Can social media be regulated?
Having posted previously on potentially regulating social media platforms, I felt this topic required updating, not least owing to some drastic changes. To be unequivocally plain: social media is dangerous. It poses a very real threat, both on an individual, and global scale.
Our existing relationship with social media is incompatible with positive mental health. An unparalleled plethora of articles and research findings identify anxiety, depression, and other illnesses associated with increased social media activity.
Many, I’m sure, can testify to the deliberately addictive nature of this game.
Additionally, perhaps more alarming by the severity of the threat, social media has witnessed an increase in disinformation, and a rise in extremism, on and offline, arising from political division, itself the product of social media use.
Moderating these platforms’ dangerous content
Intrinsic within this issue, is the ability to disseminate unverified ‘information’. Anything can be shared by anyone, currently with little monitoring. This includes posts purporting to be factual, which can often have little basis in reality. In most instances, the time taken to disprove the source of these articles allows for them to be imitated and dispersed widely.
By the function of social media algorithms, which prioritise accounts posting frequently, a flurry of ill-informed posts can be promoted over well-considered, balanced thoughts, especially since generating them is a slower process.
Within this already-dangerous trend is a further, more recent development. An increase in disinformation pointedly intended to deceive, capitalising upon the existing system. Users spreading false, deliberately misleading allegations.
So, social media should be regulated, right?
The obvious counter-argument, playing devil’s advocate to myself, is freedom of speech. The precious and fragile foundation of democracy. These privately owned platforms are entitled to content they desire, just as this site retains full ownership of anything published.
But there are acceptable limitations. Hate speech should never be tolerated. Nor should any information distributed with the blatant intention of harming people, often the side-effect of overtly divisive language, be tolerated.
Though all private companies are entitled to self-governance, this does not extend to toxic overspills. The same principle applies to oil or energy companies. When catastrophic, real-world consequences threaten own daily lives, those companies are held accountable. This same concept should apply to social media platforms, or any media outlet. They have a duty to accurate truth, and to perform appropriate due diligence.
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How can we monitor social media? I’m talking about potentially regulating the content accessible through sites like Facebook or Twitter. There is an impossibly vast quantity of data available on the internet, to the extent that a person can, in one day, consume information equivalent to the lifetime consumption of an average person 500 years… Continue Reading →
By example, the New York Post, October 2020, published utterly baseless claims regarding Hunter Biden (Joe Biden’s son), alleging illicit links with Ukraine. The evidence was non-existent, the story ludicrous, and entirely unsubstantiated. The entire incident was discredited by most, responsible platforms. Yet, it was unquestioningly believed at face value by a large subsect of the population. In fact, Ofcom reported that 45% of adults receive their news from Facebook or Twitter. Furthermore, social media also facilitated the rapid sharing of this article to a considerable audience, around 50,000, before it was suppressed (but not removed) by Facebook and Twitter.
Such disinformation might have informed citizen’s votes in the 2020 US election.
Which brings us to another interesting episode in social media’s history: Donald Trump. Since I last explored this topic, he’s been effectively exiled from the internet. He really has been censored. But, of course, for good reason. ‘Disinformation’ is a delicate euphemism for lying. Which is what Trump did. Repeatedly. With absolutely no remorse for those impacted by his words, whether they be the inciting a fascist invasion of the Capitol, or instructing people to drink bleach. It was especially bizarre, since he should have been responsible for the safety of his people.
Subsequently, it was not the work of balanced, official regulation by an independent, government-endorsed body. It was the impetus of independent, private companies. Which was slightly awkward. Well, given that Trump basically was the US government at the time, it was always going to be awkward.
Since the Capitol invasion, Parler, an app primarily voicing Conservative attitudes, was briefly forced offline by Apple and Amazon, for dispersing hate speech. Another instance of self-regulation, it has now returned, to muted applause, still a determined mouth-piece.
Social media profits political leaders
Given the beneficial influence of social media platforms to many leaders, the limited temptation to mute it is understandable.
Boris Johnson’ Leave campaign during the Brexit Referendum significantly won a resounding victory on social media. Amidst wide-spread allegations of fraud and illegality, social media partially delivered now-President Hernández his 2017 Honduran election victory. Facebook has admitted culpability for genocide in Myanmar, whilst a whistle-blower from the company confessed she had ‘blood on her hands’.
