Just a few days ago a parliamentary Select Committee, chaired by Labour MP Yvette Cooper, challenged representatives from three of the social media giants – YouTube, Facebook and Twitter – on hate speech, indecent material and so-called ‘fake news’. Why, she wanted to know, did the companies not devote a greater proportion of their substantial resources to moderating their platforms? How could they ensure that those responsible for distributing potentially illegal material were brought to justice?
The reps sat before the panel like three shame-faced schoolboys. In the end they received nothing stronger than a stern telling off.
But this is a serious issue. Social media influence has been widely linked to the populist surges that have unsettled Western democracies. When sites like Facebook and YouTube were created over a decade ago, they were just a source of light entertainment, free at the point of access – a kind of NHS for cat pictures. By 2016, social networking sites had become one of the main ways for people to consume news.
This hasn’t negated traditional news outlets, since TV and print media now also route through social media – where ratings are measured not only in likes and shares, but also in views which – in turn – translate to advertising revenue.
Social media collects, monitors and analyses our data, primarily for the purposes of targeting both commercial and political advertising. Social media shares data with government agencies; you might even remember that in 2014 Facebook made a public apology for undertaking secret psychological, mood-altering experiments on 700,000 unsuspecting users. For the most part we taciturnly accept such incursions as a “small price to pay” for all the perceived benefits offered by social media and the internet more widely – over a billion people use Facebook every single day and YouTube, a Google subsidiary, has 30 million visits daily.
But think about it: how often do you register with a new website using your Facebook credentials, or linking your PayPal account? Ever wonder how much collective data is generated by the linking of your various accounts and patterns of internet usage?