Steering social media toward sanity

Wall Street International Magazine


Social media

The global evidence is in: social media platforms based on advertising and profit-maximizing have clearly morphed into monsters threatening all societies and democratic human values, as I described in Democracy Challenged in the Digital Age. From inciting riots in India and Myanmar, abetting terrorism, extremism, violence and hate groups to amplifying conspiracy theories and helping elect autocrats — the unregulated irresponsibility of social media giants is now a top item on government agendas worldwide. The mushrooming growth of these social media companies, based on Internet platforms and their network effects, took governments and citizens by surprise.

From my service on the Technology Assessment Advisory Council of the US Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), I witnessed how government regulations always lagged the private sector, profit-driven innovation — always playing catch-up like a tortoise trying to follow a hare. Because OTA’s reports critiqued many incumbent technologies, from internal combustion engines to supersonic transport planes, this early-warning research unit was shut down by the Republican-led Congress in 1996–slaying the messenger. However, all OTA reports are still available and now more relevant than ever: warning on climate change, unsustainable agricultural practices, as well as identifying renewable energy technologies and more efficient production methods. Thus, by 2018, when social media companies were identified as out of control and causing all the new societal problems, the US Congress, lacking its OTA, was caught without the expertise needed to pin down executives of Facebook, Google, Twitter and Amazon. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and these other executives embarrassed Congressmembers and Senators’ misunderstanding of social media companies and unable to ask sensible questions. Today, many are calling for re-funding OTA.

Meanwhile, serious studies of the effects on societies of these social media monopolies are ominous analyses: Harvard Prof. Shoshana Zuboff in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, (2019); Financial Times Rana Foroohar’s Don’t Be Evil, (2019). Insider whistle-blowers: Microsoft’s former scientist Jaron Lanier in his Who Owns the Future, (2013) and Ten Arguments for Closing your Social Media Accounts Now, (2018); decision scientist Cathy O’ Neil critiqued biased algorithms in Weapons of Math Destruction, (2016) and New York University Prof. Adam Alter documented the rise of addictive technology to keep us hooked in Irresistible, (2017). MIT Prof. Sherry Turkle’s The Second Self, (1984), Life on the Screen, (1997); Alone Together, (2011) and Reclaiming Conversation, (2015) has tracked these growing social problems for decades. The core issue is the profit-maximizing business model of all these social media companies, based on advertising, psychographic targeting and selling their users’ personal information to data brokers, marketers and politicians. Silicon Valley’s vaunted claims to provide public forums, improve human learning and connection, fell as Wall Street greed moved in with venture capitalists looking for quick returns, as described in Chaos Monkeys: The Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley, (2016) by Antonio Garcia Martinez as he experienced its culture inside Facebook. Many views are summarized in Which Side of History?: How Technology Is Reshaping Democracy and Our Lives (2020), edited by James P. Steyer, CEO of Common Sense Media, whose campaign led to the new California Consumer Privacy Act regulating social media.

Today, we all live in Mediocracies and their Attention Economies whatever our ostensible forms of government, as I described also in Building A Win-Win-World, (1996, 2004 e-book). Conventional print, broadcast and cable media, as profitable commercial companies have also dominated our politics, growing, merging to become ever more centralized. Recent efforts in Australia, led by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, are calling out Rupert Murdoch’s empire which dominates their media landscape, for its ideological opposition to climate change mitigation and backing of corporate power, identifying its domination in Britain which helped support Brexit and its Fox News’ support of the Trump Administration in the USA. Nevertheless, in contrast to social media’s lack of regulation, all other media, print, radio, broadcast and cable TV, books and journals operate under strict liability rules for assuring their content is fair, accurate with sources cited and research undergoes peer review. Social media have been shielded from any liability for what is published on their platforms, in the now infamous Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. This was to protect these then small start-ups to allow them to grow and benefit from using Internet platforms and R&D from government research and development funded by taxpayers. Even many of the patents used to build Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and other tech giants were based on research funded by taxpayers and handed over without any sharing of the huge upside profits, as documented by Prof. Mariana Mazzucato in The Entrepreneurial State, (2013).

Today, there is growing agreement in Europe and the US Congress on steps to be taken to rein in and re-direct social media to build on its positive contributions and steer away from all the harms currently experienced worldwide. These steps are as follows:

