I am from Italy, and we have general elections on the first weekend of March. Like every country looking at elections in the age of troll farms, bot armies and manipulation of public perception, we are kind of worried. What will algorithm spinners, informed by big data, throw at us?
We don’t know. But whatever comes, chances are it will come through Facebook. The blue-and-white social networking website is where a lot of the good, the bad and the ugly happens these days.
Like anywhere else, Italy has huge potential for divisive, inflamatory campaigning. If you have the stomach for it, follow up on the story of the failed Northern League candidate who, last week, opened fire in the city centre of a town called Macerata, targeting blacks and wounding six of them.
Social media are full of clamor. Grief, shame, sorrow… and also voices claiming “people are exasperated” [by immigration] and “these are the results of free entry for all”. Which voices you get to hear will shape your perception of things to come.
Knowing this, the fine folks at ProPublica have come up with a great idea. It’s called Facebook Political Advertising Collector. It works through an extension you can install on your browser (versions for Firefox and Chrome are available).
In practice, what happens is this. When you scroll your Facebook feed with the extension installed, the FPAC looks for advertisements and tries to recognize the political ones. You can help train the algorithm by clicking on the “P” icon on the top right of the browser window and confirming what type of ad you are seeing. With these data, ProPublica is trying to put together a dataset of ads and the categories of people the ads are shown to. This should then become an important knowledge base to figure out what exactly political advertising through Facebook is doing to our democracies.
Propublica started operations in September, monitoring the German general elections. In Italy, my friends at Openpolis have decided to replicate the initiative for the coming elections (here is their announcement, in Italian).
I have installed the extension, and would encourage others to do the same. If we are to navigate this landscape, we need the knowledge, we need the data. Later, we will need the strength and the wisdom to act upon it.