“Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities” – Voltaire.
Credit of featured image: geralt/22569 images, pixabay
Generation Z, the demographic cohort succeeding millennials, are the first generation to not have experienced life before the arrival of the internet and widespread access to portable digital technology at a young age. Days before social media, smartphones and big tech companies seem like a lifetime ago. They’ve become such an influential part of our lives that sometimes it’s easy to forget that Google was only founded in 1998 and Facebook only came along in 2004. Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the founders of Google, are 47. Mark Zuckerberg, Chief Executive Officer of Facebook, is only 36. These men created things that have made the world unrecognizable from the version of itself which existed before. Having enabled families and loved ones to stay connected around the world, altered how the entire world conducts business, and allowing political and cultural movements to blossom, we’ve seen how the modern digital era has caused many aspects of our democratic societies to evolve and improve at rates which were previously unimaginable. The question we have to ask ourselves however, is are these benefits to society really worth it, if the cost is the state of democracy and society itself?
In contrast to the printing press or steam engines, the internet might be the first thing humans have created that so many of us don’t understand. Every second of every day, hundreds of millions of people are creating and consuming digital content in a version of reality that’s completely fabricated. Until recent years the looming threat of the untold potential consequences of these platforms and the power of their influence remained just that, untold. Today however, with the industrial-scale level of misinformation and hate speech having enabled both Brexit and a Donald Trump presidency, people are beginning to see the light. The rules have changed. The way we’re governed, the fate of businesses and political ideologies are all determined by algorithms which very few have access to.
Companies like Google and Facebook take our data and use it to manipulate us in ways which could not be further from democratic values. Their business models rely on this power because advertisers who want to know about our behaviour are willing to pay them a handsome price for the ability to sway this behaviour. Studies show that violent or hateful misinformation is the most engaging form of online content. It travels faster and further than the truth and the reality is tech companies are profiting from this. Every click, every share, every comment is more money in their pocket. You’re not seeing this content because it’s a threat or a danger to you, you’re not seeing it because it’s ground-breaking and most importantly, you’re not seeing it because it’s true. You’re seeing it because it earns them money. Nobody in the world pays for their Facebook account, but yet the company has a net worth of approximately $700 billion. The world of social media lets anyone choose and live in their own tailor-made, version of reality. I would argue that when a shared delusion causes the United Kingdom to leave the European Union and propels a violent mob towards the Capitol building in Washington D.C, we may be a problem.
On an episode of The Brookings Cafeteria Podcast, Robert Wicks of the Brookings Institute interviewed Dipayan Ghosh, author of Terms of Disservice: How Silicon Valley Is Destructive by Design. Ghosh is the co-director of the digital platforms and democracy project at the Harvard Kennedy School. He has also led strategic efforts to address privacy and security issues at Facebook and served as a technology and economics policy provider for Obama’s Whitehouse. During the interview Ghosh encouraged listeners not to think of Google and Facebook as resources, but machines. Machines designed to maximise profits for shareholders and to keep people engaged. “They know who you are, your beliefs, likes and dislikes and they use this information to decide the optimal design of your newsfeed.” The platforms want people to stay on their sites as long as possible, so there will always be an incentive for content that will evoke emotion , whether that emotion is good or bad. A study conducted by Richard Fletcher and Rasmus Klies Nieklson investigated people being incidentally exposed to news on social media and the effect it might have on news use. The analysis suggests that incidental exposure does indeed occur on social media, and that the incidentally exposed use more sources of news than non-users. The study concluded that for those who consume news from an above-average number of sources, incidental exposure via social media can indeed result in an echo-chamber effect.
The Trump era ended in 2021 with a violent mob storming the seat of American democracy which the flourishing of misinformation online played a major part in. The consequences of unchecked and unregulated content online appears offline in the form of white-supremacist terror and the normalising of conspiracy theories like QAnon. For those who think that only in the US, with their market model of media which ultimately turns news into entertainment, could Facebook and other social media platforms truly bring people so far from the truth, unfortunately you’re mistaken. Following the Brexit referendum of 2016, Carole Cadwalladr, a journalist with Guardian Media Group journeyed to a town in South Wales called Ebbw Vale to investigate the factors influencing how the citizens of the town had voted.
