A global ‘techlash’ has emerged as a response to the proliferating power and influence of digital and social media platforms such as Facebook (Flew & Suzor, 2019). This has arisen from merited public concerns pertaining to privacy, ‘fake news’, and other online harms. Given that these issues have largely flourished due to inadequate regulatory regimes, the public response has been a push for greater platform regulation and a restructuring of internet governance.
What is the ‘techlash’?
What public concerns lie behind the techlash?
1. Privacy and Dataveillance
Furthermore, platforms have greatly contributed to the spread of ‘fake news’ which has dismantled ‘free speech’ arguments that have long justified American platforms’ reliance on the ‘counter-speech doctrine’ by which an un-regulated and open speech environment is claimed to be the best solution to overcome false speech and reach the truth (Napoli, 2019). User data sets produced by platforms are used by fake news publishers to “target those most likely to be receptive to [it]” (Napoli, 2019, p.59). The Cambridge Analytica scandal is an example the abuse of data for political advertising in which microtargeted Facebook ads worked to boost Trump’s election campaign (Schlesinger, 2020). This sparked particular concern given evidence that being ill-informed led many to vote against their best interests in the 2016 election (Napoli, 2019).
These effects culminate in platforms’ utilisation of algorithmic machine-learning to ensure that the content consumed by users appeals to their individual preferences and beliefs in order to “keep people glued to their feeds” (Pesce, 2017). This leads to the creation of ideologically homogeneous ‘filter bubbles’ which “deflect news stories that do not correspond to the user’s established…political orientation” (Napoli, 2019, p.77). Subsequently, someone targeted by fake news appealing to their pre-existing beliefs is unlikely to see ‘counter-speech’ appear on their feeds. Therefore, many are asking for greater transparency regarding the algorithmic nature of content feeds, greater editorial responsibility toward truth, and external monitors who can signify to users the reliability and trustworthiness of their news sources (Picard & Pickard, 2017; Napoli, 2019; ACCC, 2019).
3. Online Harms
Platform companies have also been greatly criticised for their failure to adequately address online hate-speech, harassment, and inappropriate content (Flew & Suzor, 2019). Platforms “have tended towards light touch, generic policy making which can…be simply codified for machine learning” (Flew & Suzor, 2019, p.40). This is combined with often vague, inconsistent, and reactive user guidelines gives users only basic indications of expected content standards (Roberts, 2019). For example, Facebook says that one should not maliciously contact someone in a way that is “unwanted”.
A prime example of the inadequacies of platform moderation was ‘the fappening’ on Reddit; illegal acquisition and spread of celebrity nudes (Massanari, 2017). This was enabled on Reddit through anonymity, algorithmic push of ‘upvoted’ content and ease of profile and subreddit creation combined with a relaxed governance structure reliant upon volunteer moderators (Massanari, 2017). That administers did not step in until underage nudes were shared reflects how the platforms’ free speech model profits from and “implicitly legitimised” anti-feminist activism whilst marginalising those who wished to stop the harm (Massanari, 2017, p.343).
It is particularly difficult to evaluate the methods and effectiveness of content moderation as the process is shrouded in secrecy to escape scrutiny and so platforms can continue appearing like open places for unrestricted free expression (Roberts, 2019). Given that moderation is both necessary and incredibly values laden, public concern demands “more responsive, public interest-centred moderation processes” that are open, consistent, and easily understood (Flew & Suzor, 2019, p.41; Gillespie, 2018).
Who will best address these concerns?
It is unlikely that either governments, civil society organisations or technology companies alone will be able to adequately address any of the concerns driving the techlash. Particularly, it is widely recognised that continued self-regulation alone is not the best answer (Flew & Suzor, 2019). This makes it necessary to expel the fantasy that platforms are impartial or ‘open’ and instead accept that they should be subjected to media policy, regulation, and governance (Gillespie, 2018).
It is time to reconsider the responsibilities of platforms…crafting a new principle of liability tailored for [them]… articulating normative expectations for what platforms are – legally, culturally, and ethically (Gillespie, 2017, p.273)
This is due to their market dominance, global scale, and increasingly ‘editorial’ function in the selection, curation and ranking of content (ACCC, 2019). Furthermore, whilst platforms have made some effort to address criticism, such as Facebook’s introduction of an Oversight Board, policy makers are still encouraged to consider the ramifications of self-regulation in the hands of companies with an “inherent profit motive” (ACCC, 2019,p.7). For example, tech companies are known to lobby against regulation in a way that “subsumes the public interest under corporate priorities” (Popiel, 2018, pg.576).
Similarly, governments regulating their own internet jurisdictions is equally as ineffective as a standalone approach. Positive moves have certainly been made in Europe such as the GDPR and German laws imposing fines for ineffective removal of hate speech or fake news (Flew & Suzor, 2019; Napoli, 2019). Despite this, domestic policies are too specific to each national socio-economic context, making global policy better positioned to address these global platforms (Picard & Pickard, 2017). Ultimately multistakeholder governance is the approach most likely to succeed as it recognises that the public value of a platform “should be the shared responsibility of all social actors…companies, citizens and governments alike” (Dijck et al, 2018,p.20). Each actor will have varying means of intervention, but all should be actively engaged in consultation seeking to explore their “policy needs…develop support for action and learn the implications of proposals” (Picard & Pickard, 2017, pg.34).
The challenge of creating innovative platform-focused regulation should not discourage governments, tech-companies, and other organisations from addressing a growing portion of society in their justified fears pertaining to data use, algorithmically curated content dissemination and exposure to online harms. Whilst it is likely going to require a multistakeholder approach, change is certainly necessary, and this has been revealed by the regulatory ‘techlash’.
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