Until the last decade, media platforms were pretty much locked into a one-size-fits-all broadcast model. Success with advertisers depended on producing content that would appeal to the widest possible audience. The recent development of tablet and smartphone technology has been the game-changer, creating a delivery system available pretty much everywhere, 24 hours a day, along with highly personalised and segmented channels.
We are in a wonderful new world of information, education and communication but, as we have heard, there are also serious downsides that we have to address. In a powerful article in this month’s Washington Monthly an early investor in Facebook, Roger McNamee, describes how the algorithms created by Facebook analyse your responses to what you see and then give you more of the same. He argues that negative and hostile messages provoke the strongest responses and demonstrates how these have been used in the referendum campaign here, as well as in the French, German and US elections. Tristan Harris, formerly of Google, has talked about the public health threat from social networks such as Facebook. He calls it “brain hacking”.
We are legislators and we like to legislate: if you have a hammer, all problems tend to look like nails. Widespread, piecemeal legislative change is not the whole answer here. We need to ensure that our education system builds in an awareness of issues such as privacy and safety online, harassment and bullying, as well as critical analysis of the news. The major platforms must do more to create fake news warnings. Education about how data is used could create more pressure from users for transparency about how their data is used. I do not think most users of social media recognise that they are not customers; they are the product. The terms on which users engage—the permissions—should be rebalanced in their favour. Ideally data should belong to the users, not the platforms, and its use should certainly be time-limited.
There are some signs that things are beginning to change. An article in this week’s Politico notes that,
“a growing number of internet users are turning to new applications and tools that prevent companies and governments from building up a profile of them”.
This is in its infancy and mostly in the business sector but I believe that more will emerge. Education needs to extend beyond school and should definitely include legislators. We—I include myself in this—are not sufficiently well equipped to make judgments in this area. In New York, a city council member called James Vacca promoted a Bill to provide greater transparency of the algorithms now used to determine how public services are allocated. He has recognised that transparency in this area is a key to modern political accountability.
There is also the issue of net neutrality, currently provided for by the EU regulation on open internet access. This means that ISPs cannot block or slow down data for competitive or commercial purposes. Post Brexit, we need to ensure that companies selling content and services are not able to reduce consumer choice by abusing that position.
To end on a positive note, Reuters business news carried a story on Tuesday about how some investors in high tech are becoming increasingly concerned about the addictive aspect of their activities and their impact on children. They are changing their investment patterns accordingly. Pressure on institutional investors to pressurise the digital giants could have a significant impact. That would be especially true for the huge public sector pensions around the world.
As I left to come over for this debate, I received an invitation from the Westminster Abbey Institute to a talk about truth in politics and the ethics of negative political messaging in social media. Perhaps we should all go.