Categories
Opinion

Unregulated social media companies should worry all of us

We all spend too much time on social media. Every time I look at my screen time, I squirm in my seat, throw my phone on the floor, delete all my social media, only to re-download it all again just two hours later.

Almost every social media user has experienced something similar in their time online, yet we always seem to be drawn back in.

This is not done by default but by design. In other words, social media companies design their platforms to create and subsequently feed addiction.

The notion of ‘social media addiction’ is something that has been bought to the fore by former Google employee, Tristan Harris, who claims that social media apps act as a substitute for ‘Big Tobacco for our brains’.

Harris was a key figure behind the recent Netflix documentary, ‘The Social Dilemma’, which presented a compelling case against the recent expansion of social media and smartphone technology.

During an interview with Fox News, Harris argued that the smartphone is “the most deep and subtle issue of our time … I believe it’s actually an existential threat to democracy”.

”Three billion people have a brain implant that’s a remotely controlled brain, because – especially in the coronavirus times – we are relying on these things to make sense of what’s reality out there in the world,” Harris said.

‘They have become the fabric for our sense-making and the fabric of our choice-making, the fabric of how children develop.”

Harris is not wrong – I have been on Twitter since May 2013. This means that Twitter has been shaping my beliefs for over eight years, despite being just 21 years of age.

A key driver behind the sustenance of these platforms is interaction: likes, retweets, comments, direct messages – all of which usually occur when one user agrees with another.

The resulting dopamine release that is proven to occur following such interactions means that people naturally continue to post thoughts that will likely be interacted with.

As a result, independent thought is something that is seemingly lacking from social media these days, especially in relation to politics.

Companies such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram all use complex algorithms to measure your preferences: what you like, what you do not, what you linger on for one second more, or one second less. This data not only informs your timelines but is packaged and sold to the highest bidder.

We are all aware of how Facebook and Cambridge Analytica were able to influence the 2016 Brexit and US Presidential elections, respectively – social media companies not only have the power to influence individuals but their political beliefs and by extension, political outcomes.

When are we going to draw the line? If social media companies can control what political opinions you do and do not see, it is entirely feasible that they can swing elections results one way or another.

Twitter has also shown form with their recent ban of former US President Donald Trump. Regardless of his beliefs, should Twitter really act as the final arbiter of what he can and cannot say online?

The only next logical step is government intervention; following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook promised change. Since then, it has promised more change – what’s changed? Nothing.

Social media companies have shown time and time again that they cannot be trusted to self-regulate. Our only hope of change lies within real, meaningful legislation that removes social companies from the secret positions of power they have put themselves in.

An easy counter-argument would be: if you do not like it, just delete your account.

This is simply not realistic for the people of today or the children of tomorrow. Twitter and other forms of social media platforms, like it or not, have become essential forms of communication for people across the globe.

Social isolation, especially among children, is at an all-time high due to the restrictive implications of the COVID-19 pandemic – the last thing that is needed is the total removal of forms of communication.

Instead, we need to make sure that social media companies are held accountable for their actions and stripped of their ability to orchestrate our socio-political futures on a mass scale.

Categories
Opinion

Social media companies require government regulation – here is why

We all spend too much time on social media. Every time I look at my screen time, I squirm in my seat, throw my phone on the floor, delete all my social media, only to re-download it all again just two hours later.

Almost every social media user has experienced something similar in their time online, yet we always seem to be drawn back in.

This is not done by default but by design. In other words, social media companies design their platforms to create and subsequently feed addiction.

The notion of ‘social media addiction’ is something that has been bought to the fore by former Google employee, Tristan Harris, who claims that social media apps act as a substitute for ‘Big Tobacco for our brains’.

Harris was a key figure behind the recent Netflix documentary, ‘The Social Dilemma’, which presented a compelling case against the recent expansion of social media and smartphone technology.

During an interview with Fox News, Harris argued that the smartphone is “the most deep and subtle issue of our time … I believe it’s actually an existential threat to democracy”.

”Three billion people have a brain implant that’s a remotely controlled brain, because – especially in the coronavirus times – we are relying on these things to make sense of what’s reality out there in the world,” Harris said.

‘They have become the fabric for our sense-making and the fabric of our choice-making, the fabric of how children develop.”

Harris is not wrong – I have been on Twitter since May 2013. This means that Twitter has been shaping my beliefs for over eight years, despite being just 21 years of age.

A key driver behind the sustenance of these platforms is interaction: likes, retweets, comments, direct messages – all of which usually occur when one user agrees with another.

The resulting dopamine release that is proven to occur following such interactions means that people naturally continue to post thoughts that will likely be interacted with.

As a result, independent thought is something that is seemingly lacking from social media these days, especially in relation to politics.

Companies such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram all use complex algorithms to measure your preferences: what you like, what you do not, what you linger on for one second more, or one second less. This data not only informs your timelines but is packaged and sold to the highest bidder.

We are all aware of how Facebook and Cambridge Analytica were able to influence the 2016 Brexit and US Presidential elections, respectively – social media companies not only have the power to influence individuals but their political beliefs and by extension, political outcomes.

When are we going to draw the line? If social media companies can control what political opinions you do and do not see, it is entirely feasible that they can swing elections results one way or another.

Twitter has also shown form with their recent ban of former US President Donald Trump. Regardless of his beliefs, should Twitter really act as the final arbiter of what he can and cannot say online?

The only next logical step is government intervention; following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook promised change. Since then, it has promised more change – what’s changed? Nothing.

Social media companies have shown time and time again that they cannot be trusted to self-regulate. Our only hope of change lies within real, meaningful legislation that removes social companies from the secret positions of power they have put themselves in.

An easy counter-argument would be: if you do not like it, just delete your account.

