The despicable live streaming of the terrorist attacks at the Christchurch mosques and the inability of the major social media networks in stemming the proliferation of those videos in those ghastly early hours, says just how out of control and unhinged malicious content can be.
Social networks have been the topic of unflattering discussions in recent times. After a period of unprecedented explosion of platforms, users and content in last quarter of a decade, the goodwill for social media seems to be on the wane, some for legitimate reasons and others as a result of vested political interference. But like any growth that’s uninhibited, rogue strains have emerged to take its toll on this hyper-connected world – mis-information campaigns, troll-bots, cyber bullying and multiple other issues. Suddenly we are seeing Facebook taking steps to counter privacy breach allegations in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica saga, YouTube making efforts to contain videos glorifying violence and bullying and Twitter trying to clamp down on spurious user accounts spreading fake news. But are these steps enough? Do they invariably point to some kind of impending global action whether voluntary or legislated to contain the fallout from the unchecked manipulation of social networks for socio-political profit.
So why has this corruption in human connected-ness happened in the first instance? It comes down to basic human tendencies and behaviour. Certain demographics have always been more susceptible to manipulation and propaganda than others. The casual and steady peddling of racist, sexist and other derogatory content on both public and closed networks is alarming. Those with vested interests such as political spin-doctors, terror networks, cyber-spies and criminal entities recognise this as a weak spot and have moved their game into the online space for larger purchase on their efforts.
The good news is that the chaos and discontent caused by this explosion of information (and mis-information) is reaching its natural saturation point amongst users and gradually paving the way for the next phase of evolution of social media. You can see early symptoms in users leaving propaganda corrupted platforms like Facebook for more personalised and simplified experiences such as on Instagram. Social media providers are being forced to act against online echo chambers of falsehood and propaganda such as Infowars, a conspiracy content channel that despicably denied the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre. Silicon Valley can sense the groundswell of sentiment against unhindered and unverified content and the big providers are being forced to provide curation and editorial controls to the end user. The ability to ‘report’, ‘block’, ‘mute’ and ‘unfollow’ spurious content and users is just the beginning.
Then there’s the huge privacy and data ownership equation that’s come under the scanner. The EU’s GDPR (or General Data Protection Regulation) legislation is probably only the start of the process where we see the user gain governance rights on their data and how it is used. The next generation of online and social media users have every right to expect more of these type of tools becoming available to them, as social media transforms to become more accountable, more transparent and more responsible.
But there are flip sides to this transformation of social media. Anyone should be wary of governments and authoritarian entities trying to piggy-back the auto-correct happening in this space to push their own agenda. They may cite national or social security interests as a means for gaining backdoor entry to these content platforms and the gazillions of user data they hold. The control needs to shift from online corporations to the end user, not to other vested power centres.
All in all platform giants can no longer shirk their responsibilities towards monitoring their networks and users for threats and gaps. They can no longer under-invest in necessary technology upgrades that protect the end user under the garb of democracy of content and usage. Whether they are content platforms like Facebook and YouTube or service platforms like Uber and Tinder, these giants of the internet era will have to transform and invest in more robust verification systems, build up in-house editorial capabilities significantly more and transfer control of personal data and content curation and editing capabilities back to the end user. Watch this space as we enter a new era where large scale manipulation and weaponisation of social media paves the way for user centric transformation.