Regulation should curb the arbitrariness of owners, as well as the ‘absolute freedom’ of their users
Twitter, a global social network under the baton of unconventional businessman and co-founder Jack Dorsey, has permanently banished U.S. President Donald Trump from the network, making it impossible for him to communicate with nearly 90 million followers. The reason for this was the danger of further incitement to violence after Trump called on thousands of his supporters to march on the Capitol, the centre of the highest legislative power in the United States, during which six people lost their lives. Trump, impeached by the House of Representatives again this week, is now in great disfavour, both in physical and virtual reality. When it comes to social media, Trump has appeared everywhere and on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and everyone has given him up.
Suspension from Twitter hurts the most because that is where he was most active. After having used Twitter to target voters who had contributed to his victory in the 2016 election, everything he posted afterwards was very consistent when it comes to insults of his opponents or spreading fake news. It is open for debate if Twitter was tougher on Trump at this time because politically he was on a downward path, so they felt braver. However, the point of the story is that they have the right to do so, given the legal framework in which they operate. They do have the opportunity to “take off” the network whomever they choose since they are just distributors who allow everyone to express themselves on their platform and they create the rules to follow by themselves. Naturally, the story is not simple because with the help of algorithms some things are encouraged and some are stopped and moderated. However, platforms are still treated neither as a publisher nor as a content creating medium. The US is quite liberal here and the European Union has been wandering for years, trying to harmonize a set of rules of conduct, penalties and responsibilities for the social media, although the manner of incorporating it into its legislation still largely depends on each member state. Trump’s fate on Twitter opened up a series of questions and raised the issues of their complexity. From freedom of speech, which upset the German Chancellor Merkel, to the issue of regulation and responsibility, but also the great power they enjoy. Is self-regulation sufficient, is it correct, should the rules of conduct be adopted by private companies or the state, the states? What should or should platforms not be held accountable for? Given the power they have gained, is it time to “bring them under control”? How much regulation is enough and how much can it harm democratic processes? Twitter’s “murder” of Trump has raised a number of questions that need to be answered in order to prevent socio-economic chaos. We asked the experts where the social networks are going and what they think of the entire situation. The answers they offered are not unambiguous, everyone has their own view, but they agree that some kind of regulation of social networks is necessary, and that freedom of speech is also not absolute.
Davor Runje, President of CISEx Association, says: You cannot, for example, shout “Fire!” In the middle of a movie theatre or spread lies about people to harm them. This is not new and everyone is aware of the consequences if they decide to do so anyway. This applies to classic media, as well. Journalists and editors are responsible for everything published in newspapers, on radio and television. The standards are set very high. With the development of the internet, followed by the advent of social networks, everyone has been able to express themselves and this has triggered major social changes all over the world. The Arab Spring, e.g. – a wave of protests in the Arab world aimed at overthrowing the regime – was spontaneously organized through social networks. They currently enjoy a privileged legal status in the sense that they are not responsible for the content contained on them, i.e. there is no editor responsible for hate speech or spreading false rumours written by users of these networks. Social networks, on the other hand, have always tried to limit content they deem undesirable. Runje gives us the example of Facebook where you cannot, for example, post your picture from a nudist beach no matter how popular it might be, because there are rules you have to agree to if you want to be a platform user. Social networks are an incredibly strong medium and have already shown that power in overthrowing undemocratic regimes, but recently we have witnessed unrest in the United States that we could characterize as an overthrow of a democratic regime enticed by communication between President Trump and numerous groups propagating conspiracy theories. “After protesters tried to force their way into parliament, social media leaders did something they had strongly opposed for years invoking freedom of speech – they cut off President Trump and many others’ access to their platforms- because they estimated they might spread hate speech and call for violence. Naturally, anyone who is denied that access feels damaged because a ban from the social media is perhaps the closest punishment to excommunication, which has historically been considered one of the most severe punishments. It seems to me that this closes the full circle of the process of creating a new medium, from the initial romantic dreams of a better world and the overthrow of undemocratic regimes to manipulation of the broad masses and calls for violence. Now is the time to define, and very likely legally regulate, rules of conduct for all. Abolishing access should not be left to the arbitrariness of large corporations because it has never ended well in history, but there must also be standards that must be met in order to gain access to such a powerful medium” concludes Runje, an IT entrepreneur.
