Social Media companies are the most efficient collectors of personally identifiable information (PII) on the planet. Facebook, Google and Amazon routinely use our personal metadata to identify users susceptible to certain forms of manipulation and sell this targeting information to advertisers.
Stay on target!
Targeted ads have become the preferred way for advertisers to reach their audience but they have also become the preferred method for politicians to reach voters. Just ask the Cambridge Analytica folks who used Facebook to influence Brexit, the 2016 US presidential election and over sixty ‘democratic’ elections.
Donald Trump’s outrage and lawsuits over being banned from Twitter and Facebook are also a pretty good indicator of how important social media has become to ‘democracy’.
The ability to manipulate consumer decisions regarding what shoes to buy or who to vote for has awoken regulators to just how this power can be misused to stifle competition, suborn democracy and create unfair advantages for a few Big Tech companies.
Ask not what you can or cannot do for your country
To save democracy and competition, governments around the world are relying on regulations focusing on moderation as a means of controlling the narrative on social media, presumably to make browsing a less toxic and manipulative experience. Unfortunately, those plans are starting to backfire.
Requiring Social Media companies to hire armies of moderators to police content posted on their platforms is admirable, but moderation can be used for both good and for evil. Moderation gives social media companies control over what can and cannot be posted on their platforms. That is a very dangerous loophole in their model that astute autocrats around the world are exploiting.
Brazil, China, India, Myanmar, Nigeria, and Russia have all fined, threatened or banned social media for distributing content considered subversive or threatening to ‘the state’. In Russia, the Kremlin has begun demanding that content considered biased against the government, be removed from social media platforms to control the political narrative limiting all effective opposition. Ironically, It’s moderation that makes this assault on free speech and democracy possible.
Use all the tools in your toolbox
Moderation control is a powerful tool that Social Media companies use to control the narrative on their platforms, but it’s not the only one. App store monopolies are another very effective way to control social media.
For most people, the Internet is mobile and information is accessed via applications downloaded onto smartphones and tablets. App store monopolies are justified by mobile operating system providers like Apple and Google to control and secure which apps can be approved as ‘safe’ for users. However, like moderation, app stores can be used for both good and evil. Sure, it’s nice to think there’s some kind of central control preventing the release of spyware or terrorist recruiting applications, but at what cost?
China has gone as far as isolating their entire Internet behind a digital firewall cutting off most Silicon Valley heavyweights in favour of home-grown alternatives like Wechat, Baidu and Taobao. These Chinese tech giants have grown into global heavyweights by copying not only Silicon Valley technology, but their business models as well.
China has the great firewall, moderation and regulation to direct the narrative. But they are now using an app store monopoly to exercise even more control by inserting a government ministry into the approval chain for new mobile applications released through a very popular app store run by Tencent.
Not to be undone, Russia just introduced a law requiring all new smartphones, computers and smart devices sold in the country to be pre-installed with Russian-made software and apps. Russia has also banned virtual private network (VPN) software and is beginning to build a national firewall of their own.
With great control comes great responsibility
The bottom line is that social media is a mess. In the quest for eye-watering profits, Big Tech have built technological barriers around their monopolies. By adopting a centralized, Cloud architecture they control our access. Supporting app store monopolies allows them to limit competition and stifle innovation. Finally, the algorithms to predict our behaviour have even enabled them to control our behaviour to some degree.
Astute politicians around the world have realized these monopolistic conditions also give them effective control over the entire tech narrative through the use of laws, fines and regulations. Limiting the reach of Big Tech is an admirable cause, but we must be careful – we might just get what we asked for.