In case you missed it, earlier this month Facebook turned 14. It is hard to believe that there was indeed a time when you would check in with your friends and family by phone, letter (snail mail) or even electronic mail aka email. Now social media platforms are an integral part of our regular lives.
While I use Facebook and other social media quite regularly I think it is time that we reflect on the impact social media is having on our society.
Like most people, I was excited by social media’s ability to connect to persons I knew personally but also to those strangers who also share my interests. I was impressed by its capacity to mobilize friends and colleagues around social activism supporting my favourite causes. I have been deeply moved by its ability to give voice to the voiceless and marginalized, as we saw during the peak of the Arab Spring in 2011, and spark movements such as Black Lives Matter or more recently #MeToo.
Threat to National Security
For me, this however came to a crashing halt when I experienced the ugly side of social media via its use by extremist groups to peddle their conspiracy theories and recruit followers. Their use of social media networks to indoctrinate and mobilise others sympathetic to their cause has increased at an alarming rate so much so that it is a deep concern to national security authorities.
What makes this more worrying, according to Julia Ebner in her book The Rage, is that blogs and social media channels are now considered primary sources of news and “anti-establishment movements – often in the form of populist and extremist groups – have exploited information gaps, filling them with lies and half-truths that suit their narrative and support their conspiracy theories.” [i]
For me, the ugly side of social media was particularly potent around the 2016 EU referendum campaign in the UK. Hate speech and ugly rhetoric streamed through my time line with alarming frequency, which was at time difficult to bear. Little did I know that this could have been engineered by foreign operatives.
I know this does sound straight out of a James Bond film but the facts are clear. Social media platforms have been used by Russian operatives to influence domestic elections both in Europe and in the 2016 United States Presidential Election.[ii] Most recently, Twitter has admitted to instances of the ad spending by a Russian agency as well as 13000 active bots during the EU referendum campaign.[iii] Also, last year Facebook admitted that millions of persons in the US saw divisive ads connected to Russia during the US Presidential campaign.
Therefore it has become clear that social media platforms are being used to weaponise information, sow seeds of division and to exert influence over the populace particularly around elections campaigns. This constitutes a credible threat to national security.
Fake News and the Fourth Estate
The exploitation of social media also poses a threat to a key pillar of our democracy, a functioning and free press. Facebook, in particular, moved from sharing personal stories and videos to sharing news articles and allowed persons to publish directly on the website which set in motion a domino effect with far reaching consequences. By giving equal standing to articles from credible news sources (vetted by an army of journalists) to less trustworthy sources via its algorithm oftentimes peddling conspiracy theories, it created a false equivalence which is difficult to discern.
Let us not forget what has transpired over the past two years. If we consider 2016 as the year of disruption where progressive norms and liberal values were challenged, then 2017 was the year of polarity. The daily onslaught of 24hr news cycles reverberated pre-determined opinions and inflammatory news headlines were repeatedly amplified by social media networks. Everyone was placed in an opposing group – leave vs remain; metropolitan elite vs working class; red state vs blue state. One can even argue that traditional media companies themselves have optimized and even exploited the social media landscape through hyperbolic news headlines and click bait articles to drive traffic and increase revenue.
In fact, the design of the platforms via their algorithms encourage users to stay longer by recommending content they prefer or more likely to click on. This may seem innocent at first if you’re searching for recipes or sharing videos of pets. However, if you add fake news and disinformation into the equation, this cyclical reinforcement of lies and half-truths renders echo chambers bulletproof. In my view, we are barrelling towards a cliff we are both unable and unwilling to see.
In its recent report, the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations was so concerned about this that they recommended that the US must “hold social media companies accountable.” It went further to state that these companies are “the key conduit of disinformation campaigns that undermine democracies.”[iv] So one can imagine my surprise at the naïve tone from representatives from the social media platforms during the recent Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee hearing. They seemingly waxed warm about the strides they have made in policing themselves in tackling this escalating threat. Am I missing something?
In my view these threats are twofold – one is a credible threat to our national security and one is a threat to the fourth estate, a free and functioning press. Since the 9/11 attacks travelling by airplane has never been the same. Here we are witnessing in real time an ongoing attack on the very fabric of our democracy – our ability to discern and debate based on information backed by credible and verifiable sources – and yet nothing has been done to address it. Tragically, we are relying on the social media companies to opt into policing themselves. They elect to collaborate with law enforcement, detect hate speech which may be reported by other users and to disable offensive content (in some cases) or worst yet retroactively address the exploitation of their platforms by foreign operatives.
Indeed, there are intrinsic benefits to social media platforms and its capacity to empower persons to have agency to educate, entertain and connect with other like-minded persons. The disruptive nature of social media has rightly challenged the power held by traditional media houses by galvanising individuals to shine a light on issues not reflected in the mainstream media. However I fear that we are too keen to remain subservient to the almighty algorithm and too afraid to address this head on. Perhaps we have held too dear our ability to express ourselves that policing content flies in the face of that but there must be a middle ground.
Some attempts have been admirable such as the Jigsaw, an incubator operated by Alphabet (owner of Google) which tackles global security challenges and the launch of the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism created by Twitter, YouTube, Microsoft and Facebook last year. Facebook has worked with the authorities to intercept the flow of fake news ahead of the German and French Elections as well as supported the professional development of journalists through the Facebook Journalism Project.
Whilst more recently, it has made changes to its newsfeed which will promote content shared by friends and family but will likely limit news from publishers and media outlets. However this does not prevent the sharing of fake news stories or disrupt existing echo chambers. In fact, this is simply not enough. This isn’t even close.
What comes next?
Some have suggested the introduction of a tax penalty levied on social media companies who fail to address online extremism or even apply anti-trust law to disrupt the influence and dominant control social media has over the spread of information in our modern society. This may be hard at first since social media is so embedded in our daily lives.
But we have done it before. Think about this the next time you take off your shoe or belt at airport security or use your biometric passport. Shouldn’t we do the same in order to protect our democratic ideals?
In these times of heightened anxiety and insecurity, more is required. In fact, I would advocate that there is a role for government to address specific issues through legislation such as the paid political advertising on social media platforms. Further to this, government has the capacity to convene a multi- stakeholder group on both a national and international level involving the tech giants, civil society and national security officials to address the challenges within the digital environment proactively or at least provide the tools and instruments needed for us to catch up in order to protect our sacred democracies.
[i] Julia Ebner, The Rage, Pg 124