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Technology Analysis

The existential dangers of social media

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It is widely recognised that Putin's Russia spread misinformation in support of President Trump's election in 2016 (image via YouTube)

There has been an enormous amount of discussion on the damage that social media is causing on a global scale.

While there is no indication that the companies who started these services had any evil act in mind – quite to the contrary – the social media have opened Pandora's box.

The technology itself is neither evil nor good, but what we are seeing is that it is enabling some people and organisations to deliberately use it for evil purposes.

What has gone wrong with social media is not the underlying technology, but its business model. The original inventors all talked about the enormous good these media could produce, by bringing people closer together. The reality, however, was that they needed money that would allow them to develop these social media. 

So, in search of a business model, they quickly concluded that it should be based on advertising. And once you move in the big business direction within our neoliberal economic model, you end up with the need to maximise profits and shareholders value. 

To "feed that machine" the technology was further developed with the need to achieve that financial outcome. The original "good for humanity" mission statements rapidly went out of the windows and the issue of shareholders became the most important one.

It is at this point that things started to go wrong and if it remains unchecked, this could indeed end up disastrous for humanity.

To get as many people to use the services and to get as many eyeballs as possible for the advertisers, clever algorithms were developed to make that happen. As is very well-known, bad news sells much better than good news, so algorithms started to spread bad news much faster as that brought in more eyeballs.

To keep users hooked to the service, "likes" and "notifications" were added as that tapped into the human behaviour of craving for acceptance, love and attention. Obviously, the teenage population is by far the most vulnerable group here. The notifications force them to continuously check their mobile phone to maintain and extend their standing within their group of friends.

The data generated from these activities allow advertisers to highly personalise their advertisements. The algorithms specially developed for what is best for the advertisers (not what is best for the users) allows advisers to bid for eyeballs, the higher the bid the more targeted the messages they will get.

The other vulnerable group are people with low levels of education who are easily susceptible to fake news. Link this to "likes" and "notifications" and you can easily see how fake news, malicious opinions and lies can rapidly spread through societies.

The same technologies developed for the advertisers can of course also be applied to political and propaganda messages.

Of course, the algorithms feed on "likes" and will provide you with more fake news and conspiracy messages if that what you seem to follow, thus further aggravating the situation.

It cannot be a total coincidence that many of the global political problems we are currently facing coincide with the rise of social media. Advertisers, politicians, criminals and others have been able to use social media in unregulated ways. Compare this with the regulations that apply for political and commercial advertising on other media and, in particular, the protection that is in place for children and young people.

Climate deniers were greatly assisted by social media, supported by organisations (such as the oil and coal industry) to spread their fear and uncertainty very successfully.

The election of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote in the UK would most probably not have happened wasn’t it for the use of social media by the people who wanted this to happen.

In a world with global conflict, it allowed politicians to use social media to basically start warfare without the necessity to physically cross borders. Their form of warfare is simply praying on those people that are susceptible to fake news and conspiracy theories, and this assists in undermining the institutions, systems and structures in the countries targeted by cyber warfare.

The sophisticated algorithms are making it possible for them to target their messages directly to the core people in these groups get your message in and these groups will spread it further and further. Within hours hundreds of thousands of people can be infiltrated without hardly any costs.

The nature of algorithms is that they are self-developing, based on the original design to maximising the spread of messages and advertising to the most appropriate target groups possible. The algorithms are self-learning and will get better day by day this, without any further involvement of the human developers.

There are a relative few people who do understand algorithms and even they rapidly lose control once these algorithms develop themselves further. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is not something in the future, nor has it anything to do with the dystopia projected in science fiction and horror movies.

AI is well and truly here and is totally driving the digital media companies and have done so now for well over a decade. These are now highly developed technologies and at least partly based on what we now can see very destructive principles.

Obviously, these new technologies have delivered an enormous amount of positive outcomes. There are few people that are willing to stop using them because we are all reaping the benefits of it every single day. Stopping them is not an option.

However, if we are unable to rapidly start regulating social media to stop people using them to undermine our democracies, it will sooner rather than later become an existential threat to humanity, especially for those living in democratic societies.

Countries such as China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Turkey, and others are already heavily regulating these media to stop their people having access to information and to increase the power of their authoritarian regimes by infiltrating our democratic institutions.

Obviously, this is not something we want to see continuing. In democratic countries, we need to regulate social media platforms to strengthen our democratic values and principles.

Unfortunately, we currently lack the political leadership to make that happen.

Paul Budde is an Independent Australia columnist and managing director of Paul Budde Consulting, an independent telecommunications research and consultancy organisation. You can follow Paul on Twitter @PaulBudde.

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