Facebook is ‘a surveillance system,’ sci-fi author Cory Doctorow says

Mark Zuckerberg, White nationalists’ torch-lit march in Charlottesville. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Andrew Harnik/AP, Stephanie Keith/Reuters, Getty Images)

SAN FRANCISCO — Facebook’s role in aiding Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 is widely misunderstood, according to a prominent science fiction author and internet critic.

Facebook spies on everyone,” Cory Doctorow told Grant Burningham, host of the Yahoo News podcast “Bots & Ballots,” adding, “It’s not a mind-control ray. It’s a surveillance system for locating people with hard to find traits.”

It was that characteristic that enabled Russian bad actors and American enemies of Hillary Clinton to build Trump’s coalition on the platform, said Doctorow, the best-selling author of dystopian novels like “Little Brother” who also writes on politics and technology for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The trait that Facebook helped identify, Doctorow said, was racism.

“There were, as it turned out, a bunch of Americans who were latent white supremacists who were willing to vote for a liar profiteer if he would promise to be mean to black and brown people,” Doctorow said. “They were pretty thinly distributed, but the electoral system was so gerrymandered and in such a fragile equilibrium that anyone who could even bring out a small number of nonvoters stood a pretty good chance of winning some key elections because things were really closely balanced and the only thing that guaranteed that balance was that most people never showed up and voted at all.”

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Likening Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to “a special kind of sociopath,” Doctorow sees the platform as a breeding ground of sorts.

“Facebook’s primary value both to advertisers and to users is its ability to locate hard to find traits in large populations. So if you’ve got a rare disease or you want to track down people you went to high school with, or you want to find other people who will carry a tiki torch with you in Charlottesville, or you want to organize people who got to Standing Rock and protect the water from the pipeline, Facebook is a tool that will help you find these widely distributed but thinly distributed groups of people,” Doctorow said.

He continued: “So that’s why advertisers like it because most people aren’t going to buy a fridge most of the time, so you need really fine-grain tracking to find people who have this very rare trait. And if you spy on people enough you can probably find people who have correlates with fridge purchasing, like, for example, they just bought a house, right, or just renovated a house, and so that’s a pretty good predictor for buying a fridge.”

Facebook did not respond to a request to comment on Doctorow’s critique of its platform. To hear Burningham’s full interview with Doctorow, click here.

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