A turning point?

13 Dec 2017  |  Raymond Snoddy 
A turning point?

It's time to intensify debate about the full range of impacts social media is having on society, writes Raymond Snoddy

Turning points are difficult to detect, whether it’s the performance of stock markets, bitcoin, political parties or social change. The key trends usually only become clear in retrospect.

Right now though, we may be living through the high water mark of the social media - whether it's Facebook, YouTube, Twitter or LinkedIn.

This does not of course mean that any of them are going to go away or lose much influence, power or billions of revenue, or indeed their usefulness to varying degrees.

The high water mark involved here is the ability of the social media giants to continue to insist that they are platform owners not publishers with strictly limited responsibility for what they disseminate apart from egregious breaches of the existing law.

What is under threat is the ability to claim they intend no evil while, at least in the past, doing pretty much what they like. The skids are also under the tax avoidance schemes where they have permitted themselves to book sales in Dublin rather than where the business was actually done. Facebook is the latest to back down on tax under political pressure.

The social media giants may not be publishers in the conventional sense of ink, paper and associated online content creators. They are obviously a new breed which flows from new technologies, but because they sell an inventory of advertising on the back of content, even if they do not generate it themselves, they fulfil the essence of publishing.

They must therefore take on greater responsibilities for what they do and their effect on both individuals and society and it looks as if new legislation is on the way to ensure that this does indeed happen.

The claims from the likes of Google that thousands of new moderators are being hired to review and remove everything from hate speech to extremist videos, and promises that machine learning is getting ever better by the day, is no longer judged to be enough by politicians.

Certainly Lord Bew, chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, was unimpressed by their efforts so far.

The Committee’s report could be a landmark in the UK - particularly on the way the social media have been a conduit for sometimes vile abuse and threats to politicians.

Lord Bew, a politics professor at Queen’s University Belfast does not mince his words about intimidatory threats, mainly on social media.

“This level of vile and threatening behaviour, albeit it by a minority of people, against those standing for public office is unacceptable in a healthy democracy. We cannot get to a point where people are put off from standing for public office, retreat from debate and even fear for their lives as a result of their engagement in politics,” Lord Bew argued.

The Committee wants to see fines or prosecution for failing to remove, racist extremist or child sex abuse content on social media.

The call coincides with investigations by The Sun that found Twitter was “letting” paedophiles discuss their fantasies on the social media network.

Leaving aside the details of how future offences should be structured the key recommendation of the Standards in Public Life committee will be to shift the liability for illegal content on to social media companies.

This, according to The Times, would recast the companies as publishers and stop them describing themselves as platforms with no control over the millions of messages and videos that they host.

Already in Germany the social media group face fines of up to €50 million a time if they fail to take down “obviously criminal” material within 24 hours.

At the same time the French Government is taking action against mobile phones and the social media they carry by banning them in all primary, middle and junior schools from September.

This week saw almost philosophical worries emerging from former social media executives.

Chamath Palihapitiya, who used to be Facebook’s vice president for user growth, expressed “tremendous guilt” for his part in pushing Facebook’s reach beyond 2 billion users.

Palihapitiya, who says that he no longer uses social media, believes they have created tools that are ripping apart the fabric of how society works.

The former executive who has not worked at Facebook for six years nonetheless argues that: “the short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no co-operation, misinformation, mistruth.”

Separately Sean Parker, Facebook’s founding president said similar things by accusing the company of exploiting “a vulnerability in human psychology” by creating a “social-validation feedback loop.”

All of these events and opinions could simply be a coincidence of timing and might slowly evaporate - but probably not.

At the very least it is surely time to intensify debate about the full range of impacts of the social media groups on society for good or ill.

Ensuring that the social media billionaires take greater responsibility for what they transmit is as good a starting place for that debate as any.

There are another couple of hopeful straws in the wind.

Matt Hancock, minister for digital and culture, stated publicly to a Lords Committee that: “objective reality exists” and that therefore there were things you could call facts.

The minister expressed disappointment that he even had to come out with such a truism but in the era of “fake news” and the unregulated space of the Internet it was essential to do so.

The Government was concerned about the rise of fake news and there was a lot of work to be done to make sure we have “reasonable objective information underpinning our democratic discourse.”

Another positive straw in the wind blew in from Alabama with the unlikely election of Doug Jones, a liberal Democrat in the heart of the bible-belt in the Senate race against Roy Moore.

Alleged historic sexual scandals were denounced as “fake news” and there were strange claims such as the one that went no Muslim could ever be elected to the Senate because they would be unable to be sworn in on the bible.

When CNN pointed out that the law required an oath on any relevant religious book not only the bible - answer came there none.

Maybe as 2017 nears its end we might also have reached the high water mark for fake news as well as social media.

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