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Big Tech’s unabated ‘arms race’ for attention is damaging our politics

By Mark Ouliaris (Policy Associate)

Why, on the eve of a federal election, does the passing of major, ambitious, and bipartisan reform seem an insurmountable challenge, regardless of who wins? It is not as if the Australian political system is structurally deficient to the point that it cannot be done—the same political system managed major reforms in the 1980s and early 1990s. And we have no shortage of problem areas today—from housing affordability to tax policy to anti-corruption—where big change would be welcomed.

I believe that a significant factor in the reduced reform capacity of our government is the growing influence of technology platforms. As more and more of us come to rely on platforms—whether it includes TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or something else—as our primary sources of information, so too do politicians rely on those same platforms to get their message out. And if you want to reach an audience, you have to optimise your message for the relevant platforms’ algorithms. So what do these algorithms encourage us to do?

The business models underlying digital platforms have one overarching goal—to capture and maintain user attention. User attention, in turn, maximises advertisements served and profits generated. Regardless of platform, the algorithm is designed to show you whatever content it thinks will keep you engaged—a reasonable ambition. 

Maximising for engagement, however, has dangerous side effects because, as a multitude of studies and investigative pieces have shown, content that embraces the extreme and sensational is more likely to earn higher engagement.

If I run for office and my political opponent unveils a moderate tax plan, I could respond with a reasoned, calm argument that highlights our mild ideological differences. But it wouldn’t be engaging enough to show up on anyone’s feed. Instead, if I ignore all context and scour the tax plan for a line I can misconstrue to characterise my opponent as a fascist—well, that might not be true, but it will get me a lot of engagement, eyes, and attention. 

This type of cynical exploitation was not possible in the past when our media landscape was dominated by fourth estate gatekeepers at television, radio, and newspapers. Given today’s incentives, however, it is no wonder that the most amplified, and thus the most influential voices on digital platforms, are often precisely those which are most radical, divisive, and sensationalist.

Lacking the guardrails and norms that have traditionally governed the public sphere, the reasoned, nuanced debate that has historically proven crucial to a healthy democracy has been warped beyond imagination. As mainstream culture gravitates online, the worst tendencies of this abrasive online culture have increasingly bled into our offline politics.

Today’s information ecosystem is toxic to democracy. The select few tech giants that have the power to unilaterally bend the tenor of public discourse do not share the same interests as the public as a whole. Big Tech is motivated to maximise attention capture in the quest for ever-greater profit, while the public interest in a common, shared set of facts to sustain meaningful public conversation is simply roadkill, collateral damage in their pursuit of views and profit.

Precisely what to do about this situation will likely be a subject of Blueprint’s future work. A systemic, structural solution starts with strengthening data rights. Algorithms only know how to keep us engaged because the platforms themselves act as a sophisticated system of personal data collection. That data is used to build a comprehensive profile that encapsulates our interests, vices, political leanings, triggers, and vulnerabilities. It is that surreptitiously collected information that social media empires are built on. 

Perhaps you disagree with me. Perhaps you think that the situation isn’t that bad. People do not rely on just social media for their information. They still listen to the radio, read the newspaper, and watch TV news. Besides, maybe we have other, more important problems to take care of. 

But ask yourself this: Does it seem, especially taking into account the COVID-19 experience, that we as a society are going to be any less reliant on digital platforms in the future? No? Then this problem is only going to get worse. The more we rely on digital platforms as a lens through which we experience reality and receive information, the more influence algorithms will have. 

If we are going to maintain a functioning democracy, we better make sure that those algorithms serve the public’s interests.

Mark Ouliaris is a Policy Associate at the Blueprint Institute.

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