Sneaky way to control the narrative

Published February 9, 2021, 9:07 AM

by Professor Rom Feria

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Imagine a health conference on lung cancer sponsored by tobacco companies. How do you think that would go? Topics like what causes lung cancer will be on the agenda, but no mention of how tobacco is one of the major causes, or risk getting that sponsorship money revoke. Now talk about an event about how to be safe on the internet being sponsored by the companies that profit from using algorithms that push hate, disinformation, violence, and abuse, among others, how do you think that will go?

Around this time each year, the internet celebrates the Safer Internet Day — a day when internet users, specially children, are taught how to be safe online. Whilst the internet brings a lot of good for most, just like the real, physical world, it also brings a lot of bad. In the same capacity to amplify the good in people, the internet’s capacity to amplify the bad is even worse (and later you will find out what makes it disgustingly worse)— the pseudo-anonymity of using an alias more often shows the dark side of humanity. In the real, physical world, a lot of times, you think twice before saying something that might offend someone, but online, you hit send before even thinking twice. And the absence of social cues and context, it is even worse. This is where users need to understand that the rules online are the same as in the real, physical world — “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, or simply “be kind”. 

Just like in the real, physical world, the internet has its share of abusers, bullies, criminals, you name it, they’re online. And because they are behind a keyboard, they are braver and bolder. How do you protect yourself from them? 

First off, know where they are — the first thing is to avoid going to online sites where these bad elements are, right? Why would you subject yourself to danger in the first place? Most online abuse and bullying happen on sites that allow unmoderated discussions, where these bad elements can freely do their thing. The most popular online sites are Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter. A quick DuckDuckGo search showed a 2017 article, “33 Incredible Facebook Bullying Statistics”, which states that “87% of cyberbullying incidents that targeted teenagers used Facebook as the platform of choice.” 

If you are being bullied online, then the best defense is simply to ignore them. Do not add fuel to their shenanigans. They will get tired and move on to their next victim, or until your next post. If there is a way to report them, then do that — specially for children being bullied by classmates, tell your parents and teachers.

Protecting yourself from criminals is very difficult, specially when you are targeted. The best you can do is to make it more difficult to be victimized. Using strong, unique passwords and unique email addresses, using multi-factor authentication, knowing when to use a VPN (and how to choose a VPN provider), avoid public WiFi, reduce your digital footprint (do not overshare), curate the online services and applications that you use, and the most difficult part, be aware of social engineering tactics.

Being safe online also means being safe from fake news and disinformation. The only motivation of disinformation and fake news is to destroy society — by dividing, polarizing and pitting each group against the other. Learning how to be critical of *all* news articles posted online, and worse, shared with you (in most cases, by someone more senior than you, like your uncle or aunt, grandparents, teachers who were victimized). Do *not* share without verifying. This is easier said than done, but doing good is not always easy. 

Now here’s the thing — both Facebook (though Facebook and Instagram) and Google (through Search and YouTube) profit from amplifying fake news, conspiracy theories, and disinformation, because it gets users riled up more than the truth. When users get riled up, the chances of them reacting, either by commenting or re-sharing, is high, which means more engagement, which means more profit for these companies. The list of studies and articles documenting this amplification is long, and here is just a small representative:

Being safe online means having your data private, safe and protected. Google (Search, Gmail, YouTube, Android, among others) and Facebook (Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp), are the two biggest companies that track you across the internet, collecting every digital breadcrumb you create, even on sites that are not own by either of these companies. And they will do everything to make sure that you are tracked and identified, and that your data are collected.

As you plan to attend Safer Internet Day events, specially in the Philippines, find out who the sponsors are, check the content, and see if they even mention data privacy, Google and Facebook tracking and data collection, and Google and Facebook’s amplification of fake news, conspiracy theories and disinformation. Chances are, events sponsored by either or both of these companies will avoid mentioning any of these issues, or if they do, they will spin it until you believe their lies that what they’re doing is highly beneficial to you (they’re not). Be critical, be kind, stay safe online and offline.