After the Christchurch shooting, the political will to regulate social media companies is stronger than ever, even if the understanding of what precisely to do is not.
Government, fearful of another livestreamed slaughter, has made it a criminal offence for platforms to host offending material that is not “expeditiously" taken down.
In its current form, social media is too socially chaotic and destructive.Credit:Dado Ruvic
The tech community warns that criminalising outcomes in rushed-through legislation can actually hurt the tech industry, here and abroad.
Nevertheless, the broader reality is inescapable: while the engineers of Silicon Valley have built amazing machines, only recently have they given thought to exactly what kind of world they were engineering.
In its current form, social media is too socially chaotic and destructive. It’s not simply the ability to livestream human slaughter that is problematic, it’s that the reasoning behind important public debates is out of reach of society itself.
This is on vivid display in Britain, where the government is struggling to come to an agreement on the deal for the UK to exit the European Union.
The referendum that brought about this conundrum, you’ll remember, was supercharged by social media campaigning and so-called dark posts that don’t show up in timelines but are served privately to users based on their profile preferences.
As writer Peter Pomerantsev so lucidly notes, the Leave campaign used targeted, dark posts that “tapped into utterly different grievances to get people to vote for Brexit".
“When each little group votes for a different reason the other doesn’t know about,” Pomerantsev writes “then how can one reach consensus on the meaning of the result?”
The lack of consensus is evident in Britain’s Parliament more than two years later, with no agreement on exiting the EU in sight. This may reflect the fact that there is no, and never was, a shared set of motivations for leaving the EU.
A similar confusion was in view throughout the US presidential campaign when the media struggled to explain not just Donald Trump’s rise, but his success, given the candidate’s policy incoherence.
The true motivations of voters in 2016 swing states, meanwhile, remain conflicted and clouded, out of view of the public, the media, and even politicians.
Algorithms reward engagement which is central to the social media’s “free model” that doesn’t charge people for use.
From our own observation, we can see what goes viral on social media: epic fails, fiery crashes, and first-person human slaughter videos, too.
Since algorithms, not humans, decide what we see, and consequently shape what we experience, on social media, the public has a right to know what material, events, and patterns those data-sifting equations privilege.
This is an area Australia is already considering with the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission’s report on the impact of digital platforms on the marketplace and media.
The commission suggests regulators "report publicly on the performance and impact of key algorithms and policies" without demanding that the equations are themselves published.
Focusing on the mathematical thought processes that decide what content is shared and promoted would be an effective way for the public, through their government, to gain a much better vantage on the world around them.
This is all important in a “future-shock” moment like the one we’re living through today.
This government’s social media legislation has drawn cries from the tech industry. Rules aimed at understanding algorithm preference may well draw a similar response. But such targeted regulation shouldn’t.
Executives like Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey recognise they have reshaped the world, now is time for some meaningful public oversight.
Monitoring algorithms, and making their specific effect part of our nation’s knowledge, is a better outcome than more blunt-force regulation.
Yes, the government would have to build expertise to understand and monitor algorithms effectively.
The government should not shy away from this task. There is a lot to gain from its successful completion, including a more informed, sensible public conversation, which is in short supply in these times.
Such a program would also develop a deeper pool of tech talent at home, also a sought-after goal.
Shedding light on algorithms would also benefit global democracy in a time when authoritarians seem to have stolen the march on technology for political use.
There are national security grounds for developing this area of expertise.
With the growing influence of Chinese social media on Australian politics, understanding the automated decision-making driving content online will be important.
Even if Chinese companies were opaque on the issue, local expertise built up in this area will help the government, and democracies everywhere, to make a more informed assessment about Chinese, as well as Western, social media platforms.
With the growing popularity of WeChat and Tiktok in global markets, this should be a priority.
Efforts to understand algorithms would point democracies to a new destination on the horizon, a place where their citizens can understand how the information they encounter on social media is skewed.
Once they understand how it is skewed, people can recalibrate their natural, healthy scepticism for our current information age.
In turn, voters can better understand the path the country needs to take for democracy to navigate forwards in the 21st century.
Chris Zappone is an Age senior writer.
Source: Read Full Article