“It’s like a machine designed to annoy you,” Charles Arthur has warned. The veteran technology journalist and editor (formerly of The Guardian) wants us all to think more about the role of the social media networks we enthusiastically and quickly sign-up to.
These platforms are “shaped to cause trouble”, according to Arthur, and the social heat – much like global warming – is slowly increasing and creating adverse, perverse and unwanted effects in our offline world.
“I got interested in the idea after being asked to give a lecture at Cambridge University about technology, tools and governments in early 2017,” Arthur told FN.
“The Trump election had happened. What was interesting was that there was a small number of votes that had tipped it to him in three states – Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvanian.
“The fractions were really small and there had been concerted social media campaigns [during the election]. Is that what made the difference? It’s a bit like global warming, where small changes pop-up elsewhere.”
The main social media platforms, in their defence, have updated their policies since the aforementioned events and the last US general election seemed to prompt a renewed focus on moderation. Mark Zuckerberg dropped the “we don’t want to be the arbiters of truth” riff, as just one example.
Despite his criticisms of the platforms, Arthur is much more understanding than the politicians and commentators calling for the social media companies to be regulated.
He argued that we are seeing a “maturing” among the networks. “It’s not enough to be the free speech wing of the Free Speech Party,” he quipped.
Twitter’s banning of Trump in January is one example of this. It’s a move which Arthur thought was perfectly timed.
“If Trump hadn’t spoken at that rally and if the insurrection at the Capitol building hadn’t happened, then I think they would have struggled to find a justification for banning him,” he said.
“But all the pieces fell in place to say ‘you know what, you’ve been a real problem and you’ve been a problem one time too many’.”
But what can civil society and governments do about the platforms and Arthur’s warning about social warming? Some lawmakers and others want to treat Facebook, Twitter and their peers and competitors like publishers. Arthur, however, is not on-board with this approach.
“I think it shows limited vision of what they actually are,” he explained. “They are social networks – it’s not any of the old things. To try and regulate them like a publisher is just small-minded thinking.
“The big step that happened was with Section 230, which allowed them to moderate as they see fit [without worrying about legal liabilities]. Also, there’s a peer-pressure regulation, where Twitter bans someone and Facebook says ‘that’s not a bad idea’. In that sense, they’re just forming a view.”
Arthur also conceded that “regulation is really difficult”, although he has some suggestions in his forthcoming book.
While we await for that release, FN asked Arthur, who also runs the Overspill Blog, what the role of modern-day technology journalists should be.
“Journalists should be telling people what difference technology is going to make to society,” he said. “They should really be asking those questions because if you look at things like facial recognition – is facial recognition good for all sorts of ethnic groups? It tends not to be good.
“Are AI systems equally good at working at who to lend money to? Probably not. You have to start asking questions that go beyond what is just being presented to you. ‘Where is the flaw in this and how can it be fixed?’.”
Social Warming: The Dangerous and Polarising Effects of Social Media will be published by Oneworld Publications on 24 June.
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