Fake news, election interference and discrimination: Managing social media

By | | comments |
Mark Zuckerberg at a Facebook event (Image via Jakob Steinschaden/flickr).

With the rise of the misuse of the internet, Paul Budde believes that governments and industry must cooperate to better regulate it.

WHEN THE INTERNET started to emerge in the 1990s, many analysts marvelled at the opportunity of creating a platform that would boost grassroots democracy.

There was no need for a "middleman" and there were few barriers to ordinary people becoming involved, organising groups, discussions and events, sharing knowledge, insights and information, publishing opinions — just some of the potential attached to the internet.

And for the first two decades, this basically was what happened — in a very positive and constructive way. It did disrupt several businesses, social and political models but that was seen as "a new broom sweeping clean".

While all of that is still happening – and as a matter of fact, it has only increased – at the same time the ugly side of humanity has moved into this area as well: everything from cheats to plain criminals, misogynists to racists and bullies. While this was very unfortunate, it was not until more organised misuse of the internet began to take place, undermining democracy and democratic processes, that many people began to say enough is enough.

Interestingly, most of the misuse is aimed at generating fake traffic that leads to extra advertising income or click income, on YouTube for instance.

In proportion to overall internet activity the other, serious misuse is significantly less; but it has far deeper negative consequences, using manipulation to set people against each other, interfere with democratic processes such as elections and undermine democratic institutions.

It is important to note that this criminal internet activity happens more or less comparably with broader traditional forms of manipulations and is not limited to the internet. The fake news activities and the undermining of democratic institutions are for example carried out by President Trump and the same is happening in countries such as Britain, Turkey, Hungary, Poland and Italy, to name just a few.

There is no doubt that the internet has become an important tool to create division, hatred and conflict. This has more to do with human behaviour than with technology. Addressing only the technology element of this problem will not solve the much more serious underlying issues.

If division, lies, hatred, fake news, racism and conflict are being used by our leaders in public then it is not difficult to understand that people perceive this as a licence to do the same, with or without technology.

Firstly, it is important to state that it is not the internet that is causing all of this. So far the internet has created far more positive than negative outcomes and we need to preserve what’s best about it. Most importantly, this includes the freedom for people to express themselves, and for entrepreneurs to innovate and build new business models. At the same time, we need to ensure that we protect society from broader harm.

We can look at what we have done with other tools that we use — tools like guns, cars, chemicals and drugs. All these products and services have negatives associated with them. What we have done over the years to address this is to build elements into these products and services to limit the risk and increase safety.

This has been done through the hard work of everyone involved: the government and industry, as well as the users. As an example, look at cars in the 1970s. They killed three to four times more people than they do now and our population has nearly doubled over that period.

How did this change happen? Partly through regulation, partly through better products and partly through human behaviour.

Have we, as a result, eliminated all the bad elements of motor cars? No, of course not. But the risks have been reduced considerably over those years, to such a level that the negative (for example, death by car accidents) seems to be acceptable to most of us.

Is that enough? No, it isn’t. And so we are still trying to improve, through the combined efforts of government, industry and us, the people.

We will also have to begin to develop similar processes in relation to the internet. But before we know what we need to do we will first have to drill down to where the problems are and work out who can do what in addressing the issues.

Starting with the government, Mark Zuckerberg mentioned the need for a more active role for governments and regulators. He suggested the need for an update of the rules for the internet — particularly in the following four areas: harmful content, election integrity, privacy and data portability.

In relation to the industry, he recommends starting with data manipulation aimed at defrauding the internet companies. Here the social media companies have a vested interest in tackling that problem themselves as fraud cost them money.

The tools that they develop to minimise this can also be used to address other data manipulation issues that have arisen in relation to, for example, interfering in elections and fake news. As Zuckerburg indicated, governments will also have to play a key role in setting up the rules for this. This will also need to be done at international levels.

It will remain a cat and mouse situation. New, more sophisticated technologies to combat this will be developed and they will be circumvented by criminals and this process will continue. But in the end, criminal interferences will be greatly reduced when it simply becomes too costly for many of the groups to come up with their own tools to crack the ones developed by industry.

The best hope here is for a managed situation, similar to those that have been created to manage other potentially dangerous tools, as in the motor car example.

A very difficult issue here is the fact that what is harmful for one society, culture or religion is not necessarily the same for another group. A real threat – or even perhaps a reality – is that this would lead to a further regionalisation of the internet. Countries such as China, Iran and North Korea have already created their own walls around the internet and Russia is also trying to build its wall.

Another issue in relation to the industry is whether some of these companies are becoming too dominant and are showing monopolistic tendencies. A very human reaction to this is that we don’t tolerate monopolies. We, therefore, need to start looking at industry legislation: be it anti-trust remedies, breaking up companies or other solutions. I addressed this in a previous analysis.

Lastly, we also need to drill down on the people’s side, identifying and addressing what causes the problematic behaviour of those misusing the internet before we can address these issues. Education and information at schools and elsewhere will be important. They will deliver longer-term positive outcomes.

Full-blown criminal behaviour, racism, hate speech and the like are already punishable under existing laws; but our enforcement agencies are still not well-equipped to address internet-based crimes as effectively as they address similar crimes conducted in more traditional ways.

When I am alerted by people who read my analyses to information or activities that are of an illegal or criminal nature, I report them to the Scamwatch or ACORN but I have never received an answer from them. And if one goes to a police station to report internet abuse that will still too often elicit a blank look from the officer at the desk.

In order to get the people on board here they need to be supported by well-functioning institutions that can take effective action against individuals that are crossing the line online.

At the moment there is a feeling among the public that they are losing control over some of the central mechanisms of their lives. In the case of the internet, the lives of most people have been improved and it has created lots of new economic activity.

At the same time, it is also clear that the negatives of technology are such that people are not comfortable with the risks and safety issues. Comparing this with the example of motor cars, it is obvious that more work is needed and, whether we like it or not, people want action now.

So far this is resulting in some countries introducing broad and vague sweeping laws — laws which are not implemented effectively, because it is impossible to do so while they are still being written. We clearly need to improve on that.

This will become increasingly apparent as time goes on. My colleagues in America say that the problems with the hastily introduced social media legislation will soon become evident in Australia.

Other countries will learn from these mistakes and will adopt more realistic legislation to safeguard innovation, economic growth and freedom of speech. These core democratic elements seem to become the casualties of bad legislation.

With a lack of effective self-regulation from the digital media giants, there is however no doubt that major changes to these negative elements of the use of the internet will increasingly be regulated and legislated.

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

Support independent journalism Subscribe to IA.

Recent articles by Paul Budde
Global efforts accelerate to battle space junk crisis

Debris orbiting the Earth is becoming a crisis out of control and international ...  
Nvidia becomes most valued company in the world

From its humble beginnings in 1993, Nvidia has grown into a tech giant, reported to ...  
It's confirmed: Fibre offers the best NBN infrastructure

A new ACCC report has confirmed what many have known for years, that Fibre to the ...  
Join the conversation
comments powered by Disqus

Support Fearless Journalism

If you got something from this article, please consider making a one-off donation to support fearless journalism.

Single Donation


Support IAIndependent Australia

Subscribe to IA and investigate Australia today.

Close Subscribe Donate