The case for regulating social media

Sunday 27/11/2016

It seems ages since citizen journalism erupted in Iran’s 2009 post-election unrest and Facebook was hailed as the engine of the 2011 “Arab spring”. Social media once promised to foster democracy and citizens’ rights; it now looks like a tool of corporate business and political demagogues.

In the 1990s, after the Berlin Wall fell, people around the world saw the United States as the future. Liberal capitalism, political tolerance and equal opportunities offered a way of life that everyone should aspire to.

Internet access, we were told, was the means. Dictators would be powerless to block the tide with their control of television, radio and newspapers. Yet the 2016 US presidential election has unleashed post-truth politics, with the internet enabling a populist politician to market slogans at targeted groups, exploiting fears and prejudices, safely away from public debate or scrutiny of factual content.

Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian famous as a blogger in the Arab spring’s birth, is today critical of social media. “The system is designed to reward content that gets the largest number of ‘likes’ and comments”, he has written. “That might work really well when one of us shares a photo… with friends. But when exchang­ing opinions, content that would draw ‘likes’ or comments is content that confirms people’s biases or, the opposite, that elicits highly passionate and emotional comments.”

Social media builds clusters of people who share opinions. Those skilled at tapping into the cluster are free to deliver care­fully targeted emotional mes­sages.

According to the Pew Research Center, 44% of Americans get their news from Facebook, which began in 2004 as a digital meet­ing place but in 2007 allowed businesses, political groups and media outlets to promote themselves or their message. With 1.19 billion users, Facebook is now the biggest source of traffic to news websites, ahead of Google: its profits depend on engaging users, and yet it has no developed editorial standards.

A Buzznews survey found that six large Facebook “hyper partisan” political pages gener­ated far more “shares” and comments than mainstream ones, but that 38% of posts on the right-wing pages were mostly false or a mixture of true and false (compared to 19% of left-wing pages). Facebook has belatedly acknowledged the problem of fake news but co-founder Mark Zuckerberg has denied the company has respon­sibility to monitor the content it publishes.

By its nature, social media encourages isolation. Young Muslims in Europe lured into jihad in Syria have often been recruited online. Alone in a bedroom with their smartphone, they were insulated from the family discussion that can develop watching television news. Syria is “the first tweeted war”, according to Jonathan Russell of the Quilliam Founda­tion, set up in Britain to combat extremism: “Gone are the days when you had to go to a certain problematic mosque and meet a hate preacher,” he said.

Facebook is not alone. Social media is way ahead of the regulatory authorities. Look around YouTube. In the British referendum on the European Union, social media was rife with messages about “unlimited immigration” and “Muslim rapists” that would never have made newspapers or broadcast media. Trump continually repeated false news and conspir­acy theories — that Obama was born outside the United States, that Hillary Clinton was in ill health, that the reality of climate change might be made up.

Trump and right-wing bloggers in Europe and the United States — Alex Jones, Breitbart, the Daily Mail’s Katie Hopkins — routinely denigrate the mainstream media. Public service broadcasters draw special venom.

There is a reason for this beyond reinforcing populist attacks on an undefined elite. It undermines the very notion of balanced coverage and the statutory requirement on public service broadcasting to check facts.

Attacking the mainstream media is often disguised as rejecting political correctness, but it opens a world where it is acceptable to denigrate people on the basis of race or religion. There are chilling parallels with the 1930s. Less far back, in the 1980s and 1990s, the populist right demanded free-market solutions and opposed the regulation of financial markets that might have prevented or mitigated the 2009 financial crash.

Self-regulation will work no better with social media than it did with banking. The way forward is not to allow the venom of social media into the main­stream. It is to regulate social media.