Fear not: Mark Zuckerberg will not be taking over politics any time soon

This is the shadow that looms over American democracy: Mark Zuckerberg, intoxicated with the knowledge of who you are and where you live and what political party you belong to, slips into the basement of Facebook headquarters and starts turning knobs, creating armies of foggy-eyed people marching to the polls to cast votes for whoever he wants. From his basement lair, Zuckerberg tunes in on election night, checking off victory after victory, a new Congress picked by Mark Zuckerberg, empowered to do his bidding.


President Zuckerberg? (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, File)

The term for this, Harvard's Jonathan Zittrain writes at The New Republic, is "digital gerrymandering," a term that combines all of the vagueness of the word "digital" with the negative connotations of "gerrymandering." Perfect for Zittrain's purposes.

"All sorts of factors contribute to what Facebook or Twitter present in a feed, or what Google or Bing show us in search results," he writes. "Our expectation is that those intermediaries will provide open conduits to others’ content and that the variables in their processes just help yield the information we find most relevant. ... Digital gerrymandering occurs when a site instead distributes information in a manner that serves its own ideological agenda." The hop to politics comes from a 2012 study that evaluated the effectiveness of Facebook's attempts to increase voter turnout in 2010. After seeing a message on the site about which of their friends had voted, Facebook users were 0.4 percent more likely to vote, according to a later review of their voting habits. So, Zittrain suggests, we could soon see Facebook turning out only, say, Democrats in Ohio during the 2016 presidential campaign. "George W. Bush won Florida, and thus the presidency, by 537 votes—fewer than 0.01 percent of the votes cast in that state," he writes. Digital gerrymandering could swing the presidency!

Of course, so could someone renting a bus and ferrying more people to the polls. So might offering doughnuts and coffee at polling places. So might hiring thousands of canvassers to knock on doors in Orlando.

Zittrain doesn't like Facebook very much. Or, rather, he's concerned about the massive warehouse of information it possesses about Americans. In 2009, he called for a "bill of rights" for Facebook users. That same year, he gave a video interview wondering if Facebook can "be trusted." Last July he warned that Facebook wants to take over the developing world. Zittrain's goal in the "digital gerrymandering" post isn't really about curtailing the ability of Facebook to influence elections, it's about curtailing the ability of Facebook to influence anything.

What Zittrain calls "gerrymandering" — again, knowing that people dislike the idea — is really just targeted turnout. Gerrymandering is an institutionalized imbalance in political power; even if Zuckerberg (or Facebook more broadly) twisted those levers to influence an outcome, that's all it has done: tried to influence it.

Very few races are decided by 537 votes. In 2012, there were precisely zero states that would have been turned had the loser's vote count been increased by 0.4 percent. In 2008, there was one state, Missouri, which wouldn't have affected the end result -- Obama would still have won, by a lot. In smaller races, assuming that the turnout boost is the same, so's the result: only a tiny — and unknowable in advance — group of races would be influenced.

What's more, political campaigns, political parties, and political action committees spend a lot of time trying to get their people to the polls, particularly when the results are expected to be close. They use methods that may lack snazzy catchphrases but which are demonstrated to be successful, like knocking on doors or sandwiching direct mail with phone calls or sharing turnout information with voters. The Koch brothers helped create the advocacy organization Americans For Prosperity in part to have a human presence that can help improve turnout in close races. Call it biological gerrymandering.

Zittrain's proposed solution, getting data companies to institute more rigorous guidelines about how and when they share or use personal information, is a good idea. It would be good to have stronger controls over how personal information is used. It just has nothing to do with politics, and his insistence that we must rein in Facebook to protect our democracy doesn't make much sense either.

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He is based in New York City.
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Philip Bump · June 10