Essay

Guarding the gatekeepers

Trust, truth and digital platforms

WARS OFTEN RAGE behind the estimated ten million Wikipedia pages: edit wars, where editors repeatedly override each other’s contributions to a page and cannot reach consensus about what the final content should be. This can extend to many thousands of edits. While some of the most famous edit wars have been about classically nerdy topics – whether Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader should be considered the same character in Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith; whether the tiger is in fact ‘the world’s most powerful living cat’. Factual matters have also been under debate, such as whether Europe is a continent or not, or whether Freddie Mercury’s ancestry was Iranian, Indian, Farsi or Azeri. But increasingly these wars are about the politics of definition. The Wikipedia entries for figures such as US President Donald Trump, the television star Roseanne Barr, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, US Supreme Court judge Brett Kavanaugh, or the Sudanese-Australian writer Yassmin Abdel-Magied, become the sites for seemingly endless edit wars. As all of these figures are politically contentious, their Wikipedia entries become online proxies for larger culture wars.

Agonistic exchanges around politics, news and culture on digital platforms are now part of the rich texture of everyday life online. But the case of Wikipedia is important as it has become the most enduring success symbol of what we called the web 2.0 era, where open, easy-to-use digital platforms could become spaces where a multitude of users could come together and create new forms of culture and information. It has become the de facto first source of information for billions of people around the world, not least students drafting essays and assignments. It speaks to what was known as the ‘wisdom of crowds’, where content co-creation and the willingness of people to give up their free time and expertise – what the author and consultant Clay Shirky termed their ‘cognitive surplus’[i] – led to knowledge sharing for the common good. The phenomenal growth of Wikipedia saw it expand from 17,000 entries in 2001 to over a million in 2006.

 

THESE ARE NOT optimistic times for how we understand the internet. After more than two decades of a mostly benign and optimistic take on where the enabling possibilities of digital technologies and social networks would take us, the late 2010s have been characterised by foreboding and dystopian visions. David Karpf has noted how the changing nature of the San Francisco-based WIRED magazine captures this shift well.[ii] For much of its twenty-five-year history, WIRED was the go-to place for identifying the next big thing of the Digital Revolution (it used caps to describe it), whether it be the ‘new economy’, the death of advertising, DIY journalism, self-publishing, and much more besides. WIRED got some predictions right, such as the use of smartphones to capture police brutality, or peer-to-peer renting of houses and cars. Some it got wrong, such as the demise of advertising or the disappearance of paid journalism. Underpinning all of these predictions, however, was the assumption that the internet was making us – or at least the ‘us’ that would read WIRED – smarter, more rational, more tolerant of diversity, more prepared to innovate, but also more prepared to commit to projects with a shared civic purpose. The idea that it may make us less rational and more dogmatic, or that it would be the harbinger of greater economic inequalities, job losses, a collapse of civic discourse, or environmental crises, was reserved for a small, high-profile, but well quarantined group of professional naysayers. Authors such as Nicholas Carr, whose 2010 book The Shallows (WW Norton) argued that internet communication was adversely affecting our brain capacity, and Andrew Keen, who has been a long-time critic of Silicon Valley culture, were accepted as doubting Thomases, whose opinions would be welcomed up to a point, but largely in order to demonstrate a degree of plurality in an otherwise highly optimistic narrative around the impact of digital technologies.

It now seems that everyone is a critic of digital platforms. Talk is rife of fake news, filter bubbles, misinformation, doxxing, trolls, electoral manipulation and the online alt-right. Getting your news from Twitter or Facebook, once a sign that you were part of the zeitgeist, now sounds like a sign of potential gullibility. David Karpf can publish in WIRED about the hubris of the publication, while publications that are certainly not anti-capitalist, such as The Economist, warn of the ‘global techlash’ and the dangers of digital monopolies.[iii] Television series such as HBO’s comedy Silicon Valley portray the IT sector as havens for the socially dysfunctional, highly prone to often obscure trends and cults, and deeply mercenary in their dealings with others.

