We have crossed a threshold where technology Facebook et al are potentially facilitating fixed elections and genocide. It’s time to act.
At long last there is wider interest in the Facebook and Twitter models and growing understanding of the damage they are doing to society. We have all seen the widespread interference in elections by state actors and vested interests; the rise of angry politics in the USA, UK and elsewhere, channelling discontent and splitting society; the spread of fake news; the reduction in trust generally and support for criminal or terrorist based activities; and so, the list keeps getting longer. Last week however I felt a threshold was crossed that needed to be exposed.
Last Tuesday Kevin Roose wrote in the New York Times about the activities of Facebook in Myanmar and other parts of the developing world. He explains in 2016 Facebook joined a partnership with MTP, the state-run telecom company to give subscribers access to its Free Basics program. Free Basics includes a suite of internet services including Facebook, that can be used without counting towards the cellphone data plan. As a result, the number of Facebook users in Myanmar has skyrocketed from 2 million in 2014 to more than 30 million today. Apparently violence against the Rohingya Muslims has been fuelled in part by misinformation spread by Facebook which is now used as a primary news source by many people in the country. Doctored photos and unfounded rumours have gone viral on Facebook, many of them shared by official government and military accounts. I’m sure there’s more to the ethnic cleansing happening as we speak in Myanmar, but at the very least Facebook can clearly be accused of facilitating genocide!
As Facebook, Twitter and Google were grilled last week by the USA Congress, all the attention was on interference in presidential elections by Russian state actors. Whilst this is fully understandable, I suggest it’s insufficient. The intelligence emerging from Myanmar tells us the platform model is a clear threat to society and urgent response and actions are necessary. Even though the platform companies are US corporations, given the state of politics in the USA, I suggest we shouldn’t wait for the USA to fix the problem. And it goes without saying that the platform providers, Facebook, Twitter and Google are completely incapable of exerting the governance because their business models are in direct conflict with appropriate actions.
I blogged in August under the title, It’s time to exert governance over the Global Tech Leaders!
But even though my thinking was probably radical for many, it didn’t go far enough. I believe now there is just one primary focus required – to make the platforms trusted. Some key actions include:
1. All three platforms must provide a Trust Review button where all posts, tweets and search responses can be rated for reliability on several dimensions, including Ownership and Validity. The objective is to ensure transparency of authorship and elimination of anonymity, and trustworthiness of content and elimination of fake news.
2. All users are encouraged to provide review feedback. Think Trip Advisor, where reviewers themselves are reviewed and rated.
3. All platform providers are required to provide open (service API based) access to content to allow external and independent actors to develop real-time AI based review engines, that contribute to the trust rating.
We might imagine that the platform providers themselves would be motivated to provide AI based Trust engines, but so would reputable communications companies, perhaps in conjunction with platform providers.
How might this happen? First it seems to me that the platform providers might just realize this is necessary and act because these actions would actually help their business model, and even provide empirical data that allows them to compete more effectively. Second, public opinion; we need to energize platform users to help them understand the damage that’s being done to society. In my earlier post on this topic I considered the UN as a point for governance; and I still believe this is the best long term solution. But right now we need action fast and triggering better behaviors from the platforms themselves is probably the best course of action that will protect their business model as well as society as a whole.
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