Taming the social media monster

Taming the social media monster

Western democracies must win back control of the boundaries of public debate from social media giants, Marietje Schaake suggests in an exclusive interview with Kathimerini.

Schaake, a former member of the European Parliament, is now international policy director at Stanford University’s Cyber Policy Center and international policy fellow at Stanford’s Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence. She spoke to Kathimerini about outgoing US President Donald Trump, the digital footprint of the European Union, and how public policy can tame the monster that social media has turned into.

Trump’s social media ban, Schaake tells the newspaper, “made many people realize the actual power of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other platforms.” The companies’ decision raises “many questions,” she says. “Why, for example, did they ban the American president but not other international leaders that post very controversial or harmful content?” However, Schaake says, “the real question is not whether this was a good or bad decision, but why we allow privatized governance of our democratic debate.”

How can the public sphere reassert control over this debate? “We must first of all demand that these firms be much more transparent with the policies on which their decisions are based. These [policies] cannot be a response to pressure or to outcry coming from their own employees. These policies must hinge on international or European standards regarding the freedom of speech and its limitations; and there must be independent monitoring that will certify the degree to which these companies fulfill their commitments. I was struck by the fact that Twitter has since January 8 deactivated more than 70,000 accounts associated with the QAnon [far-right conspiracy] – and that this happened after QAnon had been banned.”

According to Schaake, this shows how hard it is to monitor a platform’s content on a rolling basis, as offshoots of banned groups keep coming into being.

Role of governments

“The governments of democratic states must have a strong say in this,” says Schaake. “They must clarify what the rule of law means in the digital world and make sure that there are mechanisms in place to enforce it,” she says. She says authorities must have access to algorithmic methodologies and decide on clear sanctions against firms that fail to comply. “Regulatory authorities must have the knowledge, the staff and the resources they need to deal with the armies of lawyers that the companies bring to the table,” she says. But doesn’t the problem run deeper than that? Does it not lie with the social media firms’ business model, which seeks to monopolize users’ attention to the benefit of their clients who advertise on their platform?

Schaake does not challenge the claim. However, she stresses that if the situation has spun out of control, it is “due to a long period of basic inaction on the part of democratic governments, particularly in the US.” Bringing the anarchic landscape under control, she says, presupposes immediate action on a series of fronts: anti-trust policy, protection of privacy, personal data, and so on.

What is Schaake’s opinion of the Digital Services Act, the regulation proposal put forward last month by the European Commission? Does the blueprint contain the elements that will make the dominant online players assume responsibility over the content shared on their platforms?

“I think it will help a lot and I hope that it will remain largely intact – we already see the companies scaling up their lobbying efforts against these proposals,” Schaake says. “It is important that the bigger a company, the greater its responsibility over content monitoring; also, it is important that the European Commission takes responsibility for defining harmful content – which had until recently been left with the companies,” she says.

‘Right instincts’

The EU has “the right instincts” and has “played a leading role” in efforts to impose order on the chaos of the digital sphere, particularly in recent years where “the US has been totally absent,” says the Dutch expert. However, there are weaknesses in the European approach, most importantly the absence of any geopolitical dimension from its digital policy.

Schaake mentions the case of Huawei and 5G networks. “On the one hand we have the promise of a single digital market; on the other, each of the 27 member-states can make an individual decision on whether an investment poses a threat to national security and thus stop it,” she says. “It took a year to set up a toolbox on the basis of which investments of that sort would be reviewed. These processes must be improved. Meanwhile, the European Commission’s White Paper on Artificial Intelligence made no reference to the military uses of AI – an issue which is impossible to avoid,” she says.

New terms of debate

Schaake stresses that companies have so far managed to impose their own terms on the debate about the regulation of the social media landscape. “We talk about regulating the internet, while we should be talking about regulating Facebook,” she says. However, the issue is now a key priority, there is political pressure to thoroughly examine the issues that have emerged. “Technology is everywhere – hence we must all be better informed on how it affects our lives as citizens,” she says.

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