The last few months have been tumultuous for social media. Twitter banning Donald Trump and Facebook suspending him indefinitely earlier this year has marked a significant shift in public awareness about tech companies’ role in our lives. At about the same time, Facebook announced changes to WhatsApp’s terms of service, including the right to collect personal user information and to share it with the parent company, causing a mass exodus of users to rival messaging apps Signal and Telegram.
By the time you will have reached the end of this article, there will have been 20 million Google searches, 6.5 million Facebook logins, 95 million WhatsApp messages sent, 23.5 million videos viewed on YouTube, 1 million Tweets tweeted, 7,000 TikTok downloads, and 3.5 million Instagram posts viewed. Whatever Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other leading tech companies are doing, it has simply become too massive to be ignored.
Late last year, Netflix aired The Social Dilemma, a documentary featuring former Google, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube executives, all arguing that their former industry has lost its way. A month ago, Forbes published a piece about 2021 being the year to leave Facebook. The good news is: people are beginning to notice how huge this all is.
The Great Illusion?
For a while, social media and blogging platforms were hailed with a similar level of enthusiasm to the arrival of the Internet. It created a reality where information was no longer mediated, a cost-free space where all opinions can be spoken and heard, and the belief that political power was going to be more democratic. Facebook’s early mission was “to make the world more open and connected”— and in the first days of social media, many people assumed that more connectivity would be good for democracy. For a while, it appeared social media could help to shut tyrants down and give voice to underrepresented groups. The American origin of all the tech companies owning social media platforms meant they were seen as a direct emanation of the culture that protects the freedom of expression principle most religiously.
What we were not prepared for, was to experience the ‘dark side’ of freedom through these platforms turning into the carriers of President Trump’s lies to dozens of millions of people and helped incite his supporters to storm the Capitol early this year. Since social media had been used for weeks before the riots by the President to falsely suggest that the presidential election had been stolen from him by Democratic opponent Joe Biden, companies' executives found themselves under extreme pressure to take a strong stand against Trump in what appeared to be the only option to protect the safety, security, and democratic interests of the public. Eventually, Twitter blocked Trump’s account for good, and Facebook suspended him “indefinitely”.
If there was a moment when any remaining belief that social media are merely providers of social interactions and information fell to pieces, this was it.
Is social media undermining democracy?
While largely acknowledged as appropriate given the circumstances, the ban has been perceived by many as infringing on free-speech and arbitrarily shutting up elected politicians whose ideas – no matter how appalling – should be known by the public. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s chief spokesman called the suspension of the President’s account “problematic” and noted that freedom of expression “can be interfered with, but by law and within the framework defined by the legislature, not according to a corporate decision“. French Finance minister Bruno Le Maire said it should be for states and the justice system to regulate big tech, not for the “digital oligarchy” to regulate itself. Even those approving of the bans have expressed doubt on suspending a single account being the solution to incitement to violence, and point to the fact that no similar action has been taken against other world leaders who use populism to stir up mass violence. Furthermore, tech companies' reluctance to act decisively to limit the reach of conspiracy theories and fringe groups supported the suggestion that the “Trump ban” was driven by self-interest and even by the desire to win over the support of the incoming Democratic administration.
Even those approving of the bans have expressed doubt on suspending a single account being the solution to incitement to violence, and point to the fact that no similar action has been taken against other world leaders who use populism to stir up mass violence
Some experts have observed that many of the controversies surrounding social media are not new and, in fact, resemble the debate leading to regulation of broadcast media in the U.S. and elsewhere. Indeed, like traditional media companies, social media and blogging platforms are profit-driven and thus, there is an argument that they should not be held responsible for the public interest. And the parallel between the scale and reach of broadcast media and the even bigger social media platforms does hold, to an extent. But there is an important difference. The limited bandwidth and the standard editorial oversight generally mean that traditional media companies’ attempt to reach broader markets keep them from publishing extremely fringe content. Instead, the social media business model relies on leveraging individual users’ data to push highly personalized content in order to maximize “scroll time”, which incentivize more customized, attention-catching, and thus, potentially more extremist content. Traditional media generally provide the same content to a broad, general audience. Social media platforms, by contrast, are ‘narrowcasters.’ Because of their ability to pinpoint who the user is, algorithms select content for what they think the user is interested in seeing, based on browsing behavior, geolocation information, and many other data points.
Tackling the right issues
Strengthening our ability to remove illegal content from these platforms - like terrorist propaganda, racist and hate speech, and ‘revenge pornography’ – is a very important goal. But those focusing solely on this fail to realize that the issue is much larger. Data-enabled microtargeting of users is of direct concern to the democratic process because a functioning democracy depends on the ability of its citizens to make informed decisions, while social media’s business model is centered around the non-homogeneous delivery of information. The possibility offered by microtargeting to political advertisers to exploit our personal beliefs, habits, and vulnerabilities to deliver different electoral promises to different groups is frightening.
The absence of editorial oversight means our feeds are crowded with unverified information and “fake news”. There is a strong argument that social media and blogging platforms are venues of expression rather than information, and that the same rights to expression apply to those who wish to claim that the world is flat as to those who state that it is round. Too often we blame social media’s low-quality content instead of combating the increasingly lower standards of accuracy and fact-checking of news media and fail to demand strong ethical journalism. But if social media become the most popular vehicle to consume news, that deterioration is hardly surprising.
In any event, to obtain real change it will be essential that business and government leaders not simply use this as a partisan opportunity to take down a single actor or further a single political cause, but rather, that reforms are enacted to address the root causes at play, which are 1) the absence of competition to Facebook and Twitter, 2) the companies’ continued use of obscure rules of consent for their users, 3) the users’ insufficient level of understanding about how the platforms work and how data are being used.
Self-regulation can play a role, but some government oversight will almost certainly be needed. U.S. President Joe Biden has been on record saying that unregulated social media can represent a risk for democracy and his administration is likely to look into imposing transparency and data protection standards. Germany has recently enacted the so-called NetzDG, a new law mandating sites to delete potential hate speech within 24-hours of being informed, with fines of up to €50 million. In Italy, the national anti-trust authorities temporarily blocked access to TikTok for users whose age could not be proved definitively.
Most European countries are looking up to the EU for regulatory guidelines. Last December, the European Commission presented the EU Digital Services Act and Digital Market Act, which promise to introduce measures to better protect individuals when it comes to content moderation, online targeted advertising and exposure to 'harmful' content. The current proposals subject so-called 'Very Large Online Platforms' to stricter requirements, including an obligation to disclose the main parameters of algorithms used to offer content, and even a requirement to offer users an option that is not based on profiling. Writing on Politico in January, European Commission’s Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton used the Washington riots to seize additional support to these legislative initiatives. “If there was anyone out there who still doubted that online platforms have become systemic actors in our societies and democracies, last week’s events on Capitol Hill is their answer. What happens online doesn’t just stay online: It has — and even exacerbates — consequences ‘in real life’ too” - Breton wrote.
One of the many challenges of regulation in this field is that Big Tech’s marketplace is global. Some have suggested setting up international standards or even international governance institutions similar to those existing in the financial sector.
We need reforms addressing the root causes at play, which are 1) the absence of competition to Facebook and Twitter, 2) the companies’ continued use of obscure rules of consent for their users, 3) the users’ insufficient level of understanding about how the platforms work and how data are being used.
With democracy at stake, how companies and regulators act today will determine the future of public discourse. There are no easy solutions, and known regulatory models are likely to be ill-suited. But one thing is almost certain: given social media’s ability to orient and mobilize users, failure to involve users in the thinking process would be an unforgivable mistake.