Big-tech, especially the global social media, is the latest god that has failed. For a very long time, these giants were the harbinger of hope, innovation and source of unprecedented wealth through a channel that did not involve inheritance through bloodline. Teenage billionaires, an ethos of meritocracy and idealism for breaking the barriers of entry for the multitude of humanity in various areas created a culture that was full of positivity. This lent it a bit of immunity from normal cynical inquiry that was a routine for traditional business.
No longer so. The honeymoon finally got over when this big-tech/social media economy matured and its contradictions started becoming painfully clear. Labour issues of Uber drivers, service conditions of Amazon workers, diminished bargaining power of every player vis-a-vis big platforms, loss of traditional occupations like translators, journalists, musicians, artists who were exploited to create a viable service as data provider to become eventually redundant, are some of the more prominent examples of creeping disenchantment.
Social media with its skewed incentives involving rented out manipulation of the addicted users for unknown advertisers has its own deleterious story. The apogee of gradual dawning of negative effects of social media was reached in the aftermath of 2016 US Presidential elections, where foreign interference through social media had impacted the outcome, distorting the democratic process. This resulted in calls for regulation and control of these platforms. EU has moved way ahead in creating a rule framework for these giants. The US is also moving steadily to devise ways of minimizing the harmful impact of these companies. Now, we are seeing the same process in India.
India, due to its population, cheap data, internet and mobile penetration, has become a very big market for big-tech/social media companies. The crossing of Rubicon in political terms, can be marked to 2014 election where BJP showed a remarkable felicity with the new medium and established the validity and efficacy of social media, arguably, above the traditional media. This continued smoothly for the first term of the present regime. However, soon other political parties and players mastered the new game and the masters of social media started getting the taste of their own medicine.
Indian state, which was already behind in the IT regulation sphere, moved in with new laws and an assertiveness to establish its supremacy. This development needs to be differentiated from the global effort to control social media giants on the grounds of privacy and harm to the democratic process. In India, the credibility of these steps was weak to begin with, as the motives of the regulation and the direction of the enforcement were not benign. This backlash of Indian state against global social media giants, especially Twitter, has done a huge disservice in the legitimate fight to control big-tech. By its aggressive campaign to assert state power against the influence of global giants, Indian state has not only failed to make a dent in the unreasonable immunity that these tech companies enjoy but has severely wounded the project of effectively changing the malicious incentive structure of the big social media companies which is wreaking havoc on so many fronts including on the fate of democracy.
Why social media needs to be regulated
Social Media companies like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram etc have become very big and influential. What started as a promise of democratization of information and empowerment of the user has turned into something that is in serious need of regulation to avoid very real harm to society. Let us examine a few characteristics of the social media environment.
First, the business model of the social media companies. These services are free to the users and that is the reason for their humongous subscriber base. They are bigger than any nation in terms of sheer numbers. These services being free is the result of the initial idealism of pioneers who spearheaded the movement for free software without fully realising the dark side of the advertising model. These services gather user data to develop a degree of accuracy with regard to the user’s behaviour.
This algorithm- driven process is dynamic and relentless. This capability is then made available to the advertisers, which are very often not known to even the social media companies. User’s behaviour is not only not tracked but, through dynamically tailored stimuli, is continuously modified to suit the needs of the advertisers. This is very different from traditional advertising. In traditional advertising, we know the advertiser, it is fleeting, it is the same for everyone and not dynamically altered every second. In social media, a hypnosis by an unknown magician is continuously going on for commercial gain. In this business model the user gets free service but her data and willingness to be hypnotized is the cost.
Second, as said in the first point, the surveillance is relentless. This has been made possible by the emergence of a device that we carry with ourselves almost always- the smartphone. It is simply impossible for any normal user to turn off the data gathering by these devices. Services like social media and Uber, in fact, almost all the services on the smartphone, collect data about the activities, physical conditions and inclinations of the user. This level of surveillance is unprecedented and the big tech has resources and technology to leverage this data for their commercial advantage.
