Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Upcoming crisis of social networks and what governments should do about it

The word “upcoming” at the title of this post is quite misleading. In the last 2 to 3 years the problems associated with the functioning of the existing social networks turned into a read snowball, or even snow avalanche. A fusion of important political events (US Presidential elections 2016, to take the most conspicuous example), as well as decisions taken by the management of social networks themselves, exacerbated situation and created a crisis. As a result, governments of many countries have taken actions against the social networks practices, ranging from demands to change the privacy policies to restrictions on access or complete ban of networks. But the apex of this crisis is ahead of us.

I will argue here that while governments will try to exert a greater control over the contents published on social networks, and while social networks will be willing (or forced) to adopt their policies to these demands, this one-sided, restrictive and “correctional” approach, will not be able to solve the problems we face today. Governments should consider more complex solutions, because this crisis is not only about social networks, but about our society in general and democratic nature of our institutions and political life. I will suggest one such solution further. But, of course, there are more than one to envisage.

In fact, the problems with social networks began before the attempts of meddling in elections or the role of social networks in phenomenon of “fake news” were exposed. It started about 6-7 years ago when teenagers and even younger kids started to complain about digital harassment they’ve experienced on Facebook from their peers. Today we call this phenomenon cyber-bullying, but back then nobody spoke in these terms. Back then, it was a problem for kids, for their parents, and for teachers, but not something that was considered a national or global problem. The next surprise we became aware of was our (lost) privacy on the networks. That was already a reason for grown-ups to be seriously concerned, but things got only much worse since then. After a short period of grace and photo-ops with world leaders who were courting them, CEOs and senior managers of Facebook, Twitter, Google and other companies, are now being called to testify to US Congress and conduct nasty negotiations with governments unhappy with their policies. In some countries there were no negotiations: they were plainly banned.



What are the main areas of concern with social networks?

Social networks today are platforms for circulation of hatred, incitement to violence, racist, xenophobic and antisemitic posts and other versions of bigotry. Of course, it is not deliberate. Of course, it is not their goal and design. Do you know the expression “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”? Against their will, social networks became global vehicles of hatred.

Last 5 months I spent in France. I could see firsthand how social movement of "Yellow vests", that had legitimate demands from the government, received massive support of the public (70%), and which organized itself through Facebook, was hijacked by extremists, professional rioters and thugs, as well as by provocateurs, racist and anti-Semites of all kinds. This crisis proved once again (as if after the "Arab spring" we needed more proofs) the power of networks to facilitate grass-roots protest movement, but at the same time it exposed the levels of hatred, misogyny and antisemitism you wouldn’t like to believe exist in France. Social networks were helpless in face of the extremely violent discourse taking place on them.

Let’s refresh our memory: two years ago, Facebook founderwas talking about the new ambition for the network: to build more communities,rather than just encouraging connections between family and friends. Algorithms went through a change, and the new approach implemented. Result? The infamous “echo chamber” effect, that was already taking place in the world of partisan media, was now in a full swing. Of course, nothing wrong if you have a community of astronomers or poetry fans. But what about a community of bigots or anti-Semites? They probably will not report “abusive posts” with racist and antisemitic content, will they? By the way, the situation with other networks is not better. You can easily find racist posts on Twitter or VKontakte.

This uncontrolled circulation of hate speech, bigotry and incitement on social networks provided food for thought for some bright, but vicious about using those networks to meddle in national elections campaigns, to make “fake news” and to manipulate public opinion. These and other versions of special operations on internet and social networks represent a new, digital form of information warfare and are used by states against other states. In an attempt to defend themselves in this digital jungle, social networks are trying to develop better prevention policies. Facebook opens centers of moderation, outside United States, with help of people who know the language and cultural specifics to decipher the complex realities and, in an effort, not to become instruments of violent agendas and interests (one such center is in Barcelona). But in the world of 196 states (and counting), hundreds of languages, of growing complexity and diversity, of conflicting interests and contradictory definitions of freedom and rights, how many moderation centers will they need to open? And even then – how to moderate two billion Facebook users?


“There is no great thing that would not be surmounted by a still greater thing.”

One of my favorite Russian poets, Kozma Prutkov (who was, in fact, a fictional author), known for his satiric aphorisms and nonsensical expressions, said : “Nobody will embrace the unembraceable”. Social networks should become more modest about their ability to serve as a global platform for creating communities; and they should be more thoughtful about their social responsibility, when they act de-facto as media channel. I believe, If they won’t adapt themselves, they will be simply forced by governments to do so.

But governments, and states in general, should understand that this coercion will not help fix the problems of social media. At the end of the day, social networks are platforms where modern societies function. Social life is happening today also on social networks, more and more each day, and this is irreversible. Social networks of today will disappear in the future, only letting way for new networks to take their place. Therefore, coercion and restrictions won’t solve the problem of social media.

This will also not solve another crisis, which is even more important: the crisis of democracy and government in the digital age, where social media plays such a central role. The governments should reinvent themselves in order to stay legitimate in the eyes of their citizens, which means they should better serve them. The modern technologies, including social media technologies, provide tools to increase efficiency of governments. I believe governments should create national public social networks. They will allow citizens interaction between themselves and their government, where they are not manipulated by anonymous players and secret influence operations. This network will not be for profit, but only for the benefit of its users. Information about them will not be sold to other companies. Users will be protected against hatred and violence. Governments will be able to address the needs and concerns of citizen through interacting with them on this network; and governments will also be responsible for protecting the freedom of expression and a proper functioning of the network, through public institution and other instruments under public supervision.

The model of this network should be elaborated in more details, but it’s clear to me that this is the future of any government if it is determined to solve a crisis of its legitimacy and governance. Recognition of this reality is imminent, and, of course, better sooner than later. Social media is a good idea, but with crisis of private social networks we should take this idea to a completely new level. As Kozma Prutkov said, “There is no great thing that would not be surmounted by a still greater thing.”


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