As previously alluded to, Donald Trump’s active social media presence was a key feature of his popularity, now perpetuated by the words of figures close to him. In this instance, there is a critical discrepancy between the actions of figures on Twitter, and on the record. For all his vocal bluster, Trump’s former personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani didn’t actually allege voter fraud in the courtroom, but still led a crucial public campaign undermining public trust in an institutional process fundamental to US democracy.
Real-world scenes of protestors chanting ‘Stop the steal’ at legitimate-ballot counters, or invading the Capitol to disrupt Biden’s certification, are a culmination of this effort.
The unfathomable power of social media and technology
I will hardly be the first to say that technology has significantly encroached upon our lives. Certain aspects of our existence would be entirely impossible without such advancements.
The associated benefits – increased connectivity, improved efficiency, lower costs – are a pre-requisite to technology’s existence. Often for good reasons, technology has been incorporated into every facet of daily life, generally making experiences more pleasant. To a certain degree, ‘human’ interactions are even being replaced by algorithms, like job interviews, which can increasingly be conducted by artificial programs.
Alongside a rise in technological usage has been a rise in influence of the providers. Apple is worth $2.25tn, Microsoft $1.83tn, Amazon $1.66tn, which doesn’t even consider the personal wealth of CEO’s, like Elon Musk, surpassing Jeff Bezos as the planet’s richest human with a net worth of $204bn. Right up there in the ‘Big Tech’ circle is Facebook, valued at $759bn. These companies alone are virtually propping up the entire US stock market. Their size is unimaginable.
The problem of social media has to be understood against the backdrop of this problem. The ramifications of tackling such an imposing foe are daunting.
The greatest threat of social media: contributing to extremism
Anything can be posted, often to the benefit of those well-positioned to regulate such content, onto platforms proving immensely profitable to those operating them.
Naturally drawn to conflict or division as a species, for the sheer drama, the most popular or engaging content is often that which inflames opinion. Certainly, viral posts tend to elicit strong reactions, be they positive or negative.
The result is recent years witnessing a broadening of the appeal of extremist stances on the political spectrum, largely the result of social media. This is arguably one of the greatest threats. It’s increasingly possible to expose a person to lots of potentially dangerous material, skewing their world view or attitudes. This can be done by accounts not even controlled by a person.
The algorithms dictating what content appears in an individual’s feed is also prone to funnelling them towards extremist views – 64% of members in extremist groups on Facebook joined because the platform itself suggested it, thereby exposing them to only more divisive content, further informing the algorithm of their extremist preferences.
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This currently exists as an issue promoting both the far-Right and far-Left, but it would be inaccurate to not stress that the former is far more prevalent. An independent tech panel released findings last year suggesting the far-Right has employed Russian propaganda techniques in widely disseminating information over social media, using fake accounts and regular posting.
There has been a recent rise in the number of incarcerated far-Right terrorists, the youngest of which was charged this month, aged just 16, but indoctrinated by a toxic online culture calling for ‘white jihad’ and ‘genocide of non-whites’.
Combating the danger
Consider this a conclusion, or something close.
Optimistically, but hesitantly, change appears to be on the horizon, as in so many regards. The new Biden/Harris administration in the US has promised to tackle ‘Big Tech’, never having been a fan of Mark Zuckerberg. It will require concerted focus, which has yet to be proved. An ongoing and inherent difficulty in this process continues to be the benefits often enjoyed by political figures by divisive social media energising their voting bases.
More interesting, I believe, is the personal responsibility we each possess. If the fundamental problem is our susceptibility to engage with outlandish or extremist material, we should remain aware of our internal prejudices and actively combat them. We relish salacious gossip, obsess over scandal, cynically gravitate towards disaster. But when our urge for controversy enters politics, it can be dangerous. Be pro-active in your social media use. Try to avoid the temptation of endlessly scrolling; it’s difficult, and social media can be an addiction.
Though it’s inconvenient, since being forced to question everything we see is unfortunate, it increasingly seems a requirement of visiting social media platforms. Far from suggesting that it’s an instant gateway to radicalisation, which is ridiculous, I’m merely trying to stress moderation. The unavoidable reality is a current rise in extremism. Social media is partly responsible.
The simplest solution, as it so often seems to be, is to remember to be kind, to be tolerant, to research anything we read that seems completely crazy.
Thanks for reading! Let me know, what are your opinions of social media? Do you agree, or am I being overly dramatic? I regularly post other commentaries, travel posts, or short stories, so please explore more!
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