Third, the system is based on addiction. Behaviourism – a school of learning which has focused on the mechanical aspect of learning. For time immemorial humans and animals have been trained by reward and punishment. A monkey performs a trick and gets a banana or electric shock if something unwarranted is done by the trainee. Over time, rewards and punishment have taken more subtle forms like ‘likes’ ‘coins’ ‘views’. Nothing wrong with that. Problem is addiction by design. This principle has been applied by casinos and social media alike for inducing addiction among the patrons. The success of any social media platform is in keeping the user on the platform. This has been called ‘engagement’. It is not difficult to sense the extent of addiction in our everyday lives if we ourselves monitor our own behaviour on smartphone or on the internet or on social media. Not for nothing Social Media subscribers are called ‘users’, a term used for addicted substance users.
This system based on constant surveillance and behaviour modification through dynamically tailored stimuli causes many harmful situations for the user and the society.
First, while it is true that social media has given voice to billions of people, created communities and even increased accountability. This happens when people are able to connect and the cost of coordination comes down. However, the financial incentive that involves manipulation of the user through renting out the manipulation capability to unknown advertisers has overtaken all these benefits. Studies have proven that for social media algorithms, negative sentiments similar to anger, hatred or bullying are ‘cheaper’ to generate as they rise easily and stay for far longer than the positive sentiments of peace and camaraderie. Algorithms are programmed for engagement and it often finds that negativity leads to more engagement, hence the general tenor of social media is cantankerous and hateful.
Second, loss of privacy has deprived the world of the time and space to deliberate for its welfare. Fish bowl is not a conducive environment for deliberation. There is something like too much transparency. This power of this illusion of unmediated truth and politics has been used very effectively by the populists.
Third, when newsfeed/stimuli in the social media stream is dynamically tailored for every user, then every user is living in her or his own world, totally oblivious of the compulsions and issues of others who are having their own dynamically tailored newsfeed. This absence of shared reality, which is unprecedented in human history, has seriously diluted the scope of empathy in the society. One user cannot understand the anger and frustration of the other as he is not aware what has caused that anger or frustration. We stop changing in response to the experience and concerns of others. Information bubble, reinforcement of one’s own views without the benefit of genuine feedback from others makes for a troubled society.
Fourth, the logic of this business model has used not only users as data source but has taken from various occupations and created a market where the input from the occupations is not monetized. For example, translation services like Google are using the countless human translations done every day on the internet to improve their services and have reached a workable level of accuracy. This is creating an existential crisis for the translators who in the first place, created the groundwork for the online service. This is happening in music, art, journalism and many other fields where “artificial intelligence”, which is no intelligence without input from the skills of these humans, is replacing many occupations.
Fifth, our online experience is full of fake encounters. Fake reviews, fake followers, fake news, deep fakes, fake profiles, bots are a huge part of our online experience. This preponderance of ‘fakeness’ creates an environment where reality and rules of knowledge get severely damaged and fake rewards and punishments start governing the incentive structure of the online economy of attention and finance. This ‘fakeness’ is one of the main accelerants of the Internet, giving it its buzz and its flavour.
Finally, the impact on democracy. This manipulative world of total surveillance is not a place where a healthy public sphere can thrive. When all the choices, including voter choices, are subject to manipulation at a mass scale by known and unknown actors; when it becomes difficult to hold a shared notion of citizen welfare or constitutional rights and duties due to total lack of shared reality, when fissures of society can easily be converted into politically and financially lucrative opportunities; when relentless fakery makes informed choices impossible, when negativity becomes dominant notion; when accentuating the difference is easier than creating workable consensus and when conspiracy theories make surrendering of human freedom to a tough demagogue an appealing proposition and where algorithms that are deciding life choices. are perpetuating long-held biases- democracy sufferers.
All these problems have been present in the course of human civilization. People were mass hypnotized by religion and dictators, desires were manipulated by advertising, cults distorted reality for many or the voter’s universe was never conducive for informed choices. However, this time, things are different. Scale was never this big – billions in one go, collected data was never this big and was liable to be leveraged through computing power hitherto undreamt of. Mass customization has created a unique reality for everyone, earlier everyone was dancing to one common tune. This panoply of relentlessly tailored stimuli for mass hypnosis, opaqueness of advertisers and a business model that promotes illusion, negativity and manipulation is new.
Self-regulation is a mirage
As all this is based on a business model where incentives are skewed against self-regulation. Facebook and other platforms introduced changes like using human editors to check bias but these are band-aid measures with limited efficacy as skewed incentives will always create new ingenious ways of circumventing the half-hearted safeguards. Opaque algorithms are consequence-neutral and totally unaudited. They look for engagement and manipulation and they find that negativity yields the best result for them. Worse, they are trained on existing biases hence perpetuate them forever. Idiot demon of statistical impact is making these services inevitable and irresistible for the advertisers and other manipulators. In such a scenario, to tell these companies to regulate themselves and, in a way, discipline us, will be dangerously naive at best.
