The journeys of the social media giants have been nothing if not fascinating. From doubtful beginnings in a classy college in the US, Facebook went through several stages.
First, it was a social network where friends and relatives could connect and keep up with goings-on. At this point it was a friendly place.
Secondly, it became a commercial network because the only way to fund the growth was to take it to the market. Investors demanded returns and advertising was the obvious way to achieve their goals.
At this point, the (still on-going debate) about social media was about personal data and whether or not users thought it was acceptable to allow Facebook to sell their data to companies so that they could sell them stuff. Most users did not even know it was happening and were either shocked or pleased that they suddenly saw ‘relevant’ adverts. Many of the adverts were irritating because they promoted a holiday destination when you had just booked a holiday somewhere else.
Thirdly, it became an anti-social network. That’s when the real trouble started and triggered what will be the debate that dominates everything for the next couple of years. A platform is fine when you are posting pictures of kittens, less so when you are posting videos of people killing each other.
Over the last couple of years, the social media ‘platforms’ have become increasingly responsible for the content that is posted on them (and many would say ‘quite right’). When a platform becomes accountable for the content, then it becomes a publication. Discuss.
Becoming a publication is great until you have billions of posts a day to manage. And at this point, Facebook and Twitter (and others) have to employ tens of thousands of people to ‘manage’ that content. And because that content is managed by people, you cannot avoid bias.
Many would say that Twitter leans to the left, Facebook to the right. Whether that point of view is correct or not is not important here, but you are then into the realms of influence. Did Facebook influence a presidential election? Is Twitter effectively censoring the President of the United States? If so, they are doing precisely what the press does. The Washington Post, New York Times, Singapore Straits and The Sun all do it.
Donald Trump believes that this is true and is acting accordingly. Many will yell that this is against free speech. Others will say something in the middle – some things are OK to publish, others are not.
But which others and who chooses?
At the same time we are entering into an anti-globalisation phase that has not been seen in our lifetimes. And the trend, already accelerating and getting out of hand is made much worse by COVID-19. Right now, we cannot even visit others countries.
An age of nationalism is upon us.
It is difficult to see the outcome, and minds far superior to ours will debate it for many months and years to come. But if countries can regulate social media on a national basis, it makes it much easier to control them. In the US, Facebook may end up being regulated as if it was the Washington Post. In Myanmar and other countries, it will be more heavily regulated or banned. In others, it will be encouraged.
We have long said that social media got off on the wrong foot with their treatment of their users’ data. Now, this latest debacle may well spell the end of the road for some social media giants. They may end up still being called social media, but not as we know it.