The Road to Damascus: How to Regulate Social Media

Under the scorching, hot, sun you could forgive either party for blinking first as Australia becomes the latest country to lock horns with the tech giants of Google and Facebook. The sweltering heat of the Australian summer sets the scene for the latest standoff between state governments and the tech giants as the Australia seeks to become the first country to introduce legislation forcing sites such as Google and Facebook to pay for news content hosted on their sites.

While social media companies have come under increasing scrutiny in relation to the epidemic of misinformation and conspiracy theories polluting users social media feeds, the issue this time is financial. The national government is seeking to introduce legislation that would require big tech companies to pay publishers to display their news alongside search results and social-media posts. Google’s response to this threat, to completely pull their service out of Australia.

As of February 2020, over 50% of Australians access their news via social media apps which is representative of a growing trend worldwide as consumption of traditional news sources, such as print, continue to dwindle in the social media era. This migration from print to online news has seen traditional news publishers struggle as their revenue streams dwindle. With advertisings money moving online, news publishers in Australia are seeking compensation as between them, Google and Facebook enjoy almost 60% of digital-advertising revenues.

Google and Facebook caveated this by stating that while they do not pay publishers directly for their news content, they do drive traffic towards their websites which they feel is enough to “compensate” for any lost advertising revenue. For news publishers, this falls short as they point to the frequency with which news stories are shared via Facebook and how for many people, Google is their first port of call when searching for news stories. For them, this is not an even share of the spoils.

The situation has reached boiling point as the Australian government seeks to introduce a new code that would force Google and Facebook to pay for news content from Australian publishers while also providing them with information on any changes that might affect traffic to their sites. These would include changes to coding in search algorithms and news rankings. Should there be a failure to comply, the tech giants could face millions of dollars in fines.

In a 2020 research article titled ‘Facebook, news media and platform dependency: The institutional impacts of news distribution on social platforms’, James Meese argues that this code could be seen as coming too late given the increased dependency some companies have on social media platforms. Despite this, the goal is “not to actively regulate platforms but rather to establish a workable framework” and provide the means for fair conduct between two business sectors. This will allow for the code to be “malleable” and amended in the future if necessary.

While countries around the world continue in their fight against the spread of Covid-19, it could be easy to underplay the significance of what the Australian government is trying to do in setting a precedent for other countries in how to take on the seemingly invincible tech giants and put a stop to their bullying of democratically elected representatives. As the Australian senate debates the introduction of the code, Google has fired a warning shot by removing the news tab from some users Google page. While this was described as an ‘experiment’, it can be seen as a sign of things to come as Google threatens to pull its service entirely should the bill pass.

Tim Berners Lee, inventor of the world wide web, has weighed in on the issue expressing his concern for the precedent this new media code would set and how it “would undermine the fundamental principle of the ability to link freely on the web and is inconsistent with how the web has been able to operate over the past three decades.” Lee made his feelings known by making a submission to the Senate inquiry where he stressed that the democratic and egalitarian integrity of the internet was at risk should the bill be passed.

This rose-tinted vision of the internet is not surprising given it comes from the man who invented it, but it is perhaps out of touch with what the internet has become. For billions of people around the world, the internet is Facebook and Google with most people navigating the internet exclusively through these sites. Instagram and WhatsApp, both owned by Facebook along with YouTube, Gmail, Google maps… all owned by Google, are for most people, the primary websites they use on a daily basis for both professional and personal communication and information sharing.

Alphabet, Google’s parent company, reported a full-year net income of $34.3 billion on revenue of $161.9 billion during its 2019 fiscal year and is valued at over 1 trillion dollars. To suggest that the “egalitarian” and “democratic” integrity of the internet is at risk from this Australian media code is almost insulting as the continued consolidation of the internet has seen it come to be largely controlled by the tech oligarchy of Silicon Valley.

At a time when democracy is becoming ever more susceptible to the slicks of misinformation and conspiracy theories polluting social media, access to reputable news of high quality is more important than ever. Google’s threat to pull access to these news sources is a sign that, for them, protecting their revenue streams is more important than upholding the utopian values of the internet. These ‘digital gangsters’ are not prepared to give up their share of the market without a fight. While the cost of this new code would be a drop in the ocean for a company worth over one trillion dollars, the implications would be much more costly if they were to find themselves fighting the same fight across the globe.

Countries such as France have already bloodied the nose of the tech giants in the fight for a fairer share of the revenue generated by news content but under the unforgiving Australian sun, Google and Facebook may just be starting to feel the heat as they break a sweat in the fight to push back against the latest threat to their digital hegemony.

Freedom of Expression or Freedom of Reach?

