Communication power, who holds it? It is tricky to say which is more complex: the effect of misinformation on the masses, or the fact that a few billionaires control social media platforms, or that giant corporations set the norms for millions of people around the world.
Big Techs are under pressure from governments and institutions to regulate user content deemed harmful and to control the use of individuals’ data — freely available to them. Efforts are under way around the world to hold these private companies accountable, not to the people, but to governments.
Indeed, it is a tremendous benefit that social media seems to function as mini-democracies that provide a public space for dialogue. On the other hand, many in power seek to suppress people’s right to know and right to express themselves — in the middle of the struggle for control, some individuals take advantage of megaphone tools.
As the entire world witnessed and made up their thoughts over the events and discourse that led to the invasion of the United States Capitol Hill, falsehoods can cause violence. Reading the phrase ‘Murder the Media’, a message carved into a door at Capitol Building rings a bell about the number of journalists arrested or killed for their work — but also about the citizen journalists who are arrested or ‘invited’ to the police station. Murder the Media is not just physical violence against journalists and citizen journalists it is an attack on people’s right to know.
Social media has become the primary medium for debate and influence. These platforms function as a conduit for the social construction of reality. This is not just about the selection of events and issues to be reported on but also how they are defined and interpreted. We can see this now in relation to the coronavirus vaccination. Many conspiracy theories fill the digital sphere. Some leaders are inviting influencers to push governments’ positions to their millions of followers. The point here is not about vaccination, but about using social media whenever suitable.
To be fair, Big Techs are best friends during the coronavirus pandemic, be it as a mechanism for education, business, conferences, shopping, health monitoring – the list goes on. A blessing in disguise. If these gadgets were not available, where would we be today?
Two years ago, Ronald Deibert, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, wrote an article titled ‘The Road to Digital Unfreedom: Three Painful Truths about Social Media’ that perfectly fits today’s scenario. The flood of information and disinformation on social media is degrading public discourse. Users are steering toward opinions that fit what they already believe or feel comfortable and aligned. Let us face it, truth has a new model; it is now networked by peers.
It is important to understand that mass communication is vital – but also fragile. Depending on who is behind the disinformation or information, people can blindly believe in what is being said. Trust is also fragile. The transmission of culture, the sharing of knowledge, visions of the future, and motivation for action are all part of the human communication process — the narratives can be as bleak or as rosy as one wishes. Whether it is right or not for the Big Techs to control the content on social media, and block or ban people is debatable. However, it shows the power these companies have over global speech. From the perspective of social media and those in power, the path leads to the same perception: censorship.
It is striking that Big Techs, governments, and institutions, including opportunists, are for a show of force. Whether it is technology governance under the guise of national security, social stability, user privacy, or disinformation — the tension will have long-term consequences.