Tech leaders such as Mark Zuckerberg now seem to be stuck on an endless loop of parliamentary hearings, public inquiries and apologies for content hosted on their site: manifestos, interviews and public mea culpas that fail to stem the tide of negativity towards them. Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, Tim Cook at Apple, Jeff Bezos at Amazon, and Tesla’s Elon Musk: these corporate titans, who were once the poster children for the new economy, are now often portrayed as the robber barons of a rapacious digital capitalism. Indeed, they may be worse than the oil, media and financial barons of yore. Their access to your personal data, and their capacity to sell that back to you as targeted digital content and advertising, suggests they can know you better than you know yourself.

Tech companies once enjoyed a very positive public image. Hollywood films such as The Social Network (2010), with its ‘creation myth’ around Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, and The Internship (2013), a comedy where Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn successfully apply to work at Google, presented these companies as being at the forefront of unconventional problem-solving and ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking. But a very sharp turn occurred in March 2018 when Guardian journalist Carole Cadwalladr and an investigative report by Channel 4 in the UK revealed information about the accessing of Facebook user data by the political consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica, and its on-selling to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the Vote Leave campaign in the 2016 Brexit referendum in the UK. These revelations, provided by whistleblower and former research director of Cambridge Analytica Christopher Wylie, brought out into the open the extent to which Facebook’s seemingly random mix of quizzes, personal profile exercises (‘What ’60s pop star are you?’), ‘likes’ and other ephemera could form the basis for detailed psychographic profiling based on revealed preferences, which could then be used to micro-target individuals with messages designed to elicit a response. What had long been suspected was now well and truly out in the open. It came on top of allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election on Trump’s behalf, and the exposé of a plethora of ‘fake news’ sites that provided information of dubious veracity that was targeted to the preferences (and prejudices) of particular online readerships, most notably – but not exclusively – Trump voters.[iv]

In retrospect, the anger here was less about Cambridge Analytica – who hadn’t wondered why all of these quizzes were suddenly appearing on social media? – and more about the election of Trump and the Brexit referendum. These political outcomes revealed both massive social and political fault lines, and the extent of the breakdown of a common culture with shared values and commitment to an ethic of truth-telling. ‘Post-truth’ was the Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year for 2016, joining ‘fake news’, which was the Macquarie Dictionary’s 2016 Word of the Year.

The literature on the rise of populism is now voluminous. But these events had a particular resonance in technology communities since, with the exception of a few outspoken individuals such as PayPal co-founder Peter Theil, these tend to be bastions of social liberalism, cosmopolitan identities and centre-left politics. The liberalism of Silicon Valley was such that The San Francisco Examiner could describe the area as ‘the most staunchly pro-Hillary Clinton, anti-Trump political hot spot in the entire country’, going so far as to be able to map where in the city the 37,000 people who voted for the Trump-Pence ticket were located.[v] They concluded that less than 3 per cent of the voting-age population of the city voted for Trump. In the 2016 Brexit referendum, 60 per cent of Londoners voted for Remain, and only five of the city’s thirty-three council areas had a majority Leave vote, all of which were located on the outskirts of the city.

Those working in the digital-platform industries have thus found themselves in the position of the sorcerer’s apprentice, no longer able to control that which they have created. The platforms appear to have been increasingly appropriated by those whose ideas and values are almost 180-degrees away from their own. To say that the platforms have struggled to deal with the consequences would be to understate the extent of the ensuing chaos.

 

THE TWO MOST public manifestations of the crisis have been public apologies and appearances before parliamentary hearings. Mark Zuckerberg issued a 6,000-word manifesto after the 2016 US presidential election, where he proposed to clarify guidelines about acceptable or unacceptable content, tackle the fake-news problem and refocus Facebook around the building of community. But the latter had a sting in the tail, as it saw third-party news content deprioritised in its personalised news algorithm. This adversely affected those news publishers who had been basing their business models around social news consumers who accessed news primarily through Facebook.

