Jamie Bartlett

The Facebook scandal exposes our politicians’ technical illiteracy

The Facebook scandal exposes our politicians' technical illiteracy
Text settings

Imagine a world in which all politicians were computer scientists. What a dreary dystopia that would be. It’s hard to think of anything worse than a nation ruled by people with PhDs in machine learning.  

That said, politicians do need to know something about the digital world. It’s no longer good enough for our elected representatives to feign technical illiteracy, throw up their arms in defeat, and ask the office twenty-something to fix it. Every professional thinks politicians are clueless about their particular area of expertise – doctors complain that MPs are medically illiterate, teachers moan that they don't get pedagogy and so on. But a special case can be made for upping the digital literacy of our elected, because unlike the many, many subjects about which our politicians know little, digital technology increasingly concerns foundational questions of accountability, fairness, and abuse of power. And to answer these questions today increasingly requires some degree of technological know-how.

Later today, the DCMS committee, led by the increasingly impressive Damian Collins, will be grilling Facebook’s Chief Technical Office over the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal. Collins is a notable exception, a politician who’s clearly decided to learn about all this. Too many haven’t bothered. Mark Zuckerberg’s recent testimony to the US Senate reminded me of Roger Federer neatly dispatching some first round semi-competent opposition at Wimbledon. At times it was embarrassing. Senator Orrin Hatch (Utah) asked Zuckerberg whether Facebook would always be free. ‘If so’ he wondered, ‘how do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your services’? Zuckerberg replied: ‘Senator, we run ads’. I don’t expect Senator Hatch to grill Zuck on the technicalities of the newsfeed algorithm, but this sort of inquisition is wasting everyone’s time. I’ve lost count of how many politicians simply demand – as Jeremy Hunt did earlier this week – that some techy dude builds some techy algorithm to fix some massive social problem. In last week’s debate about anti-Semitism, Diane Abbott – potentially our next Home Secretary – suggested that Facebook and Twitter should keep a record of every users’ name and address. Is that really a good idea, given what we now know about data use?  

What, then, is a reasonable level of know-how for politicians to do their job of holding tech firms to account, of thoughtfully discussing digital problems and opportunities, and of writing law? Too many people think this is all impossibly complicated. It’s not. Even just a handful of basic concepts could go a long way.

First every politician needs to roughly understand what an algorithm is (rules based instructions for a programme) and roughly how they work. This should probably include some understanding of what they are generally good at (repetitive, rules-based tasks) and what they are not (unpredictable ones). All politicians should also know how representative – or not – various social media platforms are of real human beings. It’s important that they aren’t suckered into believing every Brietbart or Sqwawkbox viral represents what actual ordinary people think. 

Second every politician should also know how the online advertising system works. Facebook doesn’t ‘sell data’ – it sells access to users. It offers services such as ‘lookalike audiences’ which allows advertisers to upload customer data and then target similarish people. (Trump’s campaign team were especially effective at this). In fact, the whole online advertising ecosystem – whereby a micro-auction is held every time you hit refresh – is vital to understand, because it is central to the interests and concerns of social media companies.  

It’s not all technicalities of course. Third, politicians should also understand how internet communities and groups actually work. I have spent a lot of time in most internet subcultures that worry politicians – anonymous drugs markets, pro-anorexia sites, neo-Nazi forums, and the rest. They’re never quite what you expect. If you’re going to write law about them, why not visit them yourself?

I’m not expecting much. I don’t want a bunch of computer guys running the country. It’s important than non-technical people are involved in these discussions. Politicians should be generalists – as representatives, that’s their job. But they must also be of their time. At the moment, sadly, most of them still live in another era. 

Jamie Bartlett is the author of The People Vs Tech, out now with Ebury