In the past, citizens of any given nation generally pulled together in a crisis, but now polarization is more common, and the divisions are less often pver right vs. left than over identity and cultural values. Most educated urbanites are at ease with diversity. The less educated, often in smaller towns and rural settings, feeling left behind and nostalgic for the past, respond to simplistic slogans such as “Make America Great Again!”
Rapid change, automation, migration and information overload have given rise to anxiety. Autocratic strongmen have a new appeal that was not anticipated in the early days of the World Wide Web, when it was expected that access to the new digital devices would make the disaffected more engaged and politics more democratized. Social media have changed the world, but not necessarily been for the better. Now, advocates for good global governance, preferably democratic, are pondering how to take back control.
Last November The Globe and Mail reported that it was joining other major media in “The Trust Project,” an international initiative to authenticate stories from project members through websites such as Google, Twitter and Facebook. Its purpose is to provide correction policy and labeling of articles as news, opinion, or advertising. This followed a complaint from a Canadian professor about an investigation into “fake news” involving the website globalresearch.ca. An investigation by NATO had claimed that the Canadian website disseminates conspiracy theories and Kremlin-friendly points of view, amplifying global disinformation. Twitter evidently helped to spread these through a mix of the far-right, the alt-left, anarchist groups, and bots.
Facebook, in particular, has come under scrutiny following the 2016 presidential election. Mark Zuckerberg no longer denies that Facebook may have influenced the election outcome and has since revealed that between 2015 and 2017 pro-Russian agents had purchased over 3000 pro-Trump ads that may have been seen by as many as 10 million people. Indeed, lawyers for Facebook, Twitter, and Google acknowledged at a US Senate hearing last October that all three tech companies were aware of Russian and other foreign campaigns targeting American voters as early as 2015. If they had chosen to, these companies could have developed systems for fighting fake news and political frauds before the election. Experts say that, while challenges exist, artificial intelligence is now available to identify bad actors such as terrorists and foreign government agents. What is needed is the political will.
Diane Francis in The Financial Post, has pointed out that Google, Facebook, and other social media took content away from newspapers and advertisers without assuming the relevant moral or legal responsibilities. She argues that, “This wild west [trend] has proliferated because tech companies have not been held to the same standards as those imposed on traditional media.” Laws supervising the media were established to protect society from those who would spout libel, slander, hate, racism, misogyny, and disinformation. These constraints prevent statements that hurt others or damage communities and society without justification. Freed of any restrictions, social media has not only usurped mainstream media but been allowed to publish and circulate garbage for profit. So far, they have managed to avoid having themselves defined as publishers by arguing that they are merely “carriers” of content.
Such a position, it is argued, is no longer tenable. The tech companies are publishers and republishers and should be held accountable under the law, responsible both legally and morally for content and ads. Traditional media can be sued for publishing or republishing libel, slander and the like. Advertisers are accountable to “Truth in Advertising Rules.” These should apply to tech companies as well.
But Francis overstates how well society has been protected from the excesses of traditional media. We have always had “fake” news. Bias and spin gave birth to the need for media literacy education decades ago. She and others say little, for example, about the commercial exploitation of children through advertising and other marketing strategies. As the Campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood in Boston has pointed out, in the year 2006 over $17 billion was spent by the advertising industry marketing products to children, a staggering increase over the $100 million spent in 1983. Mainstream media has allowed the notion to persist that corporate freedom of enterprise is the same as individual freedom of expression. Responsibility for preventing child abuse through media, sexual and otherwise, has fallen to parents and teachers of media literacy. Industry has been allowed to continue with business as usual, often profiting further from the invention of marginally effective blocking devices.
Advertising practices on social media pose their own set of threats to society. Online tracking of people’s posting habits has been described as exploitive because it collects personal information, then sells it for profit. Huge files exist on every individual, but none of us know what the information is, with whom it is being shared, or to whom it is being sold. Over the years we have been warned about totalitarian governments but now, retired ad executive Bob Hoffman claims, we have totalitarian marketing. It keeps secret files on us all, including data on our preferences. Couple this scenario with the issue of Russian interference in elections and the dangers are obvious.
