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Making Facebook accountable for every word the best way to rein it in

Traditional media also makes its money by selling “access” to its viewers. You watched TV shows for free in exchange for the advertisements. The more people there were watching a particular show, the more stations and networks could charge for the ads.

But the process was one way and anonymous. The Nielson ratings sampled a few people willing to participate – no one was tracking what you watched as an individual.

Facebook’s model, on the other hand, is all about watching what you do, always, and then selling that information to others, including those who want to send you propaganda and misinformation – i.e. lies – for their own ends.

Unlike traditional media, Facebook and other social media companies aren’t responsible for the content they publish. Simply making them subject to the same rules as every newspaper, television station and radio station would eliminate much of the problem: Facebook would have to vet every word posted on the platform to ensure it was true, non-defamatory and not misleading.

Social media companies argue that’s not possible. But it is, even if that means that some or all of them have to shut down. That would be no loss, as the negatives of social media far outweigh any purported benefits.

We can hope the eradication, or corralling at least, of Facebook, Google and its ilk is the result of various antitrust and regulatory actions, but the chances of anything useful happening are fairly slim.

Still, the companies are being investigated. In Facebook’s case, antitrust violations are alleged, specifically regarding the takeover of Instagram and WhatsApp. There’s no denying that Facebook has grown at the expense of competition. So too have Google and Amazon, which is an even more troublesome corporation that needs to be split up into much smaller parts.

With the social media companies, new regulations that would make them publishers – in essence forcing them to obey the law – and to protect privacy – essentially making it illegal for them to gather and share your data – would be enough to contain them, if not drive them out of business. Anything short of that will likely be useless, other than as a money grab for the fines they’ll pay, the massive amount they’ll spend on donations to politicians and the hiring of lobbyists.

The large tech companies are already the biggest lobbyists and major campaign contributors, their intention to draft favourable legislation and pay off any attempts at oversight.

The spending efforts have paid off in the U.S., where politicians turn a blind eye to harmful practices. Big Tech has had less luck in Europe, where regulations are tougher and fines much harder.

Into that environment, the industry is stepping up lobbying at the European Union, the New York Times reports this week.

“In Europe, the companies are spending more than ever, hiring former government officials, well-connected law firms and consulting firms. They funded dozens of think tanks and trade associations, endowed academic positions at top universities across the continent and helped publish industry-friendly research by other firms,” the Times notes.

“While the spending is less than in the United States, the growing influence industry is alarming European Union officials who believe that Big Tech is contributing to a Washingtonization of Brussels, giving money and connections an upper hand over the public interest.”

The lobbying efforts have borne less fruit in Europe, and regulators on this side of the pond would be well advised to use European policies as a starting point.

“Despite the lobbying, the industry has had few major successes. European leaders like Margrethe Vestager, who oversees digital policy, have called the companies threats to democracy and anticompetitive and have taken several steps to rein them in. Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook either are under antitrust investigation or have already been penalized billions of dollars. In recent years, the European Union has adopted industry-opposed laws on issues including privacy and online copyright,” the Times says.

Unregulated social media companies traffic in lies, misinformation and scams. They abuse personal information as a feature, not a bug – monetization is the key to everything. That’s been abundantly clear in the political divisiveness we see today, particularly in the U.S., where falsehoods abound in the political system.

Beyond spreading lies, social media is rife with scams, a reality in which the companies are complicit given their failure to reel in offenders.

A Buzzfeed piece last week made clear just how lucrative that is to Facebook, for instance.

“A BuzzFeed News investigation has found that in relentlessly scaling its ad juggernaut — which is projected by analysts to bring in $80 billion this year — Facebook created a financial symbiosis with scammers, hackers, and disinformation peddlers who use its platforms to rip off and manipulate people around the world. The result is a global economy of dishonesty in which Facebook has at times prioritized revenue over the enforcement of policies seemingly put in place to protect the people who use its platform,” the publication notes.

Facebook and its peers have only one interest: making money. If that means scamming the gullible, funneling explosive lies to uniformed followers, fostering hate, bullying and racism, well, so be it.

In fact, we’ve seen plenty of proof that divisiveness is what Facebook has in mind in using algorithms to ensure each user gets information – true or (most often) otherwise – that’s likely to lead to more time spent on Facebook, clicking more links and being exposed to more ads, all the while giving up more personal information to be exploited as part of the cycle.

To social media companies, those are features, not bugs.

Ironically named social media in fact undermines social cohesion, lessening the sense of shared reality … and shared humanity.

As we’ve seen in the U.S., it’s possible that large groups of people have abandoned any common ground, undermining the basic principles of democracy. That’s destructive and potentially fatal to society.

Enforcing antitrust legislation is one thing, but making Facebook and the others responsible for the content they publish would do much more to slow the spread of hate, lies and propaganda. That’s the right thing to do, but money is likely to win out over decency, democracy and civil society.

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