With the question of alleged Russian interference on Trump’s behalf in the 2016 elections still raw, US Democrat Senator Dianne Feinstein responded to the no-show of the CEOs of the major digital platform companies to the November 2017 Congressional hearings by saying that ‘I don’t think you get it… You created these platforms, and they are being misused. And you have to be the ones to do something about it – or we will.’[vi] After the 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal, all patience had gone and apologies were no longer enough. Mark Zuckerberg appeared before the US Senate in April 2018 and then, in May, before the European Parliament. At the first of these hearings, the Republican Senator Lindsey Graham opined that ‘continued self-regulation is not the right answer when it comes to dealing with the abuses we have seen on Facebook’. And Zuckerberg himself conceded that ‘the real question, as the internet becomes more important in people’s lives, is what is the right regulation, not whether there should be or not’.[vii]

What have derisorily become known as the ‘Zuckerberg apology tours’ now deliver diminishing returns. Zeynep Tufekci, a proiminent analyst of the ways big data and social media have been reshaping politics, has noted that Zuckerberg has made fifteen public apologies on behalf of Facebook for the misuse of the personal data of its users since the company was established in 2003.[viii] Six months after Zuckerberg said that Facebook would change, it was revealed by The New York Times that the company had hired political lobbyists to discredit its critics. Bizarrely, one tactic involved linking critics with the billionaire liberal philanthropist and bête noire of right-wing populists, George Soros, who had indeed criticised the power of digital monopolists at the World Economic Forum in January 2018. Obviously other companies employ political consultants and image managers in times of trouble, but the net effect is to strengthen the case for regulation. It reveals the extent to which companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and others are essentially large corporations prepared to use monopoly power for rent-seeking ends. This is at odds with the image of the digital giants as harbingers of a new form of ‘global community’ along the lines of Marshall McLuhan’s mythical ‘global village’ that Zuckerberg alluded to in his January 2017 manifesto.

The trend towards public enquiries into the operations of digital platforms shows every sign of continuing. Along with the US Congressional hearings have come the UK House of Commons inquiries into hate crime – following the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox by white supremacist Thomas Mair – and disinformation and fake news. In Australia, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) released its digital platforms inquiry preliminary report in December 2018. The ACCC was highly critical of the market power of Google and Facebook, and how it believed this had been misused with adverse consequences for news media, journalism and advertising markets. The ACCC also noted the regulatory disparity between traditional news and media content providers and the digital platforms, wondering whether this could continue to be justified around claims that the digital communication giants were mere carriers of other people’s content and not publishers in their own right. A number of countries have passed new legislation to deal with online racism, hate speech and harassment, fake news and the impact of digital platforms on media markets. Germany requires social media companies to remove offensive speech content within twenty-four hours of its appearance, under the threat of heavy fines. Brazil has laws requiring digital platforms to take down content that may be injurious to candidates in the run-up to elections. In September 2018, the European Parliament passed legislation granting publications copyright protection over online content sharing, which is known as the ‘link tax’, which means news aggregation sites such as Google News and Reddit need to pay news publishers for aggregating their stories. The impact of such laws remains to be seen: when similar laws were passed in Germany and Spain, Google responded in Germany by only carrying ‘snippets’ from publishers who agreed to waive all fees, and in Spain by withdrawing Google News completely.

The executives of digital platform companies should expect to make a lot of public appearances before parliamentary committees over the next few years. The mood of legislators is captured by this statement by Axel Voss,
the European Parliament member who proposed the new copyright directives: ‘I’m very glad that, despite the very strong lobbying campaign by the internet giants, there is now a majority in the full house backing the need to protect the principle of fair pay for European creatives.’[ix] In Australia, the ACCC has raised the question of whether the lack of transparency surrounding the algorithmic sorting of media content inhibits creators from being able to monetise their content online through attracting advertising revenue.

