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A Social Reckoning

13 January 2021 7:15 PM
Digital technology

How to balance free speech with constructive engagement and manage it all as a business.

This is the challenge to social media companies and any company that interacts with the public.

A few illustrations to help frame the issue.

The Domino effect

The idea that one thing leads to another, the first and the last may be very different and the first very likely often could not itself lead to the last but with so many things able to connect and given the speed things can change, the domino effect can be dramatic and disastrous. Elon Musk is a fan of memes, and posted the one below on Twitter after the storming of the US Capitol by Trump supporters.

It compared a program to rate women at college with the rioters entering the US Capitol buildings. Facebook’s origins were a simple program that allowed Harvard students to rate fellow students. Its growth and success to become the de facto social app used by over 2 billion people meant that it certainly was used to organise some of the groups that went to Washington and then marched on the seat of the US Government. It was never Facebook's intention for that to happen, but it was not difficult to see that it could happen especially after similar violence was fanned in Pakistan and Myanmar in the past.

The Arab Spring and the Ice Bucket Challenge showed how well a message could travel through the network, but we all hoped that only good causes would get that sort of traction. Unfortunately what works for good causes can be used for any cause.

The consequence of your actions

It may seem obvious to say that while it may be important to allow for the free exchange of ideas, it should not mean freedom from the potential consequences of doing so. The most used example is to not shout fire in a theatre. You may be entitled to say it, but doing so may cause alarm and panic and injury as those inside try escape.

Yet for many they can’t see that sharing information that is not true can be the same as shouting fire when there isn’t one.

An additional point on this is how this impacts individuals differently to business. A business is entitled to refuse service to someone that is abusive, but the expectation is that the business can’t be abusive in return. It may seem strange that we can accept that two people in a business may get into an argument and even a fight and there would be a process to determine who was at fault for starting it. If however one of those in the fight was an employee, then the expectation is that the employee can’t react in the same way and if they did the employee would be in the wrong even if the customer had initiated the altercation.

So how should our varied social rules be applied when we create a virtual opportunity for engagement with people that may have very different views to yours.

The Fourth Estate

We still speak of the fourth estate when talking about the press, but do you know what is represented by the other three estates?

The idea relates to how society was once organised, with the first estate being the clergy, the second estate, the nobility and the third estate the citizens.

The first two estates enjoyed more power and influence than the third. After the French Revolution the idea that there should be a way to balance the power of the first two estates led to a fourth estate to act as the voice to both hold the powerful to account and to reflect the reality of the regular citizen.

The balance was and is an uncomfortable one. The first two estates held the power, but the second two estates could remove it if that power was not used in the best interests of everyone.

These days the clergy and nobility have been replaced by governments and business.

You can imagine that a system where everyone had power to harm others with limited oversight would be bad as would a system where no-one had power to do anything. The ideal is for each person to have enough power but that a balance exists to prevent them using that is harmful to the rest of the group.

For the press to rival the power of the nobility and clergy, they needed credible information and a means to distribute it. The printing press was the first opportunity to get the reach with information able to be replicated accurately and distributed widely, with the improvements in cost and printing scale, newspapers became a powerful force able to report on events within a day of the event having occurred. The telegraph and telephone allowed information to be sent and written up even quicker.

Radio allowed it to be done in real time and TV allowed for the images too.

All these media were expensive to operate and access was limited to those that would take responsibility for what was published. With each there rogues who sought to make a quick buck or use it to upset the power balance for their own interests. In time regulations made that less likely and the balance was maintained.

The internet seemed to be the utopia of giving everyone the power to distribute information freely although in the early days there were also not that many users.

But now most have access and certain platforms like Facebook are so large that a single post can be shared globally instantly, it may the kind of content that allows us to watch humanity fire a Tesla into space but it can also allow a terrorist to live stream a mass murder in New Zealand.

Restoring the balance

The scale of the access and the speed with which information could be shared has made moderation very difficult. Trying to silence someone after they shout fire in a theatre is not good enough, but how could you stop it?

