a warning? Danger! This link has more than one paragraph! ↩︎