In the past decade, we have seen our democracy radically altered. Social media has become completely ubiquitous in our political lives. We have seen both activists trying to improve their futures and bad actors trying to hijack the democratic system. All this has been facilitated by companies that do not seem to concern themselves with honest political debate. Lately, however, this political activism on social media has been trending in a negative direction. We as a society should start to take back control of our democratic system before it’s too late.
The morals of tech companies
In general, companies tend to benefit society. All companies provide a service or good that is fulfilling some kind of need. Companies are so good at fulfilling these desires in fact that nowadays it is quite hard to come up with a novel idea to start a new company. From this surface level, it looks like the desires of society are perfectly aligned with the desires of companies. However, in reality, this is quite different.
“We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. To make money is our only objective.”Michael Eisner – Former Chairman and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of The Walt Disney Company
This quote is lifted from a 1981 memo that Michael Eisner, the CEO of Disney, wrote to his staff. Nowadays Disney is a multi-billion dollar empire with many different ventures. However, at the time of this memo, the company was still primarily focused on making cartoons for children. And even the head of a company like this feels that its only duty to itself and to society is to make money.
This mindset of a company like Disney is questionable at best. However, lately, a new breed of companies has emerged where this mentality is far more detrimental. In just two decades a handful of internet companies have risen from garage boxes in Palo-Alto to some of the most influential multinationals the world has ever seen. Companies like Apple, Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft are now the most valuable companies in the US.
Companies are owned by their shareholders. For publicly traded companies like these, this means that they are owned by investors. Although there are some investors that look at the ethical consequences of their investments, a large number of them simply want a return on their investments. This means that these shareholders put people in charge whose goal it is to realize this return of investment. It is not wrong for a company to want to make money. If anything it makes these companies amoral. As long as companies still make products and services that satisfy the needs of consumers they are usually of benefit to society. However, in the case of social media, this is not always the case. In the past decades, we have seen that social media can have both great and terrible consequences for the world’s democracies.
The great virtues of social media
Social media started out quite humble. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder, and CEO of Facebook stated that his initial goal of the company was to be able to go to a website and simply be able to find some information about your friends. This simple concept grew rapidly and quickly started to take on more and more roles. Suddenly, people across the world were able to organize themselves, exchange messages, and share experiences.
One of the first times where the world realized how powerful this relatively simple idea is was in the spring of 2011. At that time a street vendor named Mohammed Bouazizi was harassed by corrupt police officers in Tunisia. After seizing his wares Bouazizi became outraged with the years of corruption and lack of economic prospects in his country. The next day, Bouazizi set himself on fire out of protest. This act was widely shared on social media which sparked a massive protest throughout the country. The protesters were able to sustain their efforts for a couple of weeks by rallying on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Their persistence eventually prompted the resignation of the country’s dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. It also inspired the citizens of other countries in the region to start demonstrating against their oppressive regimes as well. Countries like Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen all saw massive uprisings stemming from this single event. It eventually also prompted the resignation of two more oppressive dictators in Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Muammar Gaddafi of Libya. This movement came to be known as the Arab Spring.
However, it was not just connectivity that enabled these protests in the Arab world. Another key part was the availability of free and open information. Previously, governments were able to silence opposing parties and critics by controlling the information flow. Unfavourable newspapers would be banned or replaced by state-sponsored variants. With the Internet, however, this barrier to information was no longer maintainable. In the case of the Arab Spring, it turned out that when people are presented with accurate information it allows them to take part in shaping the society that they desire.
Connectivity and open access to information are great tools on their own but when they are put together their effect is greatly amplified. Previously the process of unmasking practices like corruption was done mainly by investigative journalists. People who would spend weeks or months investigating the practices of companies or governments in hopes of finding wrongdoings. It is very hard for these types of journalists to know what to look for. Especially as the opposing side tries to muddy the waters or hide evidence. Nowadays it is much harder to hide evidence from the general public. Everybody is online, everybody has a camera in their pocket and everybody’s findings can go viral in a matter of minutes. This new reality of having thousands of eyes everywhere is very powerful. It allows for a level of oversight over the elite that is unrivaled throughout history. If it is not misused it can be an immensely stabilizing force for years to come.