But public enquiries are a mixed blessing in terms of serving the public interest. They are often used as occasions for moral grandstanding by parliamentarians, who know they will get public exposure for strong statements made at hearings that receive a lot of media coverage. Ironically, given the extent to which digital platforms amplify such media exposure, they are most likely to get this coverage through YouTube videos, Facebook videos and Twitter posts. In this, they follow the path pioneered by British comedian Russell Brand, whose feisty anti-establishment statements on the BBC’s Newsnight program were subsequently viewed by over ten million YouTube viewers, making the star of Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek an unexpected champion of the global digital left.

Even with the best of intentions, public hearings are difficult fora in which to effectively engage digital platforms. Part of the issue is that these companies are typically far better resourced for such inquiries than those who challenge them. Any public inquiry into digital platforms is highly reliant upon data provided by the platforms themselves, as there are few reliable third-party equivalents to the Audit Bureau of Circulation that services the publishing industry or the ratings agencies for broadcasting. Another issue is the lack of consensus as to what is seen as appropriate public interest regulation of digital platforms. There is considerable consensus on what is not wanted: hate speech, fake news, disinformation, online harassment and so on. But less clear is what is the appropriate balance between self-regulation and oversight by agencies such as the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), Ofcom in the UK, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and other national regulators. In Australia, there is a disconnect between regulatory arrangements for print and publishing, broadcasting, online services, advertising and telecommunciations, and there are renewed calls to move from media regulations based on what are increasingly blurring industry silos towards ‘platform-neutral’ regulation, which focuses primarily on the public-interest goal of regulation rather than upon the means of carriage. There is the issue of disconnected national rules and laws creating what is known as the ‘splinternet’, where disparate arrangements between nation-states mean that user experiences of the internet change from one jurisdiction to another, thereby fragmenting the global internet and reducing the benefits of seamless global networking.

There also remains a strong suspicion of the state as an agent of control over what content or statements can appear online. This is in part a legacy of the internet’s libertarian past that is adhered to not only by libertarians but by many social critics who nonetheless have a highly attuned antenna for any perceived threat to online civil liberties. One manifestation of these debates is whether digital platform companies can be considered publishers or media companies, as distinct from simply being the conduits for information and entertainment content circulated by their user communities. The spectre of authoritarian statism also hangs over any proposals to restrict online speech, as well as the related question of who decides what is restricted.

The ground has, however, shifted substantially around these debates over the past five years. One factor in this is a growing weariness about the periodic ‘public shocks’ that arise on digital platforms, and the sense that the responses to these by the companies themselves are largely cosmetic. It also reflects what is known as the ‘platformisation of the internet’, as online life is increasingly mediated through the likes of Google and Facebook. A clear issue is the regulatory disparity between digital platforms and media companies. As the ACCC notes in its preliminary report, no existing Australian laws relating to print media, broadcasting, online publishing or advertising are deemed to apply to digital platforms, even though they have a significant presence in all of these markets. Libertarians themselves may be crab-walking away from the internet, championing seemingly greener pastures such as blockchain and cryptocurrencies, as the initial attractiveness of the internet as a technology of freedom gives way to more and more demands for regulation of online spaces.

 

INTERNET REGULATION WORLDWIDE now seems to be in what may be termed the ‘Newton Minow moment’. Minow was the Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under the John F Kennedy administration in the US in the early 1960s. What renders him more than an historical footnote is his famous observation that US network television of the time resembled a ‘vast wasteland’. The ‘vast wasteland’ speech, delivered to the National Association of Broadcasters in May 1961, profoundly shaped the push for public interest regulation of broadcasting for the next twenty years, from greater provision for children’s programming to the establishment of the Public Broadcasting Service. Similar statements were articulated in public enquiries elsewhere, such as the Pilkington Committee review of UK television in 1962, and the Vincent Report in Australia in 1963. Just as the 1960s were the decade of questioning the entertainment media as a product of consumer capitalism, so too have the 2010s become a decade for critical reflections on the costs and downsides of the digital revolution. While it is unlikely that companies such as Google and Facebook will be considered to be fully fledged media companies, their critical role in enabling and curating public conversations will see growing expectations that they demonstrate social responsibility commensurate with market power.

