Paul Hopkins: Big Tech, and advent of the whistleblower – Meath Chronicle

Former Facebook employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen testifies during a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, 5th October.

Since their founding in the last two decades, social media companies like Facebook and Twitter, and even search engines like Google, have come under increasing pressure from governments, lobbyists and vested interests for purveying content that is seen as persuasive, politically incorrect, morally wrong or just downright fake.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg finds himself more often than others in the eye of the storm, though the billionaire repeatedly argues that he and his ilk are ‘neutral carriers’ not responsible for the content published through their networks.

Last weekend, Zuckerberg said a Facebook whistleblower testimony to US authorities painted a “false picture”. Former employee Frances Haugen said the site and its apps “harm children, stoke division, and weaken democracy”.

What is the social responsibility of social media?

What we have here is freedom of speech up against a contemporary culture that permits — even rewards — extreme, inflammatory commentary amplified to an unprecedentedly large audience through the internet. Donald Trump comes to mind, as do Iran’s President and Grand Ayatollah. Social media may have played a role in the Arab Spring, and the Twitter Revolution was crucial in the 2009 civil unrest in Moldova, and in the 2011 Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions – but the power of the now 280 characters is well understood by most regimes.

Social media rely heavily on AI algorithms to rank and recommend content. These algorithms take on board what we engage with, thus maximising engagement. The bad guys, people aiming to manipulate information, create fake accounts, flooding the network to create the appearance that a conspiracy theory is popular. In short, tricking both the algorithms and people’s preferences at once, creating illusions of majority opinions.

For example, a recent internal Facebook report found that the platform’s algorithms enabled disinformation campaigns based in Eastern Europe to reach nearly half of all Americans in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, according to a report in Technology Review. The campaigns reached 140 million users a month. People saw the content because Facebook’s content-recommendation system put it into their news feeds.

In fairness, there has been some moves to adjudicate content such as Facebook’s recent taking down of posts promoting Covid conspiracy theories. YouTube, Facebook, Apple and Spotify, too, have invoked their ‘community standards’ as reason for deleting content, while Amazon deleted products on its site that featured Nazi and white supremacist symbols.

For many European countries, with the experience of fascism and genocide in their modern histories, speech is regulated to prevent subsequent social unrest. For example, Google operates in Europe under different codes of privacy than in the US.

Here, since 2019, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI), which regulates commercial radio and television as well as RTE and TG4, also regulates video content on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube in Ireland and across Europe. As the world’s largest social media platforms are based here, the BAI now expands its reach across the continent, with its ‘rules’ that require age verification, parental controls and a ‘robust’ complaints mechanism.

Against this backdrop of content and freedom of speech is a social media landscape currently in flux. For example, while Facebook’s properties are reaching more Irish people than before, its main platform is no longer attractive to teens as is its Instagram or rival TikTok. The fast-growing video sharing platform has gone from zero to a million Irish users virtually overnight.

What’s also at stake here is the ‘brand reputations’ of these iconic ‘avatars’. Questions about data privacy, the commercialisation of such data, revenge porn, blatant disinformation, and outright threats have, in many countries, spurred a variety of rules and laws to curb unlimited freedom of expression and have created a cloud of concern over the once haloed firms.

From where I’m standing, with ‘freedom’ comes responsibility – responsibility to our young, to the marginalised, to political opposites, to truth and a just moral code.

Meanwhile, Covid-19 has shown the positive side of social media and the way it has become increasingly central to the public dissemination and discussion of vital information about the pandemic. It has also seen a huge increase in our use of such in our day-to-day dealings with one another, at work and at play.

One of the more positive responses has been the fast reaction of so many people with skills who, across Ireland and the world, have come together with initiatives to help frontline workers and scientists – and the rest of us seeking ways to cope – at a time of need.

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