The other pandemic
Social media platforms now boast 4.5 billion users — more than half of the world’s population.

Advances in technology continue to change how we live our lives in many different ways. It has always been doing so, only now at a pace that we could never have imagined. None has impacted the worldwide population more profoundly than the Internet and, more particularly, its offshoot — interactive social media.

It clearly is something of great value. While the Internet connected the entire world, social media has brought its population into the same conference room, with each of us having his own microphone. And it is free! It is like a toll-free, super highway that allows you to meet up with anybody and everybody anywhere in the world all at the same time.

Social media platforms now boast 4.5 billion users — more than half of the world’s population. Average daily usage per person is 2½ hours. As information minister Robert Nesta Morgan said recently, it has democratised the information and communication landscape.

That can provide immeasurable benefits. It can be a valuable source of real-time information. It can enable us to get a better understanding of each other, to know how other people think and feel, to exchange ideas and concretise solutions to many of the problems that we face. It can offer huge economic opportunities as well.

But it also poses serious dangers. Rumour and speculation masquerade as information. Facts and falsehoods compete for acceptance. Social media can be used to cause irreparable damage to people’s reputation; invade people’s privacy and expose their most intimate experiences; exploit the most vulnerable, especially children; promote hatred; incite violence; and influence people in harmful ways.

Even before the emergence of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other similar platforms, the Internet posed its own dangers because of some of the content it carried. Those dangers have multiplied several-fold because with these interactive platforms. It is the users — not the providers — who supply the content. It is they who, with virtually no editorial control, get the ball rolling and keep it rolling.

Marketing power

The social media providers don’t charge you a penny for signing up. They don’t need your money. With 4.5 billion users they control a powerful, captive market that advertisers relish to sell their goods and services.

And they don’t just bombard you with ads. They target you. They use algorithms to gather specific data about you — the things that you view or interact with which tells them the kind of things that you are interested in. They build a digital profile of you and people like you, and they then sell that information to advertisers whose products and services your profile suggests you may be interested in. Ever wondered why you are pestered with certain pop-ups?

Several recent studies have shown that social media is having a serious negative and even dangerous effect on the psychology of young children. Children love social media in the same way that — when I was a child — we loved comic books. It is now their pastime of choice. They are constantly tapping away, sliding screens, completely preoccupied. Their parents hardly know what they are seeing, reading and learning, whether some cultist or paedophile is trying to mess up their heads, or some narcissist is showing them how to get even with other kids who may have offended them, or trying to persuade them that suicide is “cool”.

But it is not just the children who are at risk; it is the entire society. Social media is being used to manipulate people’s minds and take control of their attitudes, behaviour, beliefs, and how they relate to other people.

In a candid interview, a former Facebook president, Sean Parker, stated: “The exploiting of vulnerability in human psychology…the investors and creators understood this consciously, and we did it anyway.” This is corroborated by another former Facebook executive, Chamath Palihapitiya, who helped to develop the platform and who acknowledged that, “We kind of knew that bad things could happen,” and that “bad actors can now manipulate large swaths of people to do anything they want”.

The most pernicious thing about it is that it is done for profit. Social media platforms encourage what is called edgy or sensational posts that immediately attract the interest of other users who jump in either to view it or to add their own posts to it. The algorithm flags it and spreads it all over the platform for the more people who view it and, the longer the time they spend viewing all the follow-up posts, the bigger the market for advertisements — that is where the social media providers make their ton-loads of money. Last year, Facebook made US$39 billion in profits.

Regulating social media

Social media providers have found themselves increasingly on the defensive as the damage done by unbridled traffic becomes more evident, including cybercrime, radicalisation, interference with elections, as well as its influence in the commission of heinous crimes such as mass killings.

To temper public backlash they have created filters and algorithms designed to shut out postings deemed to be undesirable and even misleading, as was done in the case of some anti-vaccine rants relating to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Twitter even took the decision to permanently shut down Donald Trump’s account because of his “big lie” about the outcome of the US presidential elections.

But can a behemoth be relied on to regulate its own behaviour? And, is each of them to be left to apply its own separate rules to itself?

If not, who is to set those rules, and how would they legally and technically be applied? It cannot be left to each country devising its own rules. That would produce an unmanageable cobweb and most countries do not have the technical capacity to enforce them anyway.

The European Union has taken the lead in imposing far-reaching regulations regarding privacy and data protection. Its size and clout have made them work. The secretary general of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, insists that we must go much further and has included in his Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, the proposal for a global regulatory framework for the use of content surveillance technologies to prevent harmful usage.

This would obviously require an international convention that would have to find comfort with the right to freedom of expression — a tall hurdle to surmount — but he correctly sees social media, in spite of all its usefulness, as a potential tool for human rights violation.

Technology is capable of fixing the problems that it creates, but it is political will that must force it to do so. Unfortunately, international conventions take many years to come into being. In the meantime, public clamour is the only weapon we have.

Bruce Golding served as Jamaica’s eighth prime minister from September 11, 2007 to October 23, 2011.

Bruce Golding
Bruce Golding

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