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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

Not-so-New Labour: why Keir Starmer is failing

He was meant to be the man, the Lord and Saviour, the man who could pull Labour back from the brink – dare I say it, the new Tony Blair. Nearly one year on, Keir Starmer’s Labour revolution has barely even begun.

Last April, Keir Starmer replaced one of the Labour party’s most controversial leaders ever, Jeremy Corbyn, after it suffered its worst electoral result in nearly one hundred years.

It was the 2019 General Election that saw Labour lose 60 seats, many of which were thought to be part of an indestructible ‘Red Wall’ – and yet, as in Westeros, the wall came crashing down.

Labour lost Birmingham Northfield, Wrexham, Bridgend – perhaps most shocking was the loss of Bolsover; this saw Parliament’s longest-serving MP, Dennis Skinner, lose his seat.

It truly was a shocking performance and there is no doubt that the party leadership had to change – it was not resonating with the public anymore. But why?

There are likely many reasons for Labour’s shocking performance. Perhaps the British public simply was not interested in a radical, left-wing government; the party had also been unforgivably slow and reluctant to deal with a vile anti-Semitism that had spread across the party.

However, this contradicts Corbyn & co’s success just two years earlier, when they forced Theresa May’s minority government into cahoots with the Northern Irish DUP.

Rather, it is abundantly clear that Labour’s historic defeat was largely defined by Britain’s issue of the day: Brexit.

Corbyn failed to clarify his stance during the 2016 referendum and then proceeded to vote against every single solution May’s government came up with. To this day I could not tell you what Corbyn wanted out of Brexit.

Of the 60 seats lost by Labour, all but eight voted to leave the European Union – that is 52 constituencies that looked at Labour’s dreadful Brexit stance [if you can even say they had one] and thought “I’m not having any of that”.

The eventual winner Boris Johnson, on the other hand, framed the 2019 GE as the second referendum Remainers had craved for so long. The results of this make-shift referendum were so conclusive that talk of an actual follow-up all but disappeared.

It is worth noting that Keir Starmer was a ferocious Remainer himself, and frequently called for a second referendum during his time as Shadow Brexit secretary.

So, given the huge role Brexit clearly played in the last election, was it really wise to respond to the nation’s decision to double-down on Brexit with somebody who does not believe in it at all?

Of course, Starmer would tell you now he wanted the ‘will of the people’ to be respected, but his prior behaviour clearly suggested otherwise.

To make matters worse for Starmer, Boris has since ‘Got Brexit Done’, achieving a deal that, at least on some level, has managed to appease most factions across the country: Remainers were relieved to see a deal, while hard-liners were happy to see us leave the single market and customs union.

But it would be lazy to pin Starmer’s troubles solely on Brexit – the reality is, it is no longer the nation’s biggest worry.

As well all know, the UK has been gripped in battle against the deadly COVID-19 virus for over one year, which has totally upended the normal political agenda.

Perennial debates about the economy, education and the state of welfare have not disappeared, but have been re-framed in the context of a global pandemic.

It’s no longer about improving education, it’s about getting kids into school safely; it’s not about who should get welfare, it’s about who isn’t being furloughed.

I am in no way suggesting that Starmer and his party should exploit a terrible situation in what would be a ruthless and maniacal attempt to move up the polls, but these are issues Labour have dealt with before, and frankly, they should be doing a much better job holding the government to account for its inexcusable mistakes.

The ground is ripe for opposition and we are in dire need of it: the UK has the third-highest per-capita death rate in the world and has experienced some of the worst case and hospitalisation rates across Western Europe. We lack a fully functioning test & trace system, as the UK government fails to provide indispensable support to those in need across the country.

And yet, the government has been given a fairly easy ride. That is because Starmer’s priority appears to be ‘one-upping’ the government, rather than dealing with the issues that so desperately need addressing.

A common criticism has been that Labour waits until it hears rumblings of a policy that the government is seemingly veering towards; it then calls on the government to do exactly what it is already planning to already do.

One recent example is the party’s suddenly extreme stance on the issue of border control; we have been in this pandemic over one year, with this particular issue being one of concern for some time now.

Despite this, it is only now that Labour are attempting to dominate the national discourse and lament the Tories for their lack of action – even more ironic, then, that Starmer was an avid Remainer.

Unsurprisingly, the government already plans to introduce ‘quarantine hotels’ for high-risk countries.

And then there is issue of schools. This is a very sensitive moral dilemma, the solution to which is by no means easy.

Right at the start of the year, Boris and his government were hammered by the national press for dithering and delaying on the issue of school closures. In a typical-timely manner, right at the last moment, Starmer urged to the government to close schools – just days later, the government did.

Now the party’s policy has changed again: vaccinate all teachers and open schools immediately – keep in mind, the country has not yet vaccinated everyone from the four most vulnerable groups. Not only this, but there would still be 17 million more people considered to be at high-risk of serious disease in need of vaccination.

The desire to vaccinate nearly one million people who work in schools would mean one million people with serious vulnerabilities not getting vaccinated and would almost certainly lead to unnecessary deaths.

It would be understandable if teachers were at serious risk of illness or death, but the profession sits in 12th for overall number of COVID-related deaths – with lorry drivers first, why is the focus not on giving them greater protection?

Starmer’s overall position on education perfectly encapsulates the party’s approach over the last year: wait until the right moment to criticise the government, claim they are holding it to account when it inevitably enacts a policy, and then wait for a new angle on the same issue.

Seemingly, the public see right through it: the latest YouGov/Times voting intention figures show the Conservatives on 39% (+1), gaining a lead over Labour, who are down on 38% (-1).

As for a recent Survation poll, Conservative voting intentions sit at 39%(-2), while Labour remains unchanged at 37% – even as the Tories drop, Labour do not gain.

The gap is respectable, perhaps even more so given the dismal outcome of the last General Election, but the trajectory is worrying and with this government, it should be doing much better.

In a recent interview we conducted with ‘The Kunts’, a satirical-punk band most famous for its recent song ‘Boris Johnson is Fucking Cunt’, Kunt, the main act, gave us a sense of what people across the country think of the Labour leader:

“When I look at Keir Starmer, I just see Tony Blair. He’s part of the system because he’s a “Sir” presiding over the Crown Prosecution Service when they chucked out the Jimmy Saville case. I’m not saying he’s personally responsible but it’s what he represents as a leader”

Starmer’s first year as Labour leader must be considered a failure. The party is failing to hold the government to account, it’s failing to win over the public and lacks any sort of general image or policy direction.

There are four years until the next General Election, so there is some time yet to shift the post-pandemic debate in Labour’s favour.

If the last 12 months are any indication, however, Keir Starmer has shown he is incapable of leading the Labour party.

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.