Is it time to de-centralise social media?
- Apr 13th, 2017
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Social networking sites have been a big part of everyday life for many people for over a decade. The industry has rumbled on tremendously, setting increasingly high technological standards and introducing every generation to a new age of digital, social connectivity.
Social media has been credited in the past as a democratising force, awakening and empowering people like nothing before it. But there’s a problem: this ultra-connected world may be causing more harm than good.
With reports that automated Twitter accounts impacted recent democratic exercises, and various findings around the social media echo chamber effect due to algorithmic nuance, social media may inadvertently be accentuating the ideological gaps within societies.
The problem, when looked at holistically, is structural. Facebook and Twitter are private companies, which means they operate within government legislation but largely, get to conduct business as they choose.
There is a big difference between how a privately-owned company like Facebook and a publically-funded organisation like the BBC operates. The BBC has a responsibility toward impartiality; to be as balanced in their reporting of news as possible. With social media now being the primary news source for young people, do social networks have a similar responsibility?
This calls into question the very nature of how social networks function. It is to the benefit of business that users of the network stay on the site, consuming content and engaging with adverts as often as possible. By feeding people what they want, social media networks may be perpetuating the echo chamber effect. This provides a vehicle for confirmation bias and reinforces the evolved nature of human tribalism.
And simply put, it is because social media companies are not publically accountable. By and large, they follow the clicks; the profit, as profit-hungry businesses do.
There are a number of possible solutions which could tackle this unfolding crisis. Here are three ideas which spring to my mind:
Businesses that operate so completely in the public domain as Facebook could be subject to further government regulation which stipulates they must behave in specific ways. This would be very tricky to enforce, as it would require multilateral agreements and, as is the nature of regulation, big money interests must not get in the way of what those agreements may contain.
Governments could develop their own software in competition with the big networks. This would be a monumental challenge, not only in development but in winning people over from the current hegemonic beasts currently ruling the roost. That is not to say it would be impossible; governments have access to individuals and communities in ways that big businesses do not, and they could leverage open data to make social apps far more useful at the local level than Facebook would choose to be.
This would involve a complete nationalisation of social media software. Taxpayer funded and all. With recent political divisions and economic assaults on public institutions, it looks an unlikely solution, but nationalised software could be truly accessible, impartial and genuinely useful to all generations within society.
I don’t think the way that social media networks currently operate is sustainable in the long term. They have painted themselves into a corner by creating an echo chamber that people from all sides of the political spectrum may eventually grow to resent.
Therefore, they must adapt. If they do not adapt, it is likely that new networks with a greater emphasis on impartiality and privacy will take their place. Tools such as Mastadon are already starting to take shape (albeit, have a long way to go to topple the giants). And for now, government-owned software remains largely the symptom of authoritarian states like China. As western nations; leaders in liberal democracy and forward thinking tech, the challenge is on us to tackle these pressing issues and truly bring democracy online.