We would be remiss if we did not share an amazing example of this process at work. At the time of writing this article, this happened just one day ago. A person that is active on a forum for financial investing recently realized that a huge short position was being taken up by big wall street firms on the video game retail company Gamestop. A short position is a type of investment where the investor essentially bets on the stock losing value. When the users of this forum realised this they banded together and started buying large amounts of Gamestop stock. In just a week the stock tripled in value causing some of the largest hedge funds on wall street to lose billions. This type of financial democratisation would have been unthinkable in a time without social media. We would highly recommend watching this video to find out why this is such a revolutionary event.
However, lately, the world of social media is far from idyllic. Foreign interference in elections, privacy concerns, monopoly practices, polarisation, fake news, misinformation, and phone addiction are just some of the current problems. How is it possible that the same medium that has such a profound ability to democratise power also seems to drive us apart?
The darker side of social media
These days all of the big tech companies are competing for one thing, our attention. Most social media platforms these days run on an advertising business model. For this business model to be profitable it needs a lot of users that are very engaged with the platform. That’s why companies are trying every trick they can think of to make this happen. They sometimes create financial incentives for content creators to create new content regularly. This content aims to be as addicting as possible, ofter at the expense of truth or polarisation. Furthermore, these platforms often contain comment sections and discussion threads to make it seem like a communal experience. By showing the activities of friends and family they play into a fear of humans to miss out on important events. But perhaps most importantly, they use A.I technology to make the platforms as addicting as possible.
If a new user joins one of these social media platforms his or her activity will be monitored and compared to millions of other users. Since these social media platforms have these millions of data points they can very accurately predict what a user will like or not like. The algorithm can then serve up the perfect cocktail of content that will keep the user engaged.
It is not surprising that phone addiction is starting to become more and more common among teens and adults alike. This also explains the rise of low literacy rates and antisocial behavior we have seen in the past decade. However, phone addiction in and of itself is merely a social problem rather than a societal problem. Many people believe that much like cigarettes and gambling it is part of an individual’s personal responsibility to resist the tricks of these tech companies.
However, lately, we have seen lots of examples that this exposure to social media has some very different side-effects too. In a quest to garner more and more followers, content creators are sometimes incentivized to create a constant stream of misinformation and fake news. Political differences in the general public are ginned up to higher and higher levels. A.I. recommendation algorithms are recommending only the videos that confirm people’s viewpoints. This creates personal echo chambers where one’s view of reality is largely detached from facts and nuance.
There are plenty of examples in recent history where this behaviour has had very real consequences in society. A few examples range from; parents refusing to vaccinate their children because they think it causes autism; the 28-year-old Edgar Welch entering a pizza restaurant with a shotgun in Washington thinking it was the headquarters of a global pedophile network; to most recently, the storming of the U.S. capitol building under the false assumption that there was large scale fraud during the 2020 US presidential election.
All these incidents are very troubling. The situation we are currently in is unlike anything we have seen throughout history. Never before has a new institution or movement had such incredible upsides whilst also having such immense problems. Truthfully we cannot likely live on enduring the dangers of social media. Conversely, we should not go back to the past and live without the virtues that social media offers. So the question is – how should we attempt to control these tech companies to make their goals align with the goals of society?
What can be done about this
Creating legislation around tech companies is a very difficult task. The industry tends to move very fast. It is also not transparent in its practices and use of user data. This makes it difficult for lawmakers to get a handle on what the exact issues are that people are dealing with. Especially since many lawmakers are quite a bit older and less experienced than the primary demographics of these social media platforms.
