Time called on Social Media
The question is this: at what point in time did the creators and owners of the large US social media companies realise that, alongside all the good they brought to their global communities, their creations had a darker side? Perhaps it was the surprise Brexit result, the election of President Trump or the rise of ISIS. It might have been the digital circulation of child pornography, or the damning reports from mental health experts. Whatever the case, these highly successful organisations were either slow to understand the negative impacts of their products, or were in a state of denial about it. Consequently, they have been slow to admit that they had any form of responsibility, or that there are ethical considerations to consider. Now they are playing catch up, reacting to the anger and concern of influential leaders, nation states, charities and large multi-national companies.
The problem for social media and big tech companies is that they want to be liked; really liked. Their founders are (or were) generally young, inspiring people, who, seemingly want to make the world a better place. However, these companies also have to please their investors financially. To do this, they have to keep innovating, expanding and increasing their user base, lengthening the amount of time users spend on their sites and finding more advertising opportunities. It’s a competitive market, so to sit still is not an option. There is no financial benefit to developing an application that helps people to use social media less and, more importantly, it takes away some of their control. Doing anything to stop their sites being used by extremists, criminals or nation states bent on influencing world events is expensive, time consuming and places them in a position where they must take an ethical stance or possibly a political side. It asks the question, when is free speech, hate speech? Where one man’s freedom fighter is another’s man’s terrorist, how, in their desire not to take sides, should they react and what content should they ban (or promote)? They see themselves not as publishers of news content, (with all the consequences that this brings) but merely platforms for freedom of expression and global communication. If they were categorised as the former, they would have to comply with the rules that mainstream media must obey. As they choose, at this time, to think of themselves as the latter, then they can decide upon their own ethics and mission. Or at least, they used to be able to.
The UK Home Secretary recently attended the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism in San Francisco. It is interesting that her demand for more action from tech companies against extremist content online was only bolstered with a light threat of legislation and a smart but inexpensive application from a UK artificial intelligence company. Whilst the door for cooperation will be open, it is hard to see any of them taking orders from foreign governments. The ultimate reaction from social media companies towards having to comply with government restrictions may be to stop operating in a country, a threat few governments would take lightly. It starts to sound, perhaps, a little bit like a mild form of censorship. It should be said that the logistical challenge the big tech companies face is huge. They claim they invest hugely in their own content screening technology and, no doubt, this is already preventing many extremist posts. However, the UK initiative is not alone and, whilst it may not have the full effect it seeks, there is a bigger movement afoot to bring the social media and tech giants to heel. As an example, Unilever has recently told social media companies of their concerns and threatened to pull all advertising off their sites if nothing is done. Unilever are unlikely to be the only large corporation to take this stance. In May 2018, the EU will deliver its General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR), which aim to curb the power of any organisation holding personal information. The German Government has already brought in legislation to combat hate speech online, and more and more key influential bodies, not least many in the tech community itself, are putting their weight behind campaigns that call an examination of the ethics behind the business models of social media and for the necessary change.
It is time to wake up to the fact that social media and other forms of information technology are being used to influence and manipulate people’s minds in a way that was perhaps not intended. This can be a good or a bad thing, but it comes with consequences and the need for responsibility from the platform providers. We have all heard the terms of “fake news” and “echo chambers” being used to describe how information is streamed to people, who are then fed more of the same content through the clever algorithms that run on the platforms. You have remain smart, actively objective and curious about other peoples’ opinions to not fall victim to the digital group think.
Social media has brought a great deal of good to the world, but there is a downside to this tech experiment. If the companies behind the social media platforms do not adapt, those that seek to use it to fill the world with division and hate will continue to exploit it. Currently, the only thing left to correct this situation is government legislation and organisational boycott of the technology. That in itself may be seen as government censorship. It would benefit these tech giants to be more proactive, to understand that there are consequences to their creations and that they have a responsibility to act now.
SixFigureGrid: Know where you are; understand what is going on