It is highly likely that the various public enquiries into digital platforms will begin to coalesce into a shared understanding of what constitutes appropriate public-interest regulation of digital platforms.[x] Whether it will translate into policy and legislative change will be very much in the hands of governments, and it is very hard to gainsay their preparedness to act around such principles. Twitter established a Trust and Safety Council in 2016 to address concerns about online harassment and cyberbullying, but it remains difficult for those outside the organisation to know what it actually does and how effective its role has been. At the end of the day, whether policy changes can address public concerns about digital platforms and how they are used or misused will come down to questions of trust.

In his September 2018 appearance before the US House Energy and Commerce Committee, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey asked ‘How do we earn more trust from the people using our service?’[xi] For Dorsey, perhaps not surprisingly, this need to earn user trust came down to the need for greater transparency about Twitter algorithms. In a similar vein, Mark Zuckerberg has argued that Facebook should not be the ‘arbiter of truth’ in society. He is right up to a point: it is not the role of digital platforms, or any form of media, to dictate truth to citizens. But as influential brokers of public communication, they can be seen to have responsibilities towards the pursuit of greater truth in the public realm, in order to enhance the quality of civic discourse.

A growing number of voices worldwide are now saying that it is time for digital platforms to address the ethical dimensions of their mission and their social role, and that proposing greater transparency is necessary but not sufficient. The digital platforms have come – partly by accident and partly by design – to shape public conversations that can both facilitate and destroy trust among citizens in public institutions, the political process and, ultimately, trust in one another. The struggle to renew public trust will be at the core of any new measures to address the agenda-setting influence of these digital giants.

 

 

References

[i] Shirky, Clay (2010). Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. New York: Penguin.

[ii] Karpf, David (2018). 25 Years of WIRED Predictions: Why the Future Never Arrives’, WIRED, 18 September. Retrieved form  https://www.wired.com/story/wired25-david-karpf-issues-tech-predictions/.

[iii] The Economist (2018). How to tame the tech titans. 18 January. Retrieved from https://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21735021-dominance-google-facebook-and-amazon-bad-consumers-and-competition-how-tame.

[iv] Subramanian, Samanth (2017). Meet the Macedonian Teens Who Mastered Fake News and Corrupted the US Election. WIRED, 15 February. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/2017/02/veles-macedonia-fake-news/.

[v] Brinklow, Adam (2016), ‘Final result: how San Francisco neighborhoods voted’, SF Examiner, 2 December. Retrieved from https://sf.curbed.com/2016/12/2/13820078/final-sf-voting-results-trump-neighborhoods-clinton-sanders.

[vi] Samuels, Brett (2017). Feinstein to tech execs: 'I don't think you get it'. The Hill, November 1. Retrieved from https://thehill.com/business-a-lobbying/358232-feinstein-to-tech-cos-i-dont-think-you-get-it.

[vii] Watson, Chloe (2018). The key moments from Mark Zuckerberg's testimony to Congress. The Giardian, April 11. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/apr/11/mark-zuckerbergs-testimony-to-congress-the-key-moments.

[viii] Tufecki, Zeynep (2018). Why Mark Zuckerberg’s 14 Year Apology Tour Hasn’t Fixed Facebook’, WIRED, April 18. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/story/why-zuckerberg-15-year-apology-tour-hasnt-fixed-facebook/.

[ix] Vaughan-Nichols, Stephen (2018). EU smacks internet in the face with link tax and upload filter laws. ZDNet, September 12. Retrieved from https://www.zdnet.com/article/eu-smacks-internet-in-the-face-with-link-tax-and-upload-filter-laws/.

[x] For a broad sketch of what such public interest principles would look like, see Robert Picard and Vincent Pickard (2017), Essential Principles for Contemporary Media and Communications Policymaking, Oxford: University of Oxford

[xi] Nieva, Richard (2018). Jack Dorsey defends Twitter from charges of bias against conservatives. C/Net, 5 September. Retrieved from https://www.cnet.com/news/jack-dorsey-defends-twitter-against-conservative-bias-at-house-hearing/.

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