Government and governance, Law, Science and technology | Australia, Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, The Pacific, The World

11 September 2020

It is vital that policymakers understand that users of social media are not seeing enough of the value they create, all while tech companies minimise their responsibility in mitigating their burden on society, Bodhi Hardinge writes.

No less than 3.8 billion people use social media platforms. Indeed, there have been few innovations in human history that have been as widely and quickly adopted as social media. This rapid growth has led to the creation of a multi-trillion-dollar industry that has affected almost every person on the planet.

While these platforms may provide respite or relief in moments of boredom or curiosity, they could also become a wrecking ball to news and democratic institutions across the world. Moreover, the excessive profits made from the extraction of personal data are a result of their creation, and these companies regularly ignore the negative externalities they create for society. If the social media landscape was to truly reflect where value lies within it, consumers would be paid to use it.

On the surface, such a claim might seem odd, or an inversion of the natural order of the digital age. However, it is the incumbent structure of digital extraction that social media companies deliberately fail to make consumers aware that they and their data are valuable.

While still an open question, at best it seems social media companies are of neutral value to society, and at worst they could impose an existential threat to democratic institutions globally. In a crisis, information is key, the proliferation of misinformation on social media has reportedly directly cost over 800 lives with many thousands hospitalised so far during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Whether it be providing a platform to encourage others to consume bleach – which is, no surprise, incredibly unhealthy – or for the proliferation of debased conspiracies, the shortcomings of social media platforms continue to shock the uninitiated.

More on this: Podcast: Can policymakers detoxify social media?

In the digital age, democratic institutions are convulsing to the beat of the algorithm. As misinformation tears away at democratic judgement, state-based disinformation campaigns from autocrats are targeted and coordinated. Russia is pushing on the European front, weaponising social media against nations including the United Kingdom, which appears unable to respond.

Sustained efforts have come from Iran – one of the countries hardest hit by COVID-19, which is concurrently suggesting it is an American and Israeli ‘biological invasion’, both through traditional and social media. Chinese disinformation and cyber-espionage is even larger in scale, and directly threatening Australian democracy. Most recently, attacks on democracy in Hong Kong have been accompanied by anti-Western social media campaigns which vary greatly in reach and diversity, from patriotic trolls to conspiracies about Bill Gates.

While it may feel good to spend up to 14 hours a week on social media, it is not without a cost. Whether it be the open questions on the developmental impact on young people or ongoing cyber-bullying, the negative impacts of social media are not to be ignored.

While the proliferation of social media is valued by many members of society, questions over the overall benefit of social media remain unanswered at best.

As such, decisions about regulating social media will be neither instantaneous nor absolute. An example of ongoing debate has manifested itself with the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which is an attempt to reassess the relationship and understanding between the consumer and the service provider.

This legislation enshrined several novel data-rights, such as the right to be forgotten. The relevant Australian legislation is the Privacy Act 1988, which despite being legislated in 1988 has had numerous data related amendments to date. Generally speaking, GDPR goes further than many other statutes across the world, heightening the burden on those companies who use an individual’s data for profit.

More on this: Privacy, trust, and smartphone apps

Legislative action is generally the product of sustained public sentiment, hopefully reflecting community expectations. Crucially, society is still in the process of fully grappling with the scale of data collection and inference of tech companies such as the social media giants Facebook and YouTube. A combination of the commercial need for regulatory harmonisation and public scrutiny on tech companies is fuelling debate on re-inventing the data economy.

Iterating on the data economy can take many forms, but concepts of data ownership imply that instead of solely being a consumer, users are owed something for that data’s usage. While not without criticism, the central point of such a discussion is that users are not directly seeing enough of the value that they are part of creating.

While change does seem on the horizon, and there is a definite positive direction to the regulatory winds, current proposals will likely only further heighten legislative burden on social media companies, rather than represent an overall shift in thinking about social media’s overall benefit to society.

Future policy must consider that while few users see the value of their data tech companies reap intense profits from the monetisation of that data with a fraction of the physical footprint of more traditional industries. It must be asked whether or not these profits are so large because they avoid internalising the cost they impose on society.

In a recent, relevant, and ongoing example of this debate manifesting itself locally, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) is building a bargaining code that applies new rules to massive tech companies.

In an act of response that only highlights Google’s monopolistic power, the company have released an open letter opposing the change, pushed unsolicited into the view of every user of Google and YouTube.

Apparently, cornering competitors was not enough for Google, it is now cornering society. While an argument of misinformation can be mounted against Google, its abuse of market power alone highlights the threat to democracy it poses.

While the ACCC’s plan does not explicitly ask for payment, invariably the push to ‘level the playing field’ in the media space implies some economic transfer from Facebook and Google to local media and society, one that these companies find unacceptable.

As society catches up to the coup from above, it must consider not just what is owed but reflect on what democratic institutions it desires. Criticism of social media and tech companies must not be without aim or purpose. If policymakers desire a more democratic and just data economy, society must ask critical questions of social media’s influence, and demand companies either mitigate the burden they place on society or compensate accordingly.

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