This week in Melbourne, we faced violent protests from a noisy minority ostensibly fighting against mandatory vaccinations for the construction industry. It has been asserted that many of the protesters were anti-vax interlopers and from other extremist groups.
Like a lot of things these days, it’s increasingly hard to figure out what’s true. This is a real problem, and it’s pulling apart the fabric of society. At a time when the world’s knowledge has finally become mostly available for free, we are at risk of regressing. Entering a technological Dark Ages, if you will.
People who oppose vaccines, without legitimate medical reasons, remind me of Seinfeld’s bit on helmets. Some people’s brains are operating so poorly that they refused to wear helmets to protect themselves. While fringe views and conspiracy theorists have always existed, it’s ironic they can now spread their messages on social media virally to the unprotected and at scale.
The Anti-vax movement is the latest in a long list of problems social media is contributing to. Fixing problems now clearly evident with global social media products is much easier than Social Media companies make it out to be. The playbook from Facebook and Twitter, has been simple but effective: confuse the possible with the profitable.
Social media’s product is to sell attention. On the social web, enragement equals engagement. The net result is that mistruths, violent content, gamified financial scams, crime – you name it – all do a better job of reaching an audience than rational, civilised content. I used to love Twitter, but its landscape is now just troll versus troll with opposing views. Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey know this and still, they choose to ensure their secret algorithms leverage whatever maximises our attention.
If lies about the climate emergency were not spread on social media, how further advanced might our renewables sector be?
What type of risk does the continued anti-vax movement fuelled on social media pose to our post-COVID economy?
More importantly, how do governments around the world respond to ill-informed pockets of our populace on issues that shape economic and social policy? The threat of misinformation to our future stability and prosperity is real, with far-reaching consequences for us all.
How to fix social media
Three simple steps:
1. Know Your Customer: Social media platforms should mandate users to register with 100 points of ID as a criteria for participation. Immediately, this imposes on users a new level of accountability and traceability. Doing this will go a long way towards removing bots pretending to be people.
Bots are used to gamify social media, distort amplification of issues and manipulate trending topics and mistruths. These are the same bots for which advertisers are currently over-charged to sell their products.
It’s astounding to think that we need to provide our identity to drive a car, buy securities, open a bank account, obtain a credit card, board a plane, operate machinery, purchase a mobile phone, use a SIM card in another country, even to ride on a train – and yet social media doesn’t face the same scrutiny. Quite lopsided, given social media is the most powerful communications tool ever invented.
It’s time we added a ‘Know Your Customer’ element to the digital world. No bots, just real people.
2. Regulate algorithms: It’s time we exposed the ingredients in the algorithms that shape our digital existence. We need this in the same way we have transparency in the ingredients of packaged food.
We need Algorithmic Nutrition Panels that clearly outline what we are seeing and why, plus the ability to turn them off in our feeds. It may well be that certain ingredients in the algorithms need to be outlawed altogether. It’s hard to know which algorithms might be causing the problems when they are still regarded as proprietary secrets.
Nearly a century ago, the packaged foods industry used this playbook too, when secret ingredients included cocaine (in tooth drops), heroin (in cough medicine) and lithium (in 7Up). In real terms, algorithms are editorial decisions. What we let social media feed our minds is surely just as important as what we put in our bodies.
3. Legislate responsibility for platform content: Social media is media. They cannot be compared to telecommunication companies, for instance, who are not responsible for the content of one-to-one conversations on their phone lines.
Social media content has a distribution element that clearly propels it to the broadcast media category. They should be responsible for everything that is published on their platforms. It’s no wonder that traditional media categories can’t compete. If it means that all live video feeds on Facebook should be vetted by humans to avoid the issue of inadvertently live-streaming terrorism, then so be it.
Remember, if identities are not obfuscated on social media platforms, we can implement a rational policy that allows fair use and a system to protect both users and platform providers if abuse does occur. Of course, once we know who everyone is, behaviour on the platforms will be, by default, more considered. Just compare LinkedIn to Twitter and the differences are stark.
So, there you have it – three simple ways to remedy the ills of social media. They indeed create a cost for social media businesses, but it’s a cost of doing business and all very possible.
At present, social media is incredibly anti-social and we are still in its nascent phase. If we want to avoid the calamities we’ve seen in other countries facilitated via social media – then we should act now.
There is little doubt about how it has been and can be a tool for emancipation, but we should never forget that living in a civilised world is only be possible in a cohesive society.
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