In 2020, social media platforms were awash with misinformation about COVID-19 and American election fraud. The divisive rhetoric and conspiracy theories were shared, repeated, and believed with dire consequences, not just for global public health, but also democratic institutions.
Yet no one seemed accountable for the lies. Instead social platforms boomed under the global crisis, while traditional print journalism continued to wither.
The content produced and shared on social platforms is a new frontier that remains largely under-regulated and controlled by a handful of companies — but maybe not for much longer.
In December 2020, the Federal Trade Commission and 46 states sued Facebook under antitrust laws, accusing the corporation of buying up competitors and creating a social media monopoly. Google’s parent company Alphabet is also facing an FTC action.
The American government has a history of breaking up monopolies when they become too powerful as they did in 1911 with Standard Oil and American Tobacco. But it’s a long process likely to take years in the Federal court and probably rumble on in the Appeals court.
Whatever the outcome of the lawsuits against Facebook and Google, it seems to have sparked a wave of legislative activity.
In late February, the Australian government passed a law that forced big tech companies to pay a licensing fee to news publishers for using their content. Google alone will pay an estimated AU$60 million ($47 million). That was a satisfying outcome for media titan Rupert Murdoch, who has been locked in a bitter legal battle with Google over publishing copyright for more than a decade.
It’s interesting that this first monumental piece of legislature and win for journalism should take place in Australia, the home country of Murdoch. As the way people consume and interact with the news has been changing Murdoch has been losing his power as a political kingmaker, his response has been to challenge the very technological mechanisms that are taking that power, and thus encourage others to do the same. Australia’s landmark case gives governments across the world a blueprint to reign in the power and increasing influence of big tech companies.
Of course, a lot of people don’t trust Murdoch or other big, rich media companies to use their new income to improve their newsrooms.
The implications are far-reaching, since more than 54% of Americans get their news (or conspiracy theories) from social media platforms. The move by the Australian government reflects the long-standing ethical debate about what these online platforms actually are. If they are not publishers but merely aggregators, they should not be profiting from news journalism that they do not help to financially sustain.
Tech companies counter that they are simply giving a platform to news and driving traffic back to their sites, but the data on ad spend would contradict that argument. Google and Facebook still hold the largest share of total US digital ad spend, with 38.6% and 19.9%, respectively, and this profit is made from content that they do not themselves produce. Newspapers also have little choice other than to use Google to advertise. Google owns much of the technology that delivers ads across the internet.
At the time the Australian Government was negotiating the landmark agreement between big tech and news publishers, the US Justice Department was busy hosting its own forum on the future of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. This much-contested piece of American law shields tech companies from legal liability for users’ posts. Tech companies argue that this law represents the values that the internet was founded on — access for all, openness, and freedom of expression.
But it also absolves tech companies from accountability for what they host on their sites. Prior to the storming of the Capitol, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg vehemently defended the lack of censorship on his platform.
“Increasingly, we’re seeing people try to define more speech as dangerous because it may lead to political outcomes they see as unacceptable. Some hold the view that since the stakes are so high, they can no longer trust their fellow citizens with the power to communicate and decide what to believe for themselves.”
In 2020, widespread and unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud on Facebook were used to galvanize and organize militant groups to “Occupy Congress” on Jan. 6. Zuckerberg is absolutely right when he says that users can “decide what to believe for themselves.” But when the real-world consequences of their beliefs are jail terms for violent insurrection, surely we need to look at the person or organization that is holding the carrot on the end of the stick.
Since its inception, Facebook has been criticized for giving offensive and harmful content a platform on its site, and the answer has always been that they are managing this problem and will manage it better in the future and, given more time, they will come up with better solutions. Fast forward 15 years and despite 15,000 content moderators worldwide and 12,000-word moderating guidelines, the Implementation Standards Document, nothing has changed.
Instead, hate speech and misinformation has multiplied and been weaponized. Facebook is a billion-dollar business that makes money by keeping people on its platform — and perhaps it’s a sad reflection on humanity that the most incendiary rhetoric is often the most viewed and interacted with. However, it is important not to downplay the areas where social media can also be a huge force for positive social change and arbiter for social justice, exposing police brutality and human rights abuses across the globe.
But the question is, who is really in control of this incredible tool? And what are their motives?
Our only options so far are billionaires who put profit before anything else, or politically motivated press barons who want to shape the world in their image.
Since the invention of the printing block, publishing has always been used to spread ideas. The first mass-produced book was the Bible, and since then many published works have been accused of corrupting the masses. As with any new tool for disseminating information, there is a period where it runs unfettered before bureaucracy and law catch up to the new medium.
What is different about social networks is the speed and efficiency that they have become the center of our societies and our social lives, they are in many ways the new churches. So if our timelines are now the pulpits disseminating ideology, we have to ask — what exactly are we all searching for? What are we turning up to worship? Is it ourselves or is it the freedom to express ideas, no matter what they are, or what they cost?