The internet and the web promised to be humanity’s greatest project to share information and enable co-operation. It was created by the military and developed by the academic and scientific community. Since the web’s launch in 1991 over half the world has moved online and the other half are joining at an increasing pace. It took 23 years for 2,4 billion users to join and just five more to grow it to 4,3 billion.
It has certainly changed the world, but the question now is has that change been for the better. There are good arguments to suggest the answer is no, but that would be forgetting how humanity has typically progressed. Hopefully, this will provide some context.
Before the web, media was restricted to publishers that while reflecting a broad range of public views were held to standards about what was acceptable.
When the web was created the creators ideal was to make it easier for everyone to share information.
It worked, but some wanted to share information that was intended to incite and do harm rather than inform. Before social media that required everyone to create a website which was not that easy and initially the company that hosted those sites were liable for what was posted. A legal clause in the US allowed companies that provide a platform for others to post content would not be held responsible for the content, the content creator would.
The same applied to social media which operated as a platform, not a publisher. The issue is that 15 years after Facebook’s launch it has become one of the globally dominant publishers with an ad business allowing anyone to target its users with content. The same applies to other big social networks like Twitter and search engines like Google and YouTube.
Rather than foster conversation and understanding, some have sought to create division, distrust and hate. Doing so requires time and effort and the web provides a very efficient way to do it.
#BusinessUnusual this evening asks if social media could get any worse or if the worst is behind us. The history of book publishing might provide the silver lining. Join @brucebusiness and @colincullis just after 7pm— 702 (@Radio702) November 27, 2019
What is your view of social media?
Russia has long seen the opportunities for exploiting divisions, but they are not the only ones. The New York Times explains how the operation works.
Limited time to a broad audience v unlimited time to a niche audience
Online content can be as long as you like and posted frequently to slowly shift someone’s views, rather than the short summaries about a subject most news organisations create to maximise the number of subjects it covers.
Free speech versus unlimited reach
While free speech is a principle embraced in most democracies, the US constitutional provision refers to the US Government, not US Business. Broadcasters are not required to post the views of their listeners and viewers, they select those that best reflect the range of views about the subject and that engage with others respectfully.
Applying a view that anyone should be able to say anything actually does not apply and when added to the potential unlimited reach offered with target ads undermine constructive discussion.
Sacha Barron-Cohen addresses a wide range of issues affecting social media and talks about free speech versus unlimited reach at 10:15s
Your personality can be used against you
Online companies collect lots of information about those that use it, Google and Facebook are able to follow your visits all over the internet. The data allows them to determine which subjects you are interested in and it may also give an indication about your personality. Generally, those that are more liberally inclined are happy to consider the implications of change and may be more willing to embrace them. Those that are more conservative prefer to maintain the status quo, respect steadfastness and tend to be loyal to those they have got to know.
Using those small generalisations you can see how talking about society being transformed by having more than two genders or many more cultural groups to accommodate would not in itself be an issue, but when combined with uncertainly about jobs or financial security you might be able to make a connection between the things they fear and the groups that can be identified as the cause.
The same applies to those that are more liberal, rather than addressing the fears of those who don’t like change, they could be convinced that their resistance is due to underlying racism and bigotry.
Working on both groups at the same time and you can’t create levels of distrust to reduce any chance of meaningful engagement.
A contract for the web
It has become enough of an issue that regulators, social media companies and even the web founders to want to address the issue.
World Wide Web founder Tim Berners-Lee and others have created a contract for the web with the statement that “It took all of us to build the web that we have. It will take all of us to secure its future.”
There are nine principles, three each applying to governments, companies and citizens.
To governments, they challenge more access at lower costs and with no restrictions.
To companies, they challenge better affordability and access, respect and protection of privacy and that we do not create products that bring out the worst of humanity.
To citizens, they challenge us to be creators and collaborators, to build communities that are respectful and promote discourse and to fight to keep the principles alive by ensuring government and companies live up to their principles
It is a big ask and a starting point might be for each of us to consider how we arrive at the point of being able to say we know something. Philosophy calls this epistemology and ensuring we are all aware of how it works will go a long way to make processing the huge volumes of information easier.
Most of the social platforms have also agreed to ban political ads at least until a better system can be found to avoid it be used as a weapon. Facebook is still holding out, but even they have made political advertising more transparent and open for others to see which ads were served and how much was spent.
The history of book printing
That leaves the story of book publishing (and every mass medium), which followed a similar roller coaster as social media is now.
When the first press began being used in the 1450’s it was seen as a technology to spread the sum of human knowledge to everyone. At first religious texts were may more readily available, then scientific texts. The growth attracted many more businesses to set up publishing operations. To create a market they would look to expand on the content which began by printing religious texts in vernacular languages.
Then other texts like novels then work that might have been considered controversial, heretical and subversive.
At that point, the genie was out the bottle, political rivals saw the power to undermine opponents by spreading scandalous reports. Republicans were calling for the end of monarchies while reformers were calling for changes to the church. Some of the contentious work was justified and has remained as a principal of free speech while some were correctly labelled as propaganda and libel and regulated to protect those wanting to be published and those wanting to not be unfairly vilified.
It took the publishing industry over a century to begin to tackle the challenges of publishing. The same played out again with the arrival of newspapers and then the electronic media of radio and TV.
Thankfully with each new technology the time to realise there are pitfalls and that something needs to be done grew shorter. The web is just 28 years old and social media just 14 years old. Those that wish to use the technology against us have been trying to do so for the longest time. With a bit of co-operation, we can reduce those risks and return to enjoying the many and real benefits that social media and the web offer to the benefit of all.