Answer lies in exercising the sovereign function of business regulation by the state through time honoured regulation principles that work to keep incentives healthy and prevent too much concentration of wealth. As far as freedom of expression is concerned, a framework is available in all mature democracies and that should guide the online environment. The EU has made decent strides in this area. However there have been worrying initiatives in the populist regimes world over which are bound to prove a setback for the onward march of healthy regulation of big-tech.
Rogues get into action
In July 2020 July, Turkey’s newly enacted “social media law” – made appointment of a mechanism for addressing complaints mandatory. This law also has provision for removal of content. Uganda also passed enabling legislation for its centralised agencies that regulate media in the country that they will be responsible for online data and controlling misinformation. The Wire’s Ombudsperson Pamela Philipose continues enumerating instances “In March 2020, the government of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán awarded itself new emergency powers that criminalised “spreading of misinformation”; while Poland’s right-wing populist leader Andrzej Duda narrowly won a second term last year and went on to promulgate in January 2021 a new law on “the protection of freedoms of social media users”. It was designed of course to achieve the contrary. Under it a body – with the Orwellian name, ‘Free Speech Council’ – was empowered to take down a spectrum of “unlawful content” ranging from disinformation to public indecency. This council, although not a ministerial construct as is the case in India, comprised members who were more or less guaranteed to tow the government line.”
Such efforts by proven rogue regimes make the work of regulating big-tech, a task already fraught with so many difficulties, easier to discredit. Unfortunately, India, the biggest democracy with a strong tradition of civil liberties and constitutionalism, has fallen in the same rogue’s gallery through its recent actions in the field of regulations of the big tech.
Indian response or the response of BJP government, from very beginning, adopted ethno-nationalistic overtones in sync with the dominant trope of the right-wing populism. This ethno-nationalism was used domestically to discredit post-colonial knowledge journey by highlighting the ‘neglect’ to traditional knowledge, such as Ayurveda, Vedic philosophy, over emphasis on certain epochs and geographies in history. In the hand of jingoistic elements, this focus turns rabid (hyper selling of benefits of gau mutra etc) and does more harm to the cause of traditional knowledge by turning it into an identity question rather than a debate on inclusive knowledge sphere. This focus, though a needed corrective in the knowledge journey of Independent India changed the focus from devoting resources to the traditional branches of knowledge to creating iconic Indian Companies like Jio, Adani or Patanjali.
Similarly, the focus on ‘Vocal-for-Local’ ‘Aatmnirbharta’ too deviated from the traditional script. Normally self-reliance under centralizing regimes tries to vest commanding heights with the state and tries to make the state PSUs the key driver of a jingoism driven economy. However, focus in this ‘Aatmnirbharta’ push was more on privatization of the strategic PSU’s and public assets. This need not necessarily be viewed from the point of view of crony-capitalism. The right-wing can genuinely feel that the animal spirit of the country may be unleashed better through private means rather than the archaic public sector tools. Still, the haste and lack of widespread distribution of spoils raises certain questions.
The third stage after the traditional knowledge gambit and the aatmnirbharta push is the bogey of international conspiracy which manifested itself in the renewed vigour in fight against international NGOs, especially of watchdog variety. Debunking the reports of Freedom House and Amnesty International has served right-wing populism very well. In a highly polarized atmosphere and tribal epistemology of such a world where evidentiary robustness is triumphed by the partisan considerations, international criticism gave a new handle to the right-wing -a mix of victimhood and national pride to the right-wing. International information ecosystem of both NGOs and global media was not encumbered by the constraints that the domestic information sphere faced.
Therefore, shrillness in the international media and NGO ecosystem against the Indian right-wing was much more intense. The Indian right-wing must have also felt the increasing intensity of the international criticism especially after the departure of Donald Trump. This departure freed much of the critical energy that was sucked by the golem-like hate figure of the former US President. Till even one year ago, Indian right-wing was surprisingly absent from international academic and journalistic discussion on right-wing populism. Apart from Trump; Russia, Brazil, Turkey or even Hungary were more prominent than India in western academic and journalistic output on right-wing populism. Departure of Trump changed that and in the last few months. India has become the favourite target of international scrutiny. Spectacular failure of handling the second Covid wave and journalistically juicy fight with the big-tech gave the required acceleration to this trend. More on this allure of insularity among the right-wing ranks can be seen here.
