Social media platforms remain dangerous
In the wake of the insurrection at the US Capitol on Jan. 6 — and about five years too late — Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other social media giants are finally beginning to acknowledge some degree of responsibility for the disinformation, radicalization, and violence they enable. Banning President Donald Trump, Q-Anon, and others is a mere figleaf, prompted only by fear of legal liability under US law, or a backlash by legislators. If things are to truly change, there should be serious regulation of social media platforms that goes well beyond domestic law.
Anyone can see clearly that platforms like Twitter and Facebook have enabled all kinds of conspiracy theories, no matter how crazy, to spread unchecked for years. They have allowed politicians to weaponize any number of conspiracies for their own political, and even financial, gain.
Neither the ludicrous conspiracy theories nor the current brand of politics would have had anywhere near as much traction if, all along the way, they had been met by “gatekeepers” asking simple and uncontroversial questions: Why do you believe this? How do you know this to be true? Where is your evidence? What are you alleging is a crime? Why are you not presenting these claims to a court of law? All these things, however, have been circulating on these platforms for over a decade with absolutely no reality filter until the facts of reality themselves are no longer deemed credible enough to challenge the convictions of the believers.
When Trump says that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him, well over a quarter of Americans will take that as more credible than any fact presented to them because real facts have long since lost the credibility necessary in their eyes to challenge what they believe to be “the truth.” Had they not been stewing in the fantasy worlds enabled by social media for over a decade, this state of affairs would not have been possible.
So are we finally reaching a point where the social media giants will acknowledge their responsibilities for the kind of “information” they give unquestioned platform to? Not so fast. We have seen this film before, and the ending was not hopeful.
Facebook has hosted much worse conspiracy theories, much worse radicalization, and much worse incitement to violence for many years in other countries. In Myanmar, Facebook was the platform where radical nationalists agitated for years against the Rohingya minority, spread the conspiracy that this marginal border group indigenous to the country was the point of contact of some kind of global Islamic conspiracy to overthrow the Buddhist country. It was also the platform on which makeshift militias organized to attack Rohingya communities as early as 2012.
If we want to make sure Facebook, Twitter and the rest cease to be the conduits of the worst human impulses, and the instruments of social division that they are today, we must recognize that the only way to reliably achieve that is to legislate.
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
These efforts were picked up by the military, who were also active on Facebook inciting violence and supporting action against the minority, until finally, in 2016-17 the army removed as many as 1 million Rohingya, the overwhelming majority of the entire group, from Myanmar. They now sit in overcrowded refugee camps in Bangladesh. And Facebook? Facebook has not only not changed any of its policies and actions in response, but it is trying to resist even handing any information over to international investigators and prosecutors from the International Court of Justice, citing, of all things, US law.
So no, the social media giants did not just discover the consequences of their “freedom of speech” laissez-faire policies after Jan. 6. They have known about the consequences for years. And no, they were not moved to respond after Jan. 6 by the weight of moral duty. They have exhibited much worse failures of moral duty in the past. The only thing these corporations will respond to is the only thing they are legally allowed to respond to under the law: “Shareholder value.” The reputational damage from enabling an insurrection in the US, plus the potential legal consequence for being complicit in such an event, will affect shareholder value, and thus move them to act. A genocide where the victims do not have the power to attack them, or the clout to affect Western and American public opinion, will not.
If we want to make sure Facebook, Twitter and the rest cease to be the conduits of the worst human impulses, and the instruments of social division that they are today, we must recognize that the only way to reliably achieve that is to legislate. And legislate with global reach, with the full threat of sanctions and the rest of the entire arsenal of US law. Until we do, nothing will fundamentally change, and democratic societies will remain particularly vulnerable to “alternative facts,” fundamentally conflicting realities not based on truth, and continued social strife.
- Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Director at the Center for Global Policy and author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide” (Hurst, 2017). Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim