Since some recent terrorist incidents, concerns about the impact of social media have been reverberating throughout the world. Legislators and policy makers are under pressure to “do something,” even without fully understanding the problems and the viable solutions.
Understanding social media
The term “social media” is not the most illuminating. Facebook differs from Twitter and both are very different from TikTok. All these are platforms (that allow for users and producers to connect) and all depend on user-generated content: content generated by millions of users with no chokepoints conducive to regulation (otherwise known as editors, producers and media owners). But beyond that, the affordances of each are very different.
There were 2.4 billion active users on Facebook by 2019 Q2, but none of the millions of content producers can gain the attention of all 2.4 billion people. Attention is a finite, valuable resource and the design of the platform requires work to be done to gain attention. Some fail, while others reach audiences in the millions.
How does one attract attention? Humans are genetically programmed to pay attention to signs of danger and opportunities of procreation. So in general, those who seek to assemble large and engaged audiences tend to emphasise content that leverages violence and titillation. Those who seek to maximise audiences for political purposes tend to purvey polarising content based on fear. Mainstream media do this too, but the new platforms do it better.
Selling aggregated attention to advertisers is how platform companies dealing in content make money. So their algorithms and designs are optimised for attention gaining and holding.
What terrorists do
Professor Yuval Noah Harari likens terrorists to a fly that wishes to destroy a china shop. The fly cannot budge even a single cup. Instead, it gets inside the ear of a nearby bull and starts buzzing. The bull goes wild with fear and anger and destroys the china shop. What role is played by media in the buzzing?
After the coordinated bomb attacks in Sri Lanka on April 21 (the enraging of the bull), social media is seen as having played a role in the enraging of the bull which took the form of attacks against Muslim citizens on May 13 and the resulting harm to Sri Lanka’s multi-ethnic society (the damage to the china shop).
What can be done?
Would the events of May 13 have happened if not for social media? Mainstream media, though in decline, can still aggravate the rage of the bull and cause significant damage. When some Facebook groups are larger than the circulation of most newspapers, one cannot ignore the potential of social media to amplify violence-inciting messages. Many who want something done about social media neglect the old ways of transmitting hate.
So it is necessary to ensure that all laws criminalising incitement to violence are technology-neutral; and even more importantly, that cases against those violating such laws are expeditiously concluded and that punishments are well-publicised. Exemplary punishment is what will deter future hate speech, not the length of prison sentences in unenforced penal provisions.
The objective must be clear: is it to punish or deter miscreants or is it to prevent conflagration? If the latter, the solution must give priority to prompt take-down of incendiary content. That means steering clear of state action under law.
In all law-governed countries, penal actions are preceded by some form of legal and quasi-judicial proceeding wherein the state presents an indictment; the affected party is given an opportunity to defend him or herself; and an “unbiased” authority makes a decision. State action resulting in a take-down or other punishment will necessarily take a few weeks at least. By that time, the damage will have been done.
Thus, the best way to avoid violence resulting from terror attacks is cooperation with non-state parties who can take down offensive content promptly based on community standards that are part of the terms of service. This requires continuing dialogue between state authorities and platform companies, with the participation of civil society groups who can assist in shaping appropriate community standards that can be applied.
The Christchurch Call, an initiative led by the governments of France and New Zealand, which has been joined by countries such as India and Indonesia as well as by the major platform companies such as Facebook and Google, presents a law-governed framework for acting on social media that preserves core democratic values including the freedom of speech. All countries should consider aligning their actions with the Christchurch Call, rather than hurriedly “doing something” that could do more harm than good.
Professor Rohan Samarajiva is Chair of the ICT Agency, the apex body for ICT within the government of Sri Lanka, and founding Chair of LIRNEasia, a think tank active across emerging economies in South and South East Asia.