If I were a politician I would pay Facebook to…

The year was 2014. We were in my friend’s living room. He worked on the PR of some politician and was clicking through Facebook’s advertising form, targeting his ads. “There must be a better way to target your audience,” I said. “It should be able to pick ‘Undecided voters whom I can convince‘ for you. Or serve personalize ads to each user.”

Turns out, they were already doing exactly that. They called them ‘dark posts‘.


A bunch of people waiting for the mighty politician to arrive.

But ordinary mortals didn’t get such options. My friend had to guess himself whether car enthusiast would be a better target for his client, or better stick with the local knitting club. So I proceeded to outline every politician’s wet dream. What I would like Facebook to do for me. Here is my take from 2014: 

1. If I were a politician, I would want to show a different advert to each and every voter

Absolute personalization is every politician’s wet dream!

Politicians always say whatever (they think) the audience wants to hear. They poll and survey furiously to find out what every audience wants to hear – every speech, every interview, every leaflet had to be carefully clipped and measured to target the biggest number of voters in any given audience or area.

But that left them with the problem that they always had to leave some voters disappointed. That football enthusiast in a crowd of liberal mothers had to hear that the candidate is not nearly racist enough, while mothers could see on TV if the candidate uttered something racist. So each and every message had to be calibrated for absolute moderation and total obfuscation. The result was moderate politicians all targeting the middle ground – especially in countries with obnoxious first-past-the-post election systems that eventually create just two party conglomerates, two gangs running for the same seats on the same platform.

But these gangs would not mind promising more peace for hippies, more nazism to nazis, more welfare to do-gooders and less welfare to the punish-the-poor squad – if they can get the power. Money and votes do not stink.

Pre-Facebook, politicians had to refrain from more edgy and polarized promises because there was always someone in the audience who could hear them and disagree. So they leaned for moderation to target “the middle”. But Facebook gave them the holy grail of campaign tools: personalized promises.

Voter X wants to spend more on football? Show her my ad with more football spending. Voter 2 is against it? Show him the same ad with a promise that I will never spend on football. Voter 3 is only interested in the beautification of his street? Show him an ad that mentions his streets by name.

If a Target catalog can assemble ads for me that contains condoms when I’m single and diapers when the baby is on the way – so can Facebook. Turns out, they were already doing it.

The latest revelations about Facebook show that these posts already exist. They are called “dark posts” that target individuals, identified by their email address they used to register on Facebook.

But what else did we invent that Facebook may already have?

2. As a politician I would also like to hide the content of my competitors.

Without them noticing. Obviously.

3. As a politician I would love to post fake ads on behalf of my competitor.

Say, I want to attack Jobbik for being Muslim. I can post an ad claiming that – or I can post a fake Jobbik ad that looks exactly like the real one – but with a pro-Muslim message.

How do I make the point that Hillary is arrogant? Post her own ad but with a more arrogant photo or a different slogan that do, indeed, ooze arrogance.

4. If I were an aspiring autocrat I would want to marginalize dissenters 

…without turning them into martyrs.

Say, you are an aspiring dictator, dealing with a pesky dissident artist in your country. One day he is arrested. Doesn’t even have to be a political arrest, maybe your over-vigilant cops just took him in for vandalism. But the idiot has buddies abroad who alert the media and call him a martyr of freedom. They are banging the drums that he is jailed for his political views and you suddenly have a diplomatic issue on your hand.

A well-established autocrat, like Putin, may enjoy the bruhaha and use the opportunity to demonstrate the all-important message that there is nothing anyone can do. But an emerging autocrat wants to avoid these challenges while he is building his empire of theft and intimidation.

For a baby-dictator, deniability is key, so even a bona fide dissenting artist should be treated with velvet gloves. He can starve the artist of financial resources: He will never get from the juicy pro-government art grants. He is not allowed to have foreign donors because it is “intrusion in your country’s artistic sovereignty”. He can be banned from the state-controlled media. He can be banned from every venue – or just not allowed in because the venues fear retribution. An autocrat must not do the dissenter the favour of arresting him. No victimhood. No martyrdom. Just a crippling tax audit.

But even without any venue, your pesky dissenter can still go viral on social media. So you may want to pay Facebook to prevent that.

Just as my measly post about Facebook was only shown to 4 individuals (at least one of them being me) because Facebook detected it was about them – said artist can be starved of audience. If I were an autocrat, I would definitely pay Facebook to block this artist’s posts – without letting him know. He will then see that his post went public but no one reacted. The world will forget about him and he will get disheartened because he believes that people saw him, they just weren’t interested.

Dissenters all over the country will feel alone with their views and give up if they are isolated by social media. This is an autocrat’s gold. Imagine Ai We Wei without any audience or foreign support. Without being jailed. Imagine that you’d never heard of him. Imagine the thousands and millions you have never heard of – and who had never heard of each other.

Facebook can do that for a dictator.


An isolated artist commits suicide. Image: Das Leben der Anderen (2006)

All these tools are more sophisticated tools used by 20th century dictators – and we have no words for them yet, no resistance to them. The new illiberals don’t need guns. They have Facebook, the sneakiest form of targeted information warfare. And since autocrats have all the taxpayers’ money – this is a juicy commission for an advertising and media giant.

Triple blow on the independent media: Facebook, Facebook and authoritarian governments.

To take a very tangible example of dissent, see what is happening to the independent media. They are under fire from every direction – and not just in aspiring autocracies.

Facebook and Google first took their advertising revenues.

Then Facebook demanded ransom to get their content shown – because it could.

In Hungary, and in fellow aspiring autocracies, then came the government and started starving independent outlets. Some sold out to Fidesz cronies, others kept struggling – without even a chance of a better-financed owner because the media council only ever allows government cronies to buy stakes in the media.

Once a media outlet goes zombie they receive lush state advertising revenues. And then the private advertisers follow. Independent media thus saw a decline in their share of private advertising because the remaining private advertisers would like to stay away from them – in their hopeless quest to buy safety by showing loyalty.

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