Regulating social media

Submitted by AWL on 16 February, 2021 - 7:05 Author: Matt Cooper
Mark Zuckerberg

Two previous articles in Solidarity (579 and 580) have examined censorship on social media. I argued that social media is a breeding ground for right-wing and far-right ideas. The current moves by both states and the social media corporations mainly aim to check right-wing incitement and misinformation, and it is difficult to oppose such moves as Twitter banning Trump.

But then what?

Many on the left see unrestricted access for all to the social-media megaphones as a free speech issue, on the supposition that the left will be the main targets of censorship. But in fact the issue now is the far right. Its anti-vaxxism and low-level “denialisms” may ease the transition from right-wing populism to more hardened right-wing ideas, with social media as a nursery for weaponised misinformation.

So some left-wing writers sometimes additionally demand “no platform” for fascists. The demand here is not for mobilising to stop fascists dominating the streets, but for the corporations or state to ban content. The agency is out of the antifascist movement’s control.

Demands that social media corporations do not let far-right incitement use their platforms are not necessarily wrong, but they beg the question of who and how.

Much of the current regulation of social media is self-regulation. That has driven some of the far right to the precarious margins of the internet. Facebook’s current “community guidelines” outlaw the organised political violence of the right while permitting the community self-defence favoured by the left (although Facebook has sometimes removed some antifascists from its platforms).

Where mass movements that challenge established power have emerged (pro-democracy movements and Black Lives Matter), those who have pulled the plug on them have been not been the social media platforms but states. Whether mass workers’ movements are treated with equal indulgence by these corporations is a question yet to be tested. Particularly in authoritarian states, the current social-media self-regulation is probably, pragmatically, the least-worst option.

The elusive online “commons”

The (nebulous) idea of “the commons” is used in an attempt to avoid the problems of state ownership and private property. In our current class societies, the idea of resources could be owned by no-one or everyone is utopian. If something like “the commons” exists, it exists only by state action.

The internet may appear to be such a “commons”, but the physical infrastructure is mainly privately owned by telecoms companies and ISPs. Equal access for content providers to that infrastructure (net neutrality) is underpinned by state regulation. Consumers pay for access at commercial rates.

Other aspects of providing content over the internet are fully commercialised, particularly the servers which run and deliver the content. As seen with Parler, if the hosting services refuse to host an internet application, it has problems.­

No route for non-profit

There are a few examples of possible “commons” in tech. The free operating system Linux started off as something like “commons”, but has become a joint venture by major tech firms to create a common resource for their commercial operations, and so is hardly a model here. A better example is Wikipedia (which is not-for-profit, reliant on donations, and carries no advertising). Its existence is based on its content being provided for free, the core of it by a relatively small group of experts in their fields, often academics.

Could a non-profit social media platform analogous to Wikipedia emerge? The accepted wisdom is that it would be impossible to launch something like Wikipedia now, because it would start too small to be noticed and never gain the critical mass to compete. Maybe an ethical not-for-profit Facebook, driven by its users and not profit, is possible, but don’t hold your breath.

State ownership

The quickest route to “the commons” could be state ownership, but that is a very different proposition.

The state is not a neutral body, but an instrument of class rule. Some state activities are delivered at arm’s length. A degree of independence is afforded to the BBC and state education in the UK, but the key word here is “degree”. The BBC is not truly independent, as recent appointments to its board show. Its senior personnel and mindset are those of the more liberal and consensual side of the British state. Recent government interventions on the history curriculum and talk of banning anti-capitalist material from schools shows the movable limits to independence in education.

In the wider world this would be even more problematic. Social media platforms are banned in China, Iran and elsewhere, often being replaced with tame local clones effectively under state control. That may soon happen to Twitter in India.

What else? Short of a reinvigorated workers’ movement imposing itself on social media, only state regulation remains. That has many of the same pitfalls as state ownership. The UK government is putting Daily Mail editor-in-chief Paul Dacre in charge of Ofcom, the official regulator of broadcasting. A left-wing government would find itself clashing with such institutions of class power.

Nonetheless, as with other issues, there are demands on the state that the labour movement can mobilise around, for example:

• that social media companies stop gathering data on their users and targeting them with content and advertising

• banning of the egregious elements of the attention machine, particularly the like button

• giving users, individually and collectively, more control over the nature of social media that they use.

One particularly important demand is that “dark advertising” be banned in politics (that is, the ability to target one group of users with one message that will not be seen by others).

I see no easy answers here. We can’t rely on the state, but demands on the state to regulate social media like those above would enlarge rather than cramp democracy. The social media companies are not our allies, but in some parts of the world they give voice to the otherwise voiceless.

Until such a time as social media is controlled by the workers’ movement and the broader community of its users, we have to work within these parameters.

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