By Caesar Keluro
Self-regulation by dominant digital platforms has ended. What hasn’t ended is the raging debate about how we can govern the internet. Facebook and others have become quasi sovereignties rupturing the democratic process and leaving in its wake a world in disarray. While policymakers globally, especially those in Europe and the US, grapple with deep concerns about the size and influence of tech companies, we have entered an uncertain era about the future of platforms and how we can bring them in sync with the need for digital health and fierce urgency of arresting social chaos.
In Nick Clegg’s brilliant piece on ‘You and the Algorithm: It Takes Two to Tango’, he argues that coming EU regulations on the behaviour of digital platforms shouldn’t lead it to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Let me quote him verbatim: “Reform yes; “forbidding” the sensible use of data no. I’d love to see the next Google or Alibaba emerge in Europe. But it won’t happen if Europe turns against the innovative and creative use of data. This is as important to the future of German car manufacturers, Dutch supermarkets, French airlines, and millions of small businesses as it is to big tech companies.”
The trouble with social media
Social media or call them dominant digital platforms have transformed our world. As it is today its negativity looms large as they have been unable to address their algorithm’s power to amplify outrageous contents, putting the world on fire and in perpetual chaotic pathways. These dominant digital platforms have been described as Doomsday Machines, digital control rooms and also as a massive system of surveillance that equips its owners to manipulate people’s attitudes, opinions and desires.
Critically also, we cannot argue against the fact that algorithms manipulate people as Mr. Nick Clegg has tried to do by disagreeing instead that the social media platforms are neutral and just basically express our innate cravings for the bizarre or just a representation of who we are. Also, we cannot make the excuse that humans are vulnerable, powerless victims, robbed of their free will to justify the outrageous contents breaking the fabric of human existence. We aren’t playthings of manipulative algorithmic systems but a race that has made significant progress by taking charge of our collective future, matching innovations with evolutionary regulations and ethical advancements.
Sadly, we have begun this new decade with anti-trust regulations laid out to whip these dominant digital platforms into line. From series of regulatory and legislative applications lined up, our world may struggle in chaos for the next ten years before anti-trust regulations kick in. By then the dominant digital platforms of today may have morphed into more powerful resilient systems thereby antiquating whatever benefits today’s US anti-trust regulations may try to achieve. This is because, what’s at play with dominant digital platforms is massive institutional knowledge, entrenched and morphing economic moat supported by rare talent pool, housing some tacit knowledge and a winner-takes-all paradigm that will make it more difficult for tech startups to disrupt even when aided by new behaviour rules coming in the EU.
Can we compete against the powerful understandings that dominant digital platforms have about us? Social media is not a mistake that we can leave it to its whims and caprices. But we can end Facebook and its likes by making them public utilities. These dominant digital platforms cannot be uninvented or disappear overnight. We must midwife the process of helping dominant digital platforms become public utilities serving us, helping us herald a new era where platforms work for our collective good.
The truth is that digital dominant platforms like iMessage, Signal, Telegram, WhatsApp harbour bad and polarizing content on private messaging apps. How platforms end will be how they evolve to address the influence of their algorithms and the intricate play of societal forces driving the evolution of these digital platforms. For digital platforms to survive they have to become public utilities managing the trillion human and machine conversations for the overall good of societies.
PR risks and fragility of the developing world
For developing nations struggling to imbibe democratic tenets and now tempted by the China’s authoritarian values; misinformation tugs at the social sinew of these countries. They don’t have the resilience of the Western World nor the technological capacity to managing social eruptions as it has become of social media. They will need new tools and paradigmatic changes to address the danger of misinformation and the need to hold social media companies accountable. Whatever positions we take on these issues, as we laid up at night we all should remember the capacity gap in managing social fallouts from digital platforms across the world and that these dominant digital platforms with its combustible extreme contents don’t just undermine democracy and but remains the “greatest threat” to our collective existence.
In all, our world cannot tolerate the fragmented Facebook’s priority system for protecting political discourse and elections. Dominant digital platforms should understand that when social harm doesn’t get the requisite attention as a result of issues not being considered enough of a PR risk to them, it doesn’t change the fact that it makes our world less safe for all of us. To combat inauthentic behaviour anywhere in the world is to save us all from ourselves. We may not need EU, US or even China’s regulatory handles anymore, what we need now is global regulations and ethical construct that meets a broader world in dire need of digital platform sanity.
• Caesar Keluro, co-Founder/CEO, Nanocentric Technologies Limited. He leads ‘Make In West Africa’, a regional Think-tank.
He tweets @kcaesar
Frontpage December 23, 2019