Last week, a mob of white extremists, egged on by a President who refused to accept the November election results, attempted to overturn the US elections and overthrow the elected government. Trump, in a speech to the mob, said, “You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong.” This show of ‘strength’ cost five people, including a policeman their lives, as mobs ran riot in the capital of the United States of America. Some of the rioters were wearing Camp Auschwitz tee-shirts – a reference to the Nazi concentration camp where hundreds of thousands of Jewish people lost their lives.
America and much of the world sat watching the scenes unfold on their devices, with mute horror, as a 2,000-strong mob tried to storm Capitol Hill – where duly elected lawmakers, sit and pass laws. American media seemed devastated. American lawmakers wrung their hands at ‘third world scenes’ in their nation. The shock to their system will take some time to overcome, and there will be much handwringing over this.
But, for many of us observing the United States over the last two decades, none of this appeared strange. For the last 20 years – using a combination of network channels, affiliates, talk radio, websites, chat groups, and then social media – the extremist white movement has been gaining traction and gaining ground in the USA.
There was always white extremism in the USA – but social media has helped normalise it and mainstream it. Trump enabled racists and empowered them, by his behaviour and through his utterances on social media that amplified the rantings of a deranged mind. While racism was never eliminated in the USA (as in most nations), it became cool in the Trump era to be obviously bigoted in utterances towards people of colour and claim that this was freedom of expression.
The idea that America was a ‘white first’ country has been gaining ground, combined with the idea that whites, and the white way of life was under threat. And social media has played a large part in fostering this view. Hate trends. Bigotry trends. The more vile and virulent a statement, it trends. Media organisations have found that ordinary consumers consumed a fair amount of content that was hate-filled, bigoted, and played on their fears of being overrun by various minority interests on social media.
This is collectively labelled as misinformation – but some kinds of misinformation are more deadly than others. When social media platforms could have done something about hate, they were busy harvesting our data to fuel instability in societies, under the cloak of free speech. And there is no organisation more culpable in this than Facebook, followed closely by YouTube.
In June last year, Facebook took down American extremist groups that urged their members to take weapons to protests. YouTube took down right-wing, extremist channels. But, the fact remains they both gained and profited from the presence of these channels for the best part of a decade.
In fact, allowing extreme groups to use big tech platforms to congregate engage, seemed almost like a growth strategy. Facebook’s misadventure with Cambridge Analytica that led to both the Trump presidency, and Brexit – has never been censured. Facebook has gotten away with a bloodless ‘coup’, that has altered the paths of nations and economies.
Our data monopolised
Which brings us to the unchecked power that big tech has on our lives, on our societies, and our nations. A power that is fuelled by their uncontrolled monopoly on our data. Individual units about us that help them tell us how to push our buttons. Historian and author, Yuval Harari in his talk on “Why Fascism Is So Attractive And How Your Data Can Power It” warns about what is done with our data. He warns about the pitfalls of social media platforms running riot with our data, in an attempt to turn us to the dark side.
In her book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, author Shoshana Zuboff, warns us about the perils of the new world we live in, mediated by tech giants who have made their billions on our data. Zuboff writes, “Surveillance capitalists know everything about us, whereas their operations are designed to be unknowable to us.”
And, it is this asymmetry that needs to be changed. Social media platforms have now become too widespread and used, for them to stay unregulated. They cannot have so much unaccountable power on our lives. These platforms have gotten away for too long with the excuse that they are the technology providers and providers of content.
Too little, too late
However, their cynical manipulation of algorithms to encourage engagement and time spent, leading to greater revenues – needs to be stemmed. Their monopoly on our data has to cease. Their manipulation of our societies has to be checked. Facebook and Twitter have banned Trump for life, and begun cleaning up the extremist groups – but this is too little, too late and highly unilateral.
The failed coup in the United States is a good time to look at the regulations around big tech, and see how their monopoly control on our data can be broken. How they can be held more accountable for the content that they amplify. And governments across the world need to collaborate on bringing in a common governance framework for social media – so that in the pursuit of profit, big tech doesn’t leave a burning world behind.
The writer works at the intersection of digital content, technology and audiences. She is a columnist, visiting faculty and filmmaker.