Social media: Time to add some filters?

The advancement of smartphone technology in a short span of time has been impressive. And social media platforms have become an integral part of our social, political and economic lives ever since this advancement.
Today these platforms have woven themselves into the fabric of many people’s lives and have been playing a crucial role in the ‘virtual public sphere’ in general and the society in particular.
Studies suggest, as of 2017, daily social media usage of global internet users (netizen) amounted to 135 minutes per day. Over the last decade, this graph has witnessed steady growth. Important conversations happen on social media every day. These conversations shape divergent opinions. Twitter and Facebook play major role in raising awareness and help people keep in contact and updated during disasters.
But, ever since news broke out that Cambridge Analytica and Russian hackers interfered with the US Presidential elections campaigns in 2016, there is a growing demand to impose regulations on social media platforms. Recently, the Majlis Ash’shura’s Committee on Information and Culture discussed the need for formulating guidelines for fair social media usage in the Sultanate.
There are many instances where social media was used to spread misinformation in Oman. During the cyclone Mekunu, some people had intentionally spread fake news including videos and photographs through popular social media platforms. This had created hurdles during the rescue operations. Various groups propagate fake news for their own nefarious purposes.
Today, we cannot imagine modern society without social media platforms. But the consequences of these vast new communications platforms are much more than social scientists expected. Every government across the globe is mulling possibilities of bringing tech giants under the radar and limit exposure of misinformation and propaganda to its public.

REGULATION DEBATE
The debate over social media regulation is growing louder. Some of the strongest proponents of social media advocate that free speech is a key aspect of the internet and it shouldn’t be curbed or regulated.
While others say social media platforms are the new town squares that are essential to facilitating public dialogue, then such spaces should be protected from foreign, profit-focused entities which are unaccountable to local laws.
Let’s examine these arguments in detail.
The information ecosystem is defined by tech giants like Google and Facebook in much of the world. These corporates are completely transforming the public sphere. While these platforms present new opportunities, they also create space for misinformation and restrict free speech. Considering its impact on the culture and lifestyle in today’s society, some advocate that greater government regulation is inevitable.
On the other hand, groups who oppose curtailing internet freedom say enforcement of such regulations will only benefit those in power.
There is also a growing public clamour over the use of social media among children and teenagers as studies suggest that these new online platforms are causing potential damages to their mental health.

LEGALITIES
Government agencies who have been seeking to tackle the issue are facing certain legal issues. As there are little or no effective international rules to keep the internet tech giants accountable, technology companies operate without any scrutiny in most parts of the globe. The lack of local laws is mainly because countries craft rules that are appropriate to their particular domestic social, legal and political contexts.

IS THERE A SOLUTION?
Experts suggest non-commercial ownership of social media entities — including non-profit or some form of public ownership to solve this problem. While this may seem radical, guarding social media against monetisation would save people from getting exposed to misinformation and intentional delivery of propaganda content. This isn’t a call for an authoritarian internet, but rather, a suggestion that the platform should be free from any vested interests.
And after all, each person in this society is responsible for using the social media platform in a fair manner and with utmost decorum. Corporates also should ensure technologies are, at the very least, should be beneficial to the society, regardless of the class and their spending capacities.

midhun.raj@omanobserver.om