This is simply not realistic for the people of today or the children of tomorrow. Twitter and other forms of social media platforms, like it or not, have become essential forms of communication for people across the globe.

Social isolation, especially among children, is at an all-time high due to the restrictive implications of the COVID-19 pandemic – the last thing that is needed is the total removal of forms of communication.

Instead, we need to make sure that social media companies are held accountable for their actions and stripped of their ability to orchestrate our socio-political futures on a mass scale.

Categories
Opinion

Donald Trump’s Twitter ban is a worry for everyone – here’s why

Donald Trump has been banned from Twitter. Ponder that statement for a moment – are you really surprised?

Former reality TV star and businessman Donald Trump has been condemned back to the sidelines of politics after completing his final day in office.

The former US President did not go down without a fight, however, kicking and screaming his way out of the White House from the moment he lost the election to Joe Biden.

Immediately after the results were announced, Trump took to his infamous Twitter page to scream FAKE NEWS!!!! and claimed that the Democrats had orchestrated a mass assault on American democracy.

What started as a typical Trump tirade quickly turned into a fully-fledged legal battle: Georgia’s vote recount came back once again in favour of Biden, while US federal appeals courts in Pennsylvania & Wisconsin refused to even consider his case.

And then, up steps Twitter. As legal battles ensued, the social media platform marked any allegations of voter fraud by Trump with a disclaimer: ‘Some or all of the content shared in this Tweet is disputed and might be misleading about an election or other civic processes’.

Photo by Marcus Winkler, Unsplashed

Twitter has always had the power to silence its users and there are certainly good reasons for it. If somebody is spouting clear hatred, discrimination or inciting violence, Twitter can and should step in.

But the lines are becoming increasingly blurred, and interventions are becoming more common. Trump’s claims about voter fraud were disputed, but is it Twitter’s job to remind of us this? Not only this, is it Twitter’s job to determine what should and shouldn’t be highlighted?

This was just the start of Twitter’s war against Trump; ultimately, it was his comments prior to the Capitol Hill riots that allowed Twitter to deal its final blow.

Despite the harrowing scenes in Washington, Trump’s subsequent impeachment and Biden’s succession into office shows that America’s democratic institutions have stood firm. This only further highlights how unnecessary and worrying Twitter’s actions were.

Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey has defended his platform’s decision: “I believe this was the right decision for Twitter. Offline harm as a result of online speech is demonstrably real”.

The CEO did admit, however, that it could set a worrying precedent: “Having to take these decisions fragment the public. They divide the public…and sets a precedent I feel is dangerous: the power an individual or corporation has over a part of the global public conversation”.

Dorsey is right: his company’s decision to take the highly political decision to ban Trump will have consequences, especially as long as his platform decides to silence only certain perspectives.

To clarify, I am no fan of Donald Trump; his Presidency has been a disaster and has left the United States in an extremely precarious situation as ‘leader of the free world’.

It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that Twitter only feels this level of social responsibility when it comes to politics; not only this, but when it comes to opposing a given political agenda.

Photo by John Cameron, Unsplashed

How can Twitter justify the removal of Trump when countless Chinese officials, undoubtedly involved in – or at least aware of – the persecution of Uyghur Muslims, continue to use the platform to deny that this persecution is taking place? Does Twitter draw the line at genocide?

Just yesterday, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared on Twitter that ‘China is committing genocide and crimes against humanity…targeting Uyghur Muslims’.

In response, Chinese state-affiliated media took to Twitter to dispute the claims; Chen Weihua’s response was to celebrate the end of Pompeo’s tenure as the ‘Secretary of Disinformation’.

There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that corroborates Pompeo’s claims and government policies across the world are beginning to reflect this. So why has Weihua’s tweet not been disputed?

Surely the continued use of Twitter to deny China’s horrendous behaviour facilitates the continued persecution of Uyghur Muslims, as the Chinese government engages in a monumental effort to cover up its atrocities?

What may be even more worrying is that Twitter’s actions cannot be viewed in isolation. Other platforms quickly followed suit; Google, Facebook – even Pornhub. That’s right, Pornhub, the adult-porn site implicated in the trafficking of women now also feels a renewed sense of social responsibility.

Facebook’s decision to ban Trump is surely the most dubious. Let’s not forget, this is the same platform that facilitated Cambridge Analytica’s use of targeted data to influence Brexit referendum and the 2016 US Presidential election.

Photo by Annie Sprat, Unsplash

And yet, despite the inconsistencies, the giants of Silicon Valley do not draw the line at political figures – their censorship is something I have experienced myself.

It was one fateful Tuesday night, when I decided to tweet: “Let’s not forget the Chinese government is to blame for this pandemic”.

I will resist the desire to indulge in the full reasoning behind my tweet but given reports of whistle-blowers being silenced at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, it is an issue I believe needed discussion.

Twitter, however, disagreed. I was subsequently banned from tweeting for over 12 hours, due to ‘offensive tweets’. I reached out to Twitter for a response, yet did not receive one – must I assume it was due to my anti-Chinese-government message?

It is this type of selective silencing that we should all be worried about; it isn’t just affecting politicians, but ordinary citizens as well. In 10, 20, 30 years, what will Twitter deem worthy of their wrath?

Ultimately, Trump was wrong about voter fraud and his comments prior to the Capitol Hill riot may still be classified as incitement, but the move by Twitter and its tech-allies sets a worrying precedent for our freedom of speech on social media.

This age-old ideal is fundamental to the health of any functioning democracy and Twitter’s actions demonstrate that our freedom of speech hangs on a knife edge. Nineteenth-century philosopher John Stuart Mill explains its importance better than anybody could hope to:

“The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race…if the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit – the livelier impression of truth”

Social media platforms must realise that in their attempts to protect the public, they threaten the very ideals that uphold our democratic society.