Interview to Philip Howard
“Part of the problem is that when we want to learn about politics, we tend to choose sources of information that we already like, or politicians that we voted for last time”.
Philip Howard, @pnhoward
Por José Luis Izaguirre, @jl_izaguirre92 y Laura Casado
Philip Howard is an influential investigator of the impact digital media has on political life around the world. He is a Professor in the Oxford Internet Institute and a fellow at Columbia University in the United Status. Besides his academic career, he is a frequent commentator on global media and political affairs in different media platforms.
He has published many books, articles and has collaborated in different research projects on information technology, international affairs and public life and how these three elements interact. Some of his pieces focus on the influence of bots in politics and public opinion, a very current issue
Professor Howard will be one of the main speakers at the 5th International Political Communication Congress in Bilbao this June.
You have focused much of your research on information technology and its impact on international affairs. How would you describe the impact of digital media on political life around the world?
This topic has been very important. I do not believe we can talk about political life now without telling some story via social media or the Internet. Part of the Internet Technology is how you learn about politics. It is how young people make their political identity. In some countries, it provides the mechanisms by which we vote, while in others it provides a mechanism of social control. Therefore, it is very difficult to talk about modern politics without making room for the story of technology.
In what way can this affect democracies or authoritarian regimes?
The first important part is that the technology has an impact when it is used to manipulate public opinion. And this mechanism is fairly straightforward: as a politician, you make a message and you give to a small part of the population. Then you make another message where you could say the opposite and you give this to another part. Nevertheless, the different parts do not see each other. Part of the problem is that when we want to learn about politics, we tend to choose sources of information that we already like, or politicians that we voted for last time. This is called selective exposure or elective affinity. Precisely, Facebook, Twitter and politicians take advantage of this psychological habit and they can fragment democratic publics very quickly.
In authoritarian regimes, I suppose the mechanism is the same: dictators will send several different messages to several different populations, and they do not hear the other messages and that is what makes the maintenance of social control possible.
Some social media platforms, like Facebook or Twitter, are aware of the problems bots create and are trying to remove them. However, this task becomes harder as bots are becoming more developed, sophisticated and harder to detect. Are these platforms responsible of the issue?
They are certainly becoming more aware of it because there is now so much research about it. Moreover, in many countries there have been congressional or parliamentary enquiries about this problem. Every country that is having some kind of investigation is worried someway about the impact of social media in public life. The question of whether they are doing something about it. I think we are in a difficult moment where the platforms are doing different things in different countries. For example, Facebook will try some new program in Canada, but they will not make it in Spain; or they will change the platform in the United States, but maybe they will not do it in France.
Some of the innovations are good, but many of them are very small tweaks. We do not have the sense that they are changing the platform overall in some deep structural way that would be good for democracy.
What strategy would you suggest to the companies that manage these international social media platforms?
To the platforms, l would say there are a few things we know are good for public life. For example, it is fairly easy to identify junk or fake news. There are very good news sources and there are very bad news sources. The ones in the middle can be difficult to identify, but the very bad ones are easy to identify, and some effort could be put to squeeze them out. There is no reason they should have such a large volume of the news shares.
The second thing is that Facebook doesn’t provide information on political ads that are a bot on this platform. In most countries, politicians must make a disclosure of their ads, and the media usually takes a copy of the ad at the end of the election and gives it to an archive. This way anyone later can go and see all the ads that were paid for. Facebook doesn’t do this either; it doesn’t create this archive. Therefore, some basic things like these could be good for many democracies. In many democracies, we also expect the media to run public service ads.
One in ten ads on television in many countries are supposed to be for health, welfare or education. Not all ads, just one in ten. But Facebook does not do this either. Thus, there are some of these things that we expect that are media to do, but Facebook and the other social media lack but probably could do.
There have been recent cases, like the Cambridge Analytica case, that have shown evidence of how unprotected Internet users are when sharing data and personal information online. Due to one of these scandals, the co-founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, has had to declare before the US Congress and Senate. Do you think citizens should be educated on Internet risks and on how to identify bots in order to maintain democracy as we understand it and to be able to make more informed decisions and therefore avoid manipulation?
Citizens need to be better at identifying bots. Journalists have done a good job educating the public about the problems, about what’s going on. Many social media users now know what a bot is and what it could do. Obviously, citizens do need to be smarter about the media that they consume, but there is still a structural problem which is that Facebook serves junk news to large members of users and much of that content is designed to be specifically appealing to you. So, now they will have your credit card records, and your health records, and they make a message that is directly relevant for you. And sometimes you can spot they are using your account. However, one in ten maybe or one in a hundred gets through and you share this one with your friends.
I think the other problem that partially applies is that in some countries we have politicians who make fake news. They say things that are ridiculous and wrong, or they share junk news content. That makes the content go from just being between bots to be humans.
During your prolific academic career, you have published several books and articles, all of them with great relevance and practical use. If you had to recommend a piece of your own writing to a world leader of your choice, which one would it be and to whom?
I would probably want to recommend Pax Technica. This is my favourite recent book about technology and the big decisions ahead. When I think about the politicians I would want to influence, the two who come to mind are Justin Trudeau, in Canada, mostly because I am Canadian, and perhaps Macron, because I think he is a good strong centrist who is likely to be around for a while. That’s what I think and hope.
Could you give our readers a sneak peek of what you will be addressing in the 5th International Political Communication Congress in Bilbao this June?
I am going to talk about junk news as a global problem. I believe us, researchers, even journalists, tend to think of junk news as a problem from November 2016 in the United States, or a problem from June 2016 in Brexit and the decision they made. Yet, this year along there are six elections in Latin America, the European Parliament in 2019, and in India, Indonesia, Brazil, etc. There are important elections coming that are ahead of us. I think the people in Russia who are behind some of the junk news campaigns in the West shoot to the targets. The work in the UK and the work in the US are done. Nevertheless, it is other democratic allies around the world that are now the targets. These are the countries we should be looking at next.