WASHINGTON, Nov. 1, 2017 - Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch (L) and Twitter Acting General Counsel Sean Edgett arrive for a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., the United States, on Nov. 1, 2017. U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee held a hearing on Wednesday with Facebook, Twitter and Google on Social Media Influence in the 2016 U.S. Elections. (Photo and caption from http://www.prokerala.com/news/photos/u-s-washington-d-c-hearing-social-media-elections-314970.html)

Waking Up: The Not-So-Gentle Tech Giants

Recent events have shown that Facebook, Twitter, and the like are not the gentle giants that we often take them to be. The congressional hearings into these companies’ behavior should serve as a wake-up call to Americans who have regarded them as omniscient (but benevolent) powers whose ever-growing clout is an indominable force for good. Regardless of the hearings’ result, the fact is that these companies now single-handedly possess the ability to influence America’s democratic system – and that this power is not something that Americans should welcome.

But where does this power come from? The answer is simple: every one of us – that is, all of us who have a profile on social media or use one of the instant messaging platforms associated with the tech giants. The amount of information that we willingly give up to these companies is, frankly speaking, absurd – we provide them with information on our friends, our location, and even our love lives – and while not all of it may be publicly accessible on a Facebook page, we still trust the company to deliver our private messages securely without its contents being compromised. Imagine trying to explain the rationale for using instant messaging to your typical 20th-century telephone-user: in order to save myself the 30 extra seconds it requires to make a phone call, I am willing to give up most of my personal information and the content of messages to my loved ones to a third party, who then has the license to keep it indefinitely and use it in whichever way they want without your consent. The degree to which we are willing to place trust in these companies has changed dramatically in the past five years alone – remember when the automatic location tracking of Google Maps was a controversial issue? Now people are perfectly happy leaving their location tracking on all the time, even for their photos – and also allowing Google to scan all of these images, letting the company know exactly what their friends and family look like.

With this immense trust that people place in these platforms in mind, it should be no surprise that people also place immense trust in the content posted on these websites. The enormous quantities of information collected by the company allow the platform to target us with advertisements and content that we find appealing, which increases our trust in the content’s veracity. And when this content, even if ideologically-consistent with our own beliefs, is meant to serve the agenda of foreign interests and exploit the divisions among the American people, it can easily be said that this naïve trust in the ability of these platforms to provide accurate information is a problem. But there is another aspect to this debate about power which must be examined, which is not one about the influence of foreign enemies on America’s democracy, but about the tech companies themselves. These companies hold immense amounts of data on everybody who uses their services – which between Google, Facebook, and Apple is probably the vast majority of the population. There organizations operate as benevolent dictatorships, possessing the ability to ruin an individual’s life, but which choose not to use this data for malevolent purposes. There are exceptions to this, but for the most part, Google and Apple users can expect that their data will not be released to the general public or used to blackmail them. But what happens if the company accidentally releases a software update with a faulty encryption system for personal messages? Or if the Zuckerbergs and Tim Cooks of the world (who are far from politically-unbiased individuals, but at least place some inherent moral value in their users’ privacy) are no longer leading these companies? What happens if a CEO with more sinister motivations becomes the person to which billions entrust their personal lives and reputations? These situations may seem far-fetched, but they are a distinct possibility – and why Americans should proceed with caution when placing personal information on social media.

With a centralized command structure and few checks and balances on their power to silence certain voices, these companies effectively operate as dictatorships with the ability to control an information pipeline trusted by billions around the globe. This is exactly the opposite sort of organization which Americans should lay their trust in – our system of government is based around the decentralization of power and the ability to conduct free and informed debates without interference – two characteristics which the social media platforms of today seem to lack. This is why the two solutions that Western governments have proposed to deal with misinformation and political polarization on social medias– having governments directly regulate the content of the platform, or having the company regulate itself – do not solve the underlying problem with these organizations. The first solution is akin to what China does – place government-trained censors in the organization in order to cleanse “destabilizing” content, which may stop the company from pushing its own agenda, but permits the government to mold online discourse to its ideological preferences. The second solution encourages companies to hire “content managers” (a kind euphemism for censor) with the authority to remove any content deemed by the platform to be inappropriate or perpetuating fake news, as is currently being trialed in Germany. Both effectively limit free expression to whatever the government or the company deems suitable for publishing – which contradicts the whole point of having open social media platforms in the first place. So how can social media platforms continue to be places of free and informed debate without powerful interest groups intervening? Is it time to abandon social media all together?

Unfortunately, there is no clear answer to this conundrum. The fact is that social media will be with us for the foreseeable future, and people will continue to place their trust (and their personal information) in organizations with immense potential to personally harm us and our democratic system. After all, who could live without it? As with all major technological advances such as the Industrial Revolution, this new technology will have enormous sociopolitical implications in the coming years. And it is only getting started.

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