On the 29th of November 2019, the comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, better know for his satirical characters such as Borat and Ali G, appeared at the Never is Now Summit on Anti-Semitism and Hate to deliver the keynote speech. A man known for playing over the top, stereotypical characters, Cohen appeared as himself for the first time in his career at a public address. Cohen, himself Jewish, delivered a scathing takedown of social media companies and their seeming unwillingness to regulate the proliferation of hate speech and conspiracy theories on their platforms. Incidences of racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, transphobic, and Islamophobic comments have increased across all platforms and as Cohen himself highlights, Facebook’s current policy on political ads would have no issue with Hitler running political ads promoting a ‘final’ solution

Cohen’s words come as a timely reminder of the existential crisis social media is experiencing some 10 short years after the likes of Facebook and Twitter rose to prominence. Heralded as the pioneers of the revolution in global communication and network building, the optimism that greeted social media in the early 2010’s has quickly turned to cynicism and mistrust in less than a decade. Resembling more a ‘wild west saloon’, the platforms have become ‘lawless’ public debating spheres where outrage, offence, speculation, and sensationalism have taken the place of measured and rational debate.

Many would see this unfiltered and unregulated informational battlefield as the perfect environment for democratic values to play out as no voice would be restricted by the mediated information streams of the press, television, and radio. What many fail to see is that the platforms hosting this debate are not some benevolent, impartial facilitators but rather profit seeking, capitalist companies.

With roughly 2.8 billion monthly active users as of 2020, Facebook is the biggest social network worldwide. While Twitter only registers almost 350 million active users, the scale and global reach of these two social networks alone accounts for nearly half the population of the entire world. With this many active participants, engagement and retention is the name of the game in generating revenue.

Algorithms designed to identify and promote popular articles, push them to the front of people’s social media profiles provoking controversies and conflicts that in turn lead to greater engagement and systematic tracking of users’ behaviours. All of this ensures that readers are not offered dissenting opinions of their views as their consumption of news takes place exclusively within an echo chamber of similar views and opinions as Google search rankings and Facebook’s ‘newsfeed’ are filled with material that bears little relationship to accuracy and truth, including racist, sexist, and other extremist content.  

Since the year 2015 we have played witness to seemingly farfetched political fantasies becoming reality with the Brexit referendum in the U.K and the election of Donald Trump in 2016. In trying to answer the question of how, many pointed the finger at social media and the role it played in promoting political misinformation and conspiracies designed to undermine the integrity of democratic institutions. Political figures such as Donald Trump have been allowed to freely promote falsehoods and lies while the heads of social media companies such as Zuckerberg at Facebook and Jack Dorsey at Twitter have been reluctant to intervene citing their concerns over freedom of expression and censorship.

That all changed on the January 6th, 2021 as Twitter suspended, before permanently deleting, the official account of Donald Trump. This came in the wake of the storming of the Capitol Building in Washington D.C by Trump supporters, with many believing that tweets sent by the then president helped to incite the violence seen that day. This decision was met with cheers as other social media sites such as Facebook followed suit in banning the president from their platform.

Seen as a victory against those who would seek to use lies and misinformation for political gain, the banning of Trump raises more issues than it solves in relation to the role social media has in policing its platform. Should social media companies be policing free speech? Should they define what amounts to offensive or explicit material? Should they be made to implement local laws concerning free expression online?

A report published by the Forum for Information and Democracy outlined what they believe are necessary introductions when it comes to regulation of social media companies. Featuring contributions from Cambridge Analytica whistle-blower Christopher Wylie, and former Facebook investor Roger McNamee – a long-time critic of the social network, the report presents a series of measure that they believe would go some way towards combating the “informational chaos that poses a vital threat to democracies”.

The core recommendations consist of the creation of a “statutory building code” akin to a minimum safety requirements for the platforms in order to assess all the potential harms that could be caused by their design and engineering decisions. Other recommendations include the introduction of “circuit breakers” where viral content would be temporarily halted so as to be fact checked and the requirement for social networks to inform users why they have been targeted for specific adds.

Speaking to the BBC, Mr Wiley allied fears that these measures would encroach on individuals freedom of expression by stating how “freedom of speech is not an entitlement to reach”. Most western democracies have laws curtailing free expression within the confines of hate speech and defamation. We are free to say what we want within these confines, but we do not have the right to have our voices artificially amplified by technology.

Here in Europe, all eyes are on Ireland as the government plans to introduce The Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill which will fine social media firms that breach new online safety and media regulations. These fines could potentially amount to billions of euro in the hope they would encourage sites such as Facebook to better moderate content hosted by the site. Many would see this as a brave move on the part of the Irish government as many of the biggest tech companies such as Google and Facebook have their European headquarters in Dublin, but it is yet another example of a government recognising the need to push back against the tide of misinformation and the social media companies facilitating it. For the social media companies, this could represent their road to Damascus and the chance to atone for their sins of the past and strive to work towards a better future for all.    

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