A dishonest response to a genuine problem
In the case of big tech also, the intended regulation and, more so, the direction of enforcement of those rules deviated from the global template. Globally, these platforms are under attack for invasion of privacy, security of the data collected, distortion of the democratic process and lack of cooperation with the security agencies. Indian IT rules have ostensibly covered all these parameters but while implementing these rules the focus has been on political aspects. Most of the compliances sought from these platforms had political ramifications. Establishment of ‘soft touch oversight’ was soon seen as a ruse to control online information sphere to hound uncomfortable presence there.
In the current climate of mutual distrust and open targeting of journalists and activists for their social media utterings, squarely puts the state’s effort into the dock. Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 has been criticized widely. The rule has been compared with the attempts of similar nature in Hungary and Turkey and other countries with pronounced democratic deficit. The provision of grievance by the user has been weaponized against the ability of the media organization to adopt a stance. This, in a democracy without guardrails of mutual forbearance and institutional restraint, has serious repercussions. Aggressiveness with which Twitter was forced to appoint Grievance Officer under threat of losing its status as intermediary platform, should raise questions about the real intentions of these rules.
This brings us to the issue of the impact of the Indian states adventure on the arc of growing regulations on big tech/social media companies. Given the crooked incentive structure of the social media companies, self-regulation has only limited prospects of success. Asking these companies who, after their initial flush of idealism lost track of the moral compass in the fields of lack of transparency, intrusion and hypnosis like manipulation. Their algorithms have a bias for negativity which is a bargain sentiment in the addiction and manipulation economy of social media.
This complex problem needs government regulation. These global giants have massive resources at their disposal to quell the tide of legitimate regulation. They also have the benefit of normalization of intrusion and manipulation among the native netizens of the younger generation. In such a situation, it is important that all the attempts to regulate this very critical problem meet all the norms of legitimate and just state intervention. Brute use of state power with special attention to politically uncomfortable targets will not strengthen this important movement.
Problems of social media in the philosophical, political, economic and social domain have far reaching consequences. It will not be a melodramatic exaggeration to say that the future of humanity as we know it is at stake. This is, to use a controversial word, a crusade/Jihad in the best sense of the term. This sacred fight needs to be fought in the most transparent and just manner with full public buy-in. Partisan use of this problem will muddy the water and the flow of the struggle will again turn towards asking the big tech companies to regulate themselves and, more worryingly, to discipline us. For which neither are they equipped nor inclined. Above all, it is not in consonance with their business model. Indian Government has led this fight in the most ham-handed and partisan manner, sending all sorts of wrong signals which, in the long run will prove costly to the movement of curbing the harms of social media. This needs to be stopped now. Hope the new minister will be more nuanced and mindful of the consequences of the short-term shenanigans in this all-important area.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal opinion of the author and do not reflect the views of raagdelhi.com which does not assume any responsibility for the same.
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An exhaustive article indeed. Leaving aside the political comments in the article, I, as a social media watcher will like to say this in agreement:
There have been talks in the US (where most tech biggies are incorporated) and elsewhere to discipline social media platforms and other big tech companies but these giants have proven to be too big for any control. Even billions of fines by EU and others don’t deter them from acts of commission and omission.
There was a silver lining in the form of distributed, people-controlled social media emerging on the back of technologies such as blockchain, but that has so far disappointed. Luring creative minds with astronomical salaries or making them business partners is a common practice in technology. When a challenging new tech emerges, they buy it out, sometimes just to kill it.
The author forgot to count China among nations that control social media. Of course China is just a bad example, not something to look up to.
Creating a strong monitoring mechanism under the UN has also been suggested by some, but that is unlikely given the fact that UN members’s views remain too diverse on such matters. Besides different nations’ interests and vested interests of the ruling formations, tech platforms will never allow such an oversight body to function properly even if it is created.
It appears that in the short term, individual governments will keep using their existing laws, create new laws and implement them whimsically to control the activities of social media biggies. The stated intent will be an eyewash except for a very few exceptions.