The present-day world is characterized with digital means of communication, and social media is the most important of them. In fact, the twenty-first century has placed us in a world where we can connect with people across the globe with just one click. Although the social media impacts all fields of life, the most conspicuous one has been on political systems of countries. In this article, noted political scientist Francis Fukuyama has discussed the challenge the social media poses to democracy.
The last few months have not been good ones for the large internet platforms – Facebook, Google, and Twitter. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg asserted after the 2016 presidential election in the United States that it was “crazy” to think that his company had any influence on it. But Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, had to spend a week in Washington doing mea culpas as it was recently revealed that the Russians had bought political advertising during the campaign. Twitter had been notified that a handle @TEN_GOP pretending to be the mouthpiece of the Tennessee Republican Party was actually a Russian troll spewing racist and divisive messages, and that it had not been taken down for months after the real Party organization notified the company. More executives from the platforms will be dragged in front of Congressional committees and grilled over their responsibilities to American democracy.
The internet and the rise of social media has changed the terms of the free speech debate worldwide. There has always been bad information, propaganda and disinformation deliberately put out to affect political outcomes. The traditional free speech defence has been the marketplace of ideas: if there is bad information, the solution is not to censor or regulate it, but to put out good information, which will eventually counter the bad. More information is always better. But, it is not clear that this strategy works so well in the internet age, when thousands of bots and trolls can amplify the bad messages without anyone knowing. The platforms’ business models exacerbate the problem with algorithms that optimize for virality and accelerate the rate at which conspiracy stories and controversial posts are passed along.
The platforms, for their part, argue that they are just that: neutral technology platforms on which their users share information, just as a phone company connects telephone users. The legal regime left over from the 1990s reinforces this view, since it exempts them from liability for materials they host on the grounds that they are conduits and not media companies. But they are not neutral: their business model is built around their knowledge of their users’ likes and preferences, which they use to tailor advertising toward them. This is precisely what politically-driven firms like Cambridge Analytica did deliberately on Trump’s behalf during the campaign. Only the platforms have the power to do this on a global basis.
The sudden recognition of the prevalence of fake news, targeted advertising, and manipulation of these systems by a hostile foreign power has naturally led to a reaction in the form of calls, and in some cases action, to regulate the internet. The most notable case is the German law passed by the Bundestag over the summer to criminalize fake news, setting huge penalties of up to €50 million for platforms that allow such content to appear. In the United States, Mark Warner, John McCain, and Amy Klobuchar have introduced a bill that would require platforms to disclose information about purchasers of political advertising on the internet; others have suggested banning foreigners from doing so altogether. Such measures would simply bring internet rules in line with those already set for television, though enforcing them would be considerably more difficult.
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