Another problem is that no single law can combat the multitude of problems that the industry suffers from. Industry practices like monopolies, privacy, addiction, fake-news, limits on free speech, and lack of judicial oversight create a web of problems that is very hard to overcome. For example, the addiction to social media strengthens the monopoly position of these platforms, and the monopoly positions allow tech companies to silence critical voices by censoring them.
If these problems are to be overcome they need to be faced from multiple angles. The governing body that has taken this issue the most seriously over the last couple of years has been the European Commission. Currently, three major laws are in the works that aim to restrict the power of big tech companies and allow for oversight into their inner workings:
- The Data Governance Act (DGA) aims to regulate the flow of information between companies and consumers. It specifies what data companies will be allowed to collect and what data is off-limits.
- The Digital Services Act (DSA) aims to force companies to be more transparent in how they use the data of their users.
- The Digital Markets Act (DMA) aims to force companies to stop their monopolistic practices.
These laws would be great firsts steps however it does not fully cover the previously mentioned problems related to addiction, fake news, misinformation, and democratic interference. It is not certain yet what this kind of legislation would look like but there are some issues that would have to be addressed.
What would this look like
The most important thing that has to happen for these social media platforms is to rethink the financial incentive model on political content. This could either be limiting, reducing or eliminating money made from political content on social media.
If the profit motive on political speech is reduced the need to make addiction or polarizing content will automatically be reduced with it. Only people who genuinely believe in a goal will remain on these platforms. Furthermore, only people that genuinely want to be informed will search out these content creators.
Since big tech companies are still motivated by making money they will likely not invest or even support in making their platforms friendly to political activism. Ideally these companies should be incentivized chase after goals like reducing phone addiction, keeping people informed and supporting good faith political discussions. Ironically enough western societies could look to China as an example for how the goals of public companies could be aligned with the goals of democracy.
The Chinese government is pushing for a more direct role within the nation’s biggest tech firms. In their bid to control the increasing power of these companies, Beijing is looking to nationalise parts of them with the goal of aligning them with the state’s goals. There are various ways in which this is taking place.
Perhaps the most notable examples of this involves talks about a 1% stake acquisition in companies like Tencent and Alibaba. Besides this, the Communist party has a special committee to review company matters such as operations and compliance. This way practices like monopolization and misuse of data can more easily be addressed. This manner of action is definitely helpful in curbing increasing monopolies, but most importantly, it allows politicians to be proactive towards the formulation of new and more effective tech policies.
With the age of A.I in full swing, we are seeing more bright and young experts in this field looking to make a difference at a national (and international) level. These days people are being exposed to the idea that A.I can not only be an entrepreneurial or scientific tool but also a societal aid (and inhibitor). This promotes the idea that politicians do not simply have to come from typical backgrounds such as law and economics, but they can also come from technical or scientific ones too. In this day and age, such an idea is necessary due to an increasing reliance on computers and data. Experts having a background in artificial intelligence or data science are naturally better suited to come up with the right policies to ensure a fair playing field in the private sector. Therefore, it can be said that policymakers should more often be selected due to their expertise in technical fields.
At least with regards to the budding field of A.I, we would need to choose leaders who are not just popular, but also have a good understanding of the practices of the tech sector. They have to be leaders who understand the real implications that malpractices within this increasingly relevant sector can have upon the world.
There are some who say that governments taking more active roles within tech companies can also be dangerous. Given the right conditions government entities could also take advantage of social media to gain political power too. However, this would at the very least be done by some democratically elected power rather then a company that is not at all concerned with the well being of its users.
Governments taking more active roles within tech companies might seem like an extreme step for many western democracies right now. However, it all comes down to how a tech company is precieved in the eye of the public. As time has gone on tech companies and social media have become more and more ubiquitous in everyday life. As such, social media should perhaps be viewed more as a public good rather than a product of some company. And as a public good maby it should receive some form of oversight by the government, much like the oversight in public transportation or state sponsored media. One thing is for certain. If we continue to let our democracy be influenced by the financial incentives of big tech companies then the potential risks cannot be foreseen.