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23 October 2020

Democracies across the world are being undermined by tech companies that put profit before social good, Bodhi Hardinge writes.

As the world’s tech giants attempt to institutionalise their unsolicited overreach into the personal lives of all their users, it is vital that society challenge core assumptions that are central to claims of benefit from social media companies.

These companies and the economic structures they have created claim to aid democracy, when in fact they undermine it. In addition, the economic rents they monetise from other’s innovation are an example of a systemic failure in recognising cumulative research. In other words, tech companies get paid for the innovations of others while economically claiming it as their own.

Australian, and indeed global, democratic society must interrogate the value of social media. Defining the democratic disruption wrought by social media as purely beneficial only alleviates responsibility of those monetising that disruption, who often dismiss collateral damage as one of many necessary steps in the march of innovation.

One well-known behavioural economist recently argued that on balance social media platforms are “not merely good; they are terrific”. However, such an absolute position fails to consider both the variety of potential substitutes and the value of cumulative research.

In some cases, social media has even been heralded for enabling pro-democratic movements, most notably the Arab Spring. However, such conclusions are coming under increasing scrutiny.

While social media existed during a time of intense socio-economic stress in the nations of the Middle East and North Africa and may have enabled some specific protests, one study from Stanford indicated there was likely no correlation between social media use and the success of mass protest.

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Like almost all revolutions, an economic shock and decades of extractive institutions were likely the largest contributing factors to the Arab Spring.

As hope in social media’s ability to spark positive democratic change wane, it is becoming clear the opposite is the case. Indeed, the resurgence of despots in the nations of the Middle East and North Africa has likely been facilitated by the reach social media gives autocrats.

Whether it be enabling centralised campaigns of disinformation or aiding the identification of dissidents, social media platforms appear to be more often a tool of the dictator than a tool for democracy.

If anything, hopeful democratic revolutionaries in oppressive regimes actively avoid social media because of these reasons. Protestors in Hong Kong for example have eschewed centrally controlled communications and opted for decentralised apps and platforms such as Bridgefy and LIHKG, which use Bluetooth instead of the internet or are truly decentralised platforms.

Democracy is not a necessity for Facebook and other tech giants, as autocrats and their subjects are just another market to move into, justifying almost imperial expansion under the guise of ‘connecting the world’.

It was not that long ago that Facebook was working on censorship tools in a bid to regain access to the Chinese market, and recently Apple removed an app that was aiding pro-democracy protests despite widespread criticism.

It was only in July of 2020, after the implementation of the new national security law, that Google, Facebook, and Twitter decided to halt cooperation with Hong Kong authorities.

Despite the best efforts of social media giants, they do not have a monopoly on communication. Arguments then claiming that social media’s ability to disseminate information makes it fundamentally pro-democratic must compare these platforms against their respective substitutes.

For instance, the ongoing Belarusian protestors are largely unable to access Facebook, Twitter, or Google, yet their protests continue. In the digital age, information moves quickly and in large volumes, but that is not unique just to a few social media sites, it is common across a range of telecommunication technologies.

These protests appear to be facilitated by a combination of Telegram, Virtual Private Networks, and the continued discontent of the people. As Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko cracks down on protests, it will not be Facebook that revives democracy, it will be the people.

More on this: Human rights in the digital age

As doubt increases over the democratic efficacy of social media, remaining claims of democratic value or prestige also neglect the value of cumulative research.

Most patent systems and intellectual property frameworks heavily rewards the latter stages of innovation and often exclude the decades of work by research institutions that provided the shoulders on which tech companies stand.

This is relevant because much of the innovation that social media companies monetise is not necessarily theirs to claim.

For example, to say that Facebook has been beneficial to democracy because it provides information to users or because it allows rapid communication implies that the company is singlehandedly responsible for these innovations and should claim profit from the economic value they provide.

The Internet is but one innovation that enables social media, itself standing on the shoulders of earlier technological innovations, many of which were publicly funded. Social media companies often just monetise the innovations of others at their latest stages.

The implication of this is that the benefits social media companies currently claim should be shared across the generations of innovators that came before them.

This is most salient in the buying and selling of personal data. This act of monetisation hurts any claims of wider social benefit, because in cashing out its users’ data for capital, they forgo their claims of social benefit for profit.

Democracies have a responsibility to continuously interrogate threats to their institutions, and for all these reasons, social media should be no exception. Social media and the economic shock of the COVID-19 pandemic likely pose the greatest challenge to democratic institutions in generations, but even in this uncertain time policymakers have an opportunity to realise that social media is not necessarily good for democracy, and is likely actively detrimental to it.

In debating the value of social media to society, it should be made clear that any remaining benefit is also not necessarily theirs to claim. Social media companies may monetise the erosion of representative democracies, but this does not mean society must accept that.

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