Given that the entire internet is built on making money from consumer data, can this be changed? Hoffman thinks so and points to emerging regulations within the European Union for better data and privacy protection. He says that our blind rush to follow commercial trends has led to widespread ad fraud, which is growing in leaps and bounds.
Taking into consideration Hoffman’s arguments; Francis’s distinctions between the regulations already governing mainstream media compared to social media; and the power imbalances between tech savvy marketers, sexual predators, and innocent preteens, it is difficult to conclude that everyone has “free” and equal access to information sharing. Like publishers of print media and broadcast station owners, those who own internet service providers have the most freedom of expression and considerable advantages over everyone else.
Many fear that recent FCC plans for a sweeping rollback of net neutrality would allow corporations to decide what content will be available online, while pricing most citizens out of equal access to information. But actually, policy makers and advocates have ignored the darker side of the Internet for too long, either relying on market forces to sort things out or naively expecting education and parental supervision to create safeguards. This delay has left us with a corporatized administration in the US that manipulates the media and shows little regard for the truth.
The disgrace of Hollywood film executive Harvey Weinstein was quickly followed by a string of additional accusations of sexual harassment and the #Metoo Movement. There is also a call for different stories on our screens. But as long as gender differentials in power, sexual harassment, and violence remain staples of entertainment content, real change is unlikely. Sex and violence are cheap industrial ingredients because they sell well in a global market and translate easily into any language. Last fall, I asked a parliamentary assistant in the Canadian Ministry of Heritage, Arif Virani, why the federal, as well as the Quebec and Ontario Governments, persist in granting millions of dollars in tax subsidies to violent video game producers and distributors, despite ample research showing harmful effects. He replied “because they create jobs.” He considered irrelevant the article by Scott Barlow which had run in the Globe and Mail a few days earlier, about the morality of selling video games and gaming stocks, considering the health implications of getting hooked. These are now some of the most lucrative investments available because, Barlow explained, like tobacco, video games are extremely addictive. Moreover, in North America, recent warnings by the World Health Organization are being ignored about the increased risk of cancer from exposure to the low level radiation of wireless devices.
Endless portrayals of misogyny and violence on our screens, marketed as “art,” will not help us envisage a better future. Total unrestricted freedom to produce, distribute, and promote just about anything has given us, as George Gerbner put it decades ago, a hidden curriculum for a mean world syndrome. The entertainment industries must lead the way by telling stories that show us who we really are and who we can potentially become. Since the introduction of television into our homes, the media industries are the most powerful educators in world history. Legal scholars have argued that society’s right to protection must take precedence over someone’s right to freedom of speech. This right was not originated to accept hate, libel, pornography, or the commercial exploitation of children, but was intended to protect freedom of political speech.
On many issues, our main problem is not about social media or carbon emissions, but about capitalism. Naomi Klein, Pope Francis, and Al Gore have all insisted that we seize the moment and transform our failed system into something better. Still, this can happen only if we examine the digital technologies sector of the modern economy. Too often digital innovations are celebrated without adequately examining their social impact. Both Canada and the US have long given generous tax breaks for gory video games and questionable movie themes. Canadian spokespersons have vigorously opposed any political actions to eliminate incentives for violent and pornographic productions.
In 2010, in California, a ban was proposed on the marketing of violent video games to children. Though backed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, other health organizations, and eleven other states, it was overruled by the US Supreme Court. This shows once more that the court system in democracies leans in favor of big business. That has to change, not only for the good of the cultural environment, but for the development of effective policies to fight climate change. Huge tax breaks and subsidies for violent entertainment are no more justifiable than subsidies for fossil fuel-intensive industries. Financial divestment from both should be vigorously supported and encouraged. As Greenpeace pointed out in a 2014 study, digital technology products and services now account for about the same amount of worldwide emissions as the airline industry.
For decades, media scholars have pointed to the blurring distinctions between news, entertainment and advertising. Clearly, if we wish to address the excesses threatening democratic institutions, either by hostile foreign interests or within our own national borders, our scrutiny must be sharpened. The challenge now is for those of us committed to democratic governance to forge strategies for a sustainable future. Retreat is not an option. The stakes are too high.
Rose Dyson is a Toronto-based activist with a special interest in digital media.