Formerly a steel town of approximately 18,000 people, Eddw Vale has enjoyed a £350m regeneration project which went towards a new state of the art sports complex and Coleg Gwent, the town’s largest further education institution. The trade apprenticeships at Coleg Gwent are some of the 29,000 in Wales which are funded by the European Social Fund. The town also saw the addition of a new £30m railway line and £80m road improvement both funded by the EU. Only shortly prior to the referendum, the town centre received £12.2m for a variety of other projects. It seems strange then that 62% of the population of Ebbw Vale, the highest proportion in Wales, voted to leave EU. When Cadwalladr posed this question to residents of the town, the general response seemed to be that they felt the EU had done nothing for them. They felt fed up with the European Union, with one major aspect apparent above all else, immigration. They said they’d had enough. According to the Migration Statistic report published by the House of Commons, Ebbw Vale has one of the lowest rates of immigration in the country. One has to wonder why a town with very little immigrants which has received generous EU funding, would want to leave. The answer, unfortunately, is the non-stop flow of misleading Facebook ads and hateful, misinformed content targeted at vulnerable swing voters. False information that will keep people clicking, clicking and clicking until they’re engrossed in their own version of reality. A reality in which immigration and the European Union are destroying Britain and Donald Trump was cheated out of the presidential election.
Gathering enough public interest to fix this problem has always proved difficult. Despite ground breaking stories like Cambridge Analytica scandal, people didn’t seem to fully understand the potential damage of their own data being used against them. One has to wonder how we could expect them to when these concepts are only truly understood by so few. When it comes to moving against big tech companies however, Dipayan Ghosh points out another significant challenge. “How do we mobilize people against this problem when the tools we use to mobilize people are these platforms themselves?”
When it comes to the public mobilizing on any particular issue in society, there’s often one terrible event that serves as the last straw, the one that ultimately sees the cultivation of all the anger and frustration. Take for example, the murder of George Floyd which prompted Black Lives Matters protests across the entire United States for the most part of last year. During this interview, which took place in July last year, Ghosh was asked if he thought it was possible that we could see a similar event in relation to big tech. A terrible event, a nightmare scenario that finally brings us face to face with reality. Something that makes us say “we need to fix this!”, He responded, “it’s hard to imagine anything worse than what’s already happening”. Something tells me that thousands of Americans storming the Capitol may have changed his mind on that.
President Biden has suggested taking action against big tech on previous occasions. In an interview with The New York Times in December 2019, Biden called for Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, to be “revoked, immediately”. This is a law which protects social media companies from being sued for hosting illegal content. He stated that when it comes to companies like Facebook and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, “it should be evoked because it is not merely an internet company. It is propagating falsehoods they know to be false.” President Biden’s intention is to replace this law with a version which will still provide social media platforms the protection they need to exist but will also hold them accountable. In December, both the EU and the UK proposed new laws which would force tech companies to make their algorithms more transparent. The EU’s proposal means that companies could potentially be fined up to 6% of their annual global revenue if they don’t act swiftly to counter anything which could cause harm to society. They would also be required to open their algorithms to society and make them more transparent.
An interesting point of this new law is that it won’t place any liability on the companies from hosting illegal content unless they were shown to be consistently slow to remove it. On the 20th Jan. Ursula Von Der Leyen, European Commissioner President, said she wants to work with President Biden to write a common “digital rulebook” to rein in the “unbridled power held by the big internet giants”. Australia has recently proposed a new law which would force Google to pay news publishers for the right to link their content after poll results indicated that two thirds of the population think that both Facebook and Google should be regulated. In response, the managing director of Google in Australia, Mel Silva has threatened that this new law will result in Google simply pulling out of Australia. This is an interesting ultimatum when you consider that Google has already agreed to these same terms in France.
The owners of big tech. companies have opposed reform arguing it would force them to censor more content. Mark Zuckerberg even went as far as to say that it would be a course of action similar to that of the “most repressive societies.” As Sasha Baron Cohen put it in his sensational speech to the Anti-Defamation League’s 2019 “Never is Now” summit on anti-Semitism and hate, “this, from one of the six people who decide what information so much of the world sees.”
Completely shaping societies, politics and elections might only be the beginning. Companies like Google and Facebook are playing a large role in the development of A.I, the next phase of human existence. In a recent article published in TIME magazine, Shoshana Zuboff, professor at Harvard Business School and author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, argued “this decade is critical”. These new proposals from President Biden and the EU could be the starting point of desperately needed reform. Reform that can steer us towards new institutions that deliver the original promises of the digital era: using data to enhance our towns, neighbourhoods, cities, schools, environment and ultimately, our world. We may need a fundamental reset to achieve a brighter and more importantly, a democratic future but we can start by allowing people the right to decide what becomes data and what does not. The right to decide what their data is shared for and for what purpose. If we can do that much and democracy reasserts itself over the tech giants in the years to come, maybe the future will be a brighter one for all of humanity.
“If we prioritise truth over lies, tolerance over prejudice, empathy over indifference and experts over ignoramuses—then maybe, just maybe, we can stop the greatest propaganda machine in history, we can save democracy”– Sacha Baron Cohen
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