Ideasroom

Let’s stop selling ourselves short

If we just assume we’re powerless to oppose Mark Zuckerberg and other social media giants we are selling ourselves short as citizens and as a public, says Victoria University of Wellington's Peter Thompson

Within the next five years, the global advertising spend on social media is projected to rise to more than US$200 billion a year. That’s stunning. The total global advertising spend is around US$500 billion a year and they think about 40 percent of that will be going on social media. You wonder why Mark Zuckerberg’s so rich.

The News Media Alliance in the United States a couple of years ago suggested that Google and Facebook accounted for 70 percent of the US$73 billion spent on digital advertising and nearly 80 percent of all online referral traffic. That’s a massive amount of market power and dominance.

So can social media serve us well as citizens?

In a sense there’s a pull dimension in media when its interactive; we get to go and find the things we want. Arguably that allows us to discover things we enjoy. Nothing wrong with that. The algorithms perhaps help us. Maybe they encourage us to find more material we’ve identified as things we already like and prefer. So we get more of that. So maybe there’s some efficiency.

In some cases social media could be used to circumvent repressive state controls, to promote democracy, to get around the controls of state media and hold power to account. So it could potentially enhance democracy.

And maybe it could enable new grassroots communities of interest to form. Maybe it could help us build a stronger civil society. Well, maybe.

But there’s a downside as well.

Because most of us use social media for entertainment functions. Nothing wrong with watching cat videos but it’s not really going to change the world, apart from making the people who own Grumpy Cat rather wealthy. And the algorithms that give us more of what we already want may encourage filter bubbles or echo chambers. We end up hearing more and more of the opinions we already agree with. Maybe that enables us to insulate ourselves from hearing points of view we haven’t heard before or points of views we might need to think about. Does that foster intolerance, perhaps even sow the seeds of extremism? Does it undermine civic dialogue and our social bonds?

Social media has also enabled the dissemination of fake news. Notably in the US presidential election. And there’s a potential for harm here in New Zealand in pandering to populist sentiment. Ignoring messages we don’t want to listen to. Again kind of an echo chamber, perhaps undermining the basis of a rational consensus that underpins democracy. Removing the possibility of us finding common ground with our neighbours.

If we heavily regulate Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the others, that won’t necessarily stop the sorts of things we saw going on with the Christchurch footage. There are still extreme right-wing websites out there, there is still a dark web. That won’t disappear just because we shut Facebook and YouTube down.

And then, of course, the harvesting of our personal data, quite apart from the privacy issues, has been used to orchestrate campaigns specifically to undermine democratic processes. Both in the Brexit campaign and the US presidential election.

So how do we make social media socially responsible? There’s a growing demand for greater control over social media so they serve the interests of the public. But we need to be careful what we ask for. A lot of us are angry about Facebook and the Christchurch shootings footage that was disseminated. But if we say, “We want to give the state more power over Facebook”, what are we actually asking for? If we give the state and intelligence services more input then does that potentially undermine other issues? Does it lead to violations of our privacy? Does it lead to more censorship? Could that actually erode democracy?

And if we say we want the online corporates themselves to regulate things, are we giving them more power to capture more of our data, to go further and drill down into our personal lives and use that to make more money?

If we heavily regulate Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the others, that won’t necessarily stop the sorts of things we saw going on with the Christchurch footage. There are still extreme right-wing websites out there, there is still a dark web. That won’t disappear just because we shut Facebook and YouTube down. You can’t excise the problem completely.

I’ve got some suggestions.

My first is to impose a levy on social media in order to restore to mainstream media, and public interest news media in particular, some of the income lost through the co-option of their content and the capture of their advertising.

The second would be an independent public interest regulator. A bit like the Broadcasting Standards Authority, perhaps with a code of practice for explaining how we expect social media operators to behave and what their responsibilities are to the public. And maybe they could have the power to vet and even rewrite in some cases, or amend, social media algorithms, to have a say in how those are devised, to make sure they serve our interest.

If social media allow harmful content to proliferate, and fail to act swiftly and decisively in taking down that content, maybe we could impose fines. In extreme cases, maybe the regulator should be able to go to the internet service providers and say, “That’s blocked.” To actually stop them at the point of internet access. To stop these websites from being available in New Zealand. Now maybe that’s only in extreme cases. But it’s a do-able thing.

Again, there are questions of censorship. I’m not saying this is a magic wand. It’s complicated. But there are things we could be doing and certainly there are things we could be debating.

The message we shouldn’t be accepting from social media or from critics is that they’re too big to regulate, there’s nothing that can be done, it wouldn’t make any difference. I think it would and if we just assume we’re powerless to oppose the like of Mark Zuckerberg and other social media giants we are selling ourselves short as citizens and as a public.

This is an edited extract from the Better Public Media Trust’s David Beatson Memorial Speech 2019.

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