Pandora’s box

In the Greek myth the gods gave humans a box they were told to not open, Pandora did open it and released a variety of evils into the world. She attempted to quickly close it but it was too late and the world was changed.

The intended positives of making everyone a publisher has come with the negatives of giving power to individuals and groups that either can’t manage it or choose to use it to harm.

There is not closing the box, the best we can do is find a way to balance it again. Thankfully there was one thing left in the Pandora box, hope and that will be needed to address the current low point we have reached.

How to fix things

For a start, there needs to be a shift to individuals, companies and the platforms themselves accepting that they are responsible for what they post.

Platforms would need to develop means to limit what can be shared when by users. Using a process to authenticate users will be the first step. If initial posts with limited reach do no harm the user will gain more access to publish more widely and have the content be shared sooner.

Rules that apply to users that seek to operate as media, brands, celebrities, political figures and government will have their own sub set of requirements to adhere to. Failure to adhere needs swift and decisive enforcement but the platforms need an independent body to manage the process of refining the policies and handling the challenges when a user believes there was a mistake.

Those consuming the content should also bear a responsibility for re-sharing content, effectively becoming the publisher of that content and so subject to similar publishing rules.

Perhaps better than actually sharing or reacting to the content publicly the support would be private but allow the platform to use it as a signal to share that content more widely and to those who also interact with you.

Endorsing content that turns out to have issues will allow the user to be informed of the issue and hopefully be directed to more credible information. The platform once it is aware a post was problematic can have it removed.

For groups looking to co-ordinate the sharing of false information the entire group can be subject to limitations or censure.

There are many other elements that can be implemented but first we need to accept that the lofty notion of free speech for everyone is not realistic and that while a noble goal, the opportunity for it to be abused is guaranteed to undermine the positives.

We will all have more access to information than any humans that have ever lived. We will have the ability to connect and in smaller groups discuss things more openly.

But unless we adopt this new normal, we can expect the social platforms to remain toxic.

Social is the tip of the iceberg

Getting a handle on social platforms is an important first step but does not address how to manage the equally powerful options for good and bad that exist with private messaging apps.

With most offering encryption to protect privacy, it allows for citizens to securely communicate and organise, but there is no difference between organising a surprise party or a terror attack. It is the same tool. Something else will need to be used to better manage this.

The soon to be implemented updates to WhatsApp may be the start of an answer. While the messages remain private the interactions will be collected and used. If a group that interacts infrequently begins interacting a lot, it would suggest something is being planned or something significant happened. Looking at the rest of the actions of the group including what they might do publicly and being able to tell where they are and where they have moved to may allow for patterns to be determined to allow parties and plots to be identified.

Again using an alternative to avoid that may seem like a good thing especially for those subject to unfair political pressure, but what we need is a balance of what may be accessed with approval from a credible independent body and what must be kept private.

Currently countries are the final judge for setting legal regulations, but multinational companies may not subject themselves to those rules. That might be a good thing if the intent is to suppress but may be the opposite when the lack of accountability can result in harm.

It becomes even more difficult for countries to regulate when the option for access to a network that can’t be blocked by counties becomes a reality. Starlink will allow anyone with a dish and an account to access the web and authorities will need to track down each user in order to shut it down.

The long term goal would be a set of internationally accepted and enforced standards that are adopted and managed by companies, governments and civic groups under the auspices of an international body like the UN.

It will not be easy and it will not be quick, but in order to learn the lessons of the mistakes of Facebook and the willingness of some like Donald Trump to push his agenda above anyone else, the situation is only likely to get worse.

I am not sure if we should consider social platforms as the fifth estate, but perhaps Mark Zuckerberg has a point in acknowledging that they are another base of power and a means to bring balance to the others. Right and wrong are hard to determine sometimes, but having a balance should allow for the good to remain a positive while limiting the how negative the bad can get.

13 January 2021 7:15 PM
Digital technology

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