  1. Remove Section 230 from the Communications Act of 1996 and treat social media companies as the vast publishing empires they have become, where large percentages of populations now get most of their news from these platforms. The fiction that some executives still maintain is that they are just technological platforms, like the phone company, carrying other peoples’ data and messages, with no liability as editors or responsibility to monitor and curate their content. Now that the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has been in effect since 2018 and California’s law may soon become the default national regulation, as well as the bi-partisan push in both the US Congress and Senate, this repeal of Section 230 seems likely. This will mean that social media business models will change and they will become less profitable. This will affect their stock prices, already reaching bubble proportions as the most fashionable stocks in automated programs of investments in pension plans, mutual funds, index funds, ETFs and robo-investment advisors. Advertising will also be more closely monitored, especially in political campaigns. Algorithms will be under scrutiny for bias, as they are in Britain, with fines for not disclosing their assumptions buried in their mathematical decision-formulas. In the USA, reasons for ending Section 230 differ: for Republicans who see unfair treatment of conservative causes and content; for Democrats the focus is on removing toxic, dangerous propaganda, misinformation and selling and misuse of users’ personal data, loss of privacy.
  2. Breaking up these monopolistic global giants under anti-trust laws in the USA. This would end the practice of most of these social media companies of simply acquiring any start-up company they see as a competitive threat. For example, Facebook would have to divest Instagram and other acquisitions and Google would be required to similarly sell-off recent companies it acquired. Amazon has now grown to dominate the entire US retail markets, shuttering thousands of smaller brick and mortar retailers, turned shopping malls into ghost towns, and exerting control over all the tiny companies that can only sell if they join Amazon’s online platform. The pandemic has increased Amazon’s market further, along with many other Internet-based platforms offering online products and services, such as Zoom and others. Anyone who thinks breaking up of Amazon, Facebook or Google is too drastic, I cite the breakup of the US telephone monopoly AT&T in 1984. The result was the five “Baby Bells”, lots more innovation and thousands of new jobs and companies. Expect many battles ahead!
  3. Require authentication. Just as required when we open bank accounts, credit cards and apply for many services, we need to authenticate our identity. These kinds of Know Your Customer rules are too widespread to be challenged by social media executives. Thus, no one would be allowed to sign up for an account on any social media platform without divulging all relevant personal identification. Many experts agree that this is now necessary. Cyrus Krohn, the author of Bombarded (2020), believes that this would rapidly cut out much bad behavior, bullying and personal attacks that anonymity encourages. Anonymity not only invites all this irresponsibility and viciousness but also allowed the millions of fake accounts of hackers, robots and the foreign interference in elections, as by the Russians in 2016, confirmed in the report of Special Counsel Robert Mueller in 2019.
  4. Require re-structuring of the advertising business models of social media companies claiming to be public forums for public interest participation and debates I advocate in Steering Our Powers of Persuasion Toward Human Future. This would re-cast them as public utilities, like the electric company and other public and municipal service companies. This would cap their profit-maximizing and limit their advertising to public service announcements, weather reports, etc. Their revenue models would, as with all such public utilities, be overseen along with their public performance, by publicly-appointed oversight commissions. This familiar model fosters robust companies which have existed for decades in the USA, with their stock traded on public exchanges. Many municipalities could set up such public access social media for their citizens paid from local taxes like other services for parks, playgrounds and schools, amplifying local newspaper and radio and television coverage of local news. Publicly-appointed oversight boards would be unlike Facebook’s new “governing board” set up by Mark Zuckerberg, which is only “advisory” to his dominant control.
  5. Many experts now advocate that users of social media platforms and other data services should be paid for their information inputs and allowed to see their own personal data-utilization maps showing where their data is sold or ends up. This is still fiercely resisted by most social media executives. Yet, data is now seen as more valuable than oil, the largest asset on the balance sheets of companies in the surveillance sector. We have urged that the basis for this personal ownership of our data be underpinned under the English settled law of habeas corpus, in 1215, which stated that a person owns their own body. We update this with our “info-habeas corpus” stating that people also own their own brain and the information they generate. In the rush to continue digitizing everything, I wrote The Idiocy of Things Requires an Information Habeas Corpus, observing the foolishness of linking every home appliance to the Internet. I also suggested Let’s Train Humans Before We Train Machines, quoting a wise NASA official who reminded us in 1965 that “Man is the lowest-cost, 150 -pound, a non-linear, all-purpose computer system which can be mass-produced by unskilled labor”!

Nevertheless, the digital revolution rolled on in the 1990s, overcoming industrial sectors, manufacturing, construction, hotels, retail, print media, finance, law, medicine, leading to job losses and disruptive changes and the emergence of the “gig economy” with millions of displaced workers signing on to casual jobs with Uber and other chores offered on websites with minimal, unsteady wages without benefits. As demands grew for income replacement and more equitable distribution of the productivity gains which now flow more to capital than to workers, even social media giants began embracing the chorus calling for universal basic incomes (UBI), as proposed by US presidential candidate Andrew Yang. But social media executives wanted UBI to be subsidized by taxpayers, rather than be taxed themselves to provide this kind of boost to consumer purchasing power and the aggregate demand needed to buy their products. As critics zeroed in on privacy concerns and the damage being inflicted on children by their addictions to social media screens, as well as the undue influence on political elections, Facebook counter-attacked against a watchdog group the Ad Observatory, a project at New York University which focuses on ads and content on Facebook and other platforms. Facebook threatened the group with legal action if it does not take down its site immediately after US Thanksgiving Day in November 2020. According to Cory Doctorow, an advisor to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, author of Attack Surface (2020), Facebook claims that it is only bringing this action to “protect its user’s privacy”.

Clearly, social media companies are at a crossroads.  The international struggle over our information future, cyberspace, electronic currencies, and control over the Internet is being played out at the UN’s International Telecommunications Union, between Russia, China and the USA as described by Alexander Klimberg in The Darkening Web, (2018).  We need to preserve the huge promise of the Information Age, hold social media leaders to their early claims while steering policies toward the common good: to facilitate human learning, cooperation and understanding. The next few years will be crucial.  Stay tuned!