What to do with Facebook and other giant social media corporations | #socialmedia

Google, Twitter, YouTube and other platforms just as bad, experts say, government intervention required

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Facebook isn’t the only social media platform that needs to be held to account, according to an SFU expert in disinformation.


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But it’s certainly one of them, said Ahmed Al-Rawi, an assistant professor of news, social media and public communications at the Burnaby Mountain school.

He was responding to a former Facebook exec who blew the whistle on the company’s alleged role in helping Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol rioters co-ordinate their attack, but she said nothing that wasn’t already well known, Al-Rawi said.

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“I’m not surprised, we’ve heard such allegations before and this is something we already know about social media companies.

“She said what everyone already knows. I mean, it’s just a confirmation from an insider what academics, policy-makers and journalists have been talking about for more than two years.”

Frances Haugen , a former manager at Facebook who has also worked at Google and Pinterest, has accused Facebook of hiding internal data showing the company’s algorithm was boosting messages that sowed division, hate and misinformation.


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Facebook had reversed a policy meant to limit such communication right after Joe Biden won the U.S. presidential election last November, instead of keeping the safeguards in place until after he was sworn in on Jan. 6.

Facebook, which has 2.8 billion users — 60 per cent of all internet-connected people on Earth — repeatedly chooses profits over public safety, Haugen said.

To be fair, Al-Rawi said, although the public discourse at the moment is almost exclusively about Facebook, many other social media sites, such as Google, are escaping blame they deserve.

“And there are a lot of problems on YouTube and elsewhere, so I see a lot of blame (levelled) at Facebook — and I’m not saying Facebook is innocent, far from it — but other social media sites should also be held accountable.


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“Just to give you an example, if you go to Instagram and search the hashtag QAnon, it’s actually blocked. If you go to Twitter, it’s allowed.

“That means Twitter is just like, ‘Yeah, go ahead, say anything you like.’”

Chris Tenove , a UBC post-doctoral research fellow in political science who has written about harmful speech and disinformation, agreed Facebook is not alone in deserving blame and closer scrutiny.

The Jan. 6 insurrectionists used other social media platforms, too, and some of those do a poorer job than does Facebook at monitoring problematic content, Tenove said.

“But they did use Facebook, as well, to help find each other and act.”

Chris Tenove is a post-doctoral research fellow at UBC, specializing in political communication, harmful speech and disinformation. PNG

Regarding Facebook’s policy of trying to limit some types of political communication and misinformation around the time following the U.S. election, Tenove said on the one hand it was the company trying to get ahead of an issue.


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“On the other hand, it was an example of the kind of ad hoc approach that keeps getting applied to these types of issues.”

Neither expert can see the clock being rewound; social media is here to stay.

For one, social media has been invaluable for some during the pandemic, allowing people to stay at least virtually in touch when they can’t meet physically.

The federal and provincial governments use social media to promote getting vaccinated, to warn about wildfires and tsunamis; small businesses use them to promote themselves; those who can’t afford data plans use them to stay in touch with others; police and citizens use them to help find and prosecute criminal behaviour such as, say, an assault on public transit.


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“We need them,” Al-Rawi said. “I would call them necessary evils.”

So what can governments as regulators and policy setters, do?

Al-Rawi took a deep breath.

“They’re not doing enough,” he said. “Governments should definitely put more pressure on social media sites. They should hold them more accountable. Monetary, financial penalties would be very useful.

“But again, it’s so easy for me to say (Facebook, Google and YouTube) are all bad, but to be fair there are so many bad actors out there, so many of them. I mean, Twitter has been escaping blame, though I’m seeing a lot of disinformation on Twitter, far more than on Facebook and Instagram.”

While governments might want to break up Facebook and other social media platforms for reasons of unfair competition or possible monopolistic behaviour, Tenove added, he wasn’t sure that would cure the issue of problem content.


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“We need to be able to think about alternatives to Facebook that allow us to communicate individually and as groups around political issues, and hopefully more productive ways,” he said.

“We also need to think about how to ensure Facebook is incentivized to do better through carrots and sticks.

Facebook’s vice-president of policy and public affairs, Nick Clegg , told employees in a memo last week that “what evidence there is simply does not support the idea that Facebook, or social media more generally, is the primary cause of polarization.”





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