Vanja Šebek, Head of Digital Marketing Studies at the University of Algebra, points out that the future of the social media regulation is a hot potato in various circles – from communication to legal professionals, from state-level regulatory bodies to tax regulations.”We have to distinguish two levels of struggle: protection of user privacy and regulation of social networks as one topic and regulation of income and power of companies, i.e. owners of social networks. Trumpism has put social media under the spotlight that has so far illuminated “small” and “irrelevant” people (here I am exclusively emphasizing these epithets in terms of the impact on Internet users, not on the importance of these people in certain circles). Given that everyone in politics has an opinion, the support for Trump after his Twitter account was shut down came from somewhat unexpected directions. Until now, powerful, self-regulated political circles have found themselves under the regulation of companies that, to be honest, represent one equally powerful milieu – capital. How this battle will end remains to be seen as opponents have until recently walked hand in hand. Maybe it is just a matter of flattering a new partner, but we will romantically think this truly is a matter of companies doing responsible business” explains Šebek. He adds that we need to look at the Trump case from two points of view: first, Trump’s communication is based on lies, provocations, discrimination and calls for riots; and second, social networks have defined rules governing content. Thus, any social network can at any time disable the user from using the service if he does not follow the rules. Of course, some of the billions of users who do not follow the rules miss the “big eye” of powerful algorithms, accidentally or intentionally.”Everything that Trump did is against not only the rules of social networks, but also common sense. We must also be aware that fake news and misinformation, according to expert research, spread ten times faster than other news so that, compared to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have a pandemic of nonsense on the social media supported by algorithms that favour user interaction with content. What awaits us? Trump’s is a shining example of social media self-regulation. However, social networks are no saints in this story. Protection of privacy and user data is a problem that over time, with the growth of users, social networks and applications, only becomes greater and the development of legislation and regulation does not keep pace with the development of technology and markets. Companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon and others collect huge amounts of user data and protect them insufficiently. There are known cases of Cambridge Analytica, Clearview.ai and the like, which did not change anything significantly, except that they reduced the balance on the Facebook’s account” says Šebek.
Co-founder of Ascalia Dejan Strbad notes that the development of technology over the past half century has allowed it to become ubiquitous.”Man is still not a cyborg by definition, however, given the prevalence of smartphones, smart watches and other “smart” gadgets in our homes, we are not far from it – the only missing link is the way we interact with what surrounds us. The benefits are undoubtedly many, although direct human contact is getting lost and today we are closer to each other than ever in history. The most interesting manifestation of technology are the social networks, ideologically a kind of a modern agora. The reality, as it happens, is somewhat different: since social networks are free for the end user, the digital footprint of that same user becomes a commodity. Trafficking in digital fingerprints of individuals results in various abuses in the form of manipulations and sometimes in a creation of a virtual reality that meets the expectations of the individual”, explains Strbad. “The amount of data that private companies behind social networks have is enormous and ranges from data (images, comments, reactions) that we voluntarily share, to data that companies collect in the background (with whom and when we communicate, where we go). The power of private companies that own this data and the ability to shut us down is worrying. So far, these same networks have not shown the required level of accountability nor have they been held accountable for manipulations they have consciously or unconsciously allowed to happen on their platforms. I think the solution is not state regulation because the regulator is not perfect and often makes things worse than they are. The change must come from the users who have the power to choose what and how to use it. The beauty of the free market is that there are always alternatives – most of the big ones today used to be alternatives. It is definitely up to the companies to become more transparent and consistently adhere to their rules, which has not been the case so far. There is a thin line between good intentions and censorship, i.e., denial of a fundamental right, freedom of speech. The current practice of social networks with the exclusion of users is reminiscent of ostracism”, Strbad is explicit. Social networks are here to stay, they resist all challenges, says the co-founder of Ascalia and predicts: “Before them is an evolution in line with the evolution happening with their users. It is up to society to raise issues and keep social networks under the magnifying glass. By open discussion, raising the level of awareness of what social networks are and what their reach is, we can get the best out of them and minimize the risks they carry. Also, part of the responsibility lies with software engineers who have demonstrated that by boycotting the bad policies of their companies they can also be the initiators of positive change. This issue concerns us all, whether we be more or less active on social networks, because free society, democracy, i.e. the achievements that we take for granted are at stake.
Petar Tanta, co-owner of CTA komunikacije says that last year definitely left a mark on social networks, social distancing led to intensified activities of practically all digital channels and that period was used for further development. Facebook, along with Instagram and the currently active story regarding WhatsApp, is actively working on merging all messaging apps. This will allow advertisers to take an additional step into “closed” applications, while the public, and some regulators, rightfully protest.
“On the other hand, the people working in department of development of new technologies are actively working on the introduction of innovations such as augmented reality that will further strengthen e-commerce (Project Aria), as well as strengthen their position as an innovative advertiser. Advances in this technology will result in the ability to try on an item of clothing, seconds after seeing it on an influencer you follow on Instagram, without going to the store and spending hours searching for similar items of clothing. Also, there are announcements from the company itself that it will further address the phenomenon of fake news (Trump, QAnon and everything connected to it), so we can expect changes in the famous search algorithm. I believe that this change will be minor for most given that Facebook locked its APIs (application programming interface) and thus prevented the direct download of user data, which allowed large companies various manipulations – communication expert Tanta explains. So far, Twitter has been known for small changes, claims Tanta, so after expanding the number of characters and introducing the “story” format, it will additionally work on video, as well as on audio formats (Audio Spaces), which proved to be successful in correspondence programs. In primarily political communication they have still not found a solution for putting the bots in order. And it seems that Trump has crossed the line of good taste with them as well, so they simply suspended him. AR is also evident in other platforms, so we know that Snapchat is working with Apple to develop this technology, whether it is a product or an application remains to be seen. The absolute hit in 2020, Tik-Tok, has still been recording large numbers and they have started to develop cooperation with their users, so those with a larger number of followers can monetize it, as is the case on other social networks. What will it look like and how the likes will turn into dollars remains unclear”, co-owner of CTA komunikacije Petar Tanta told us.