This is one in a series of articles about how Canada should navigate regulating technology companies.
By Aneurin Bosley
News organizations have a fraught relationship with social media platforms. On one hand, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others have given journalists the ability to reach people far beyond what was imaginable 20 years ago. On the other hand, Facebook and Google have virtually monopolized the market for online advertising, leaving only a few crumbs for news sites. Perhaps even worse, there’s increasing evidence that social media platforms are cultivating an online culture that is downright hostile to the objectives of quality news.
In its 2020 Digital News Report , the Reuters Institute found that Canadian survey respondents are increasingly using social media platforms as a source of news (48 per cent in 2016 and 53 per cent in 2020), while TV and print continue to drop. This isn’t a huge surprise, and let’s not forget that most news organizations in Canada regularly push stories and information to social media. But the report also found that trust in news is on the decline across the globe. The proportion of people who said they can trust news most of the time in Canada fell eight percentage points between 2019 and 2020, dropping to 44 per cent.
For their part, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and others have little interest in being information gatekeepers. When incidents of hate speech bubble to the surface, for example, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg often trots out the right to free speech enshrined in the U.S. First Amendment (although since this only applies to the actions of government it’s not clear how this is relevant to a private company).
But it would be better to describe the “speech” on these huge platforms as “algorithmically mediated” speech. Google, Facebook and others make money by selling product. The product is us and the customer is advertisers. As Jaron Lanier told PBS in 2018, “(t)he economic problem is very simply that we’ve designed a society where if you and I talk over social media, the only way that can happen is if it’s for the benefit of a third party who’s paying for it. And their only possible benefit is getting us to change our behaviour.”
But so what? Facebook and Google are private companies. They don’t pretend to be honest brokers of information. What really worries Facebook is what will happen to its business model after changes in Apple’s mobile operating system that will ask users for specific permission to be tracked, an option they evidently believe most people will decline.
But events in the past years have demonstrated that disinformation and conspiracy theories have real-world consequences. After the carnage at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 it became clear that there are evidently thousands (or maybe tens or hundreds of thousands) of people who genuinely believe the U.S. election was stolen, despite the lack of evidence to support this claim, as noted by many rather conservative-minded officials and judges. And over the past months, Canada, the U.S. and elsewhere have also seen protests against mandatory mask-wearing rules, many of which have been organized on Facebook. A recent investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism revealed that there are still hundreds of Facebook pages, followed by 45 million people, that are using Facebook’s tools to raise money while spreading misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic.
Meanwhile, a very recent study from the U.K. in the journal Psychological Medicine found that “conspiracy beliefs act to inhibit health-protective behaviours and that social media act as a vector for such beliefs.” It also found “evidence of a link between social media and non-engagement in health-protective behaviours.”
Perhaps there are filter bubbles at work, where social media algorithms keep feeding you more of the kind of information you have engaged with, though the evidence for the real impact of filter bubbles is mixed. Perhaps users are part of an online community of like-minded people who act to reinforce their own preconceived ideas. (Health bodies in many countries didn’t help matters by giving confusing advice about mask wearing, though it’s a big leap from that to a belief that COVID-19 is connected to radiation from 5G network towers.)
Either way, this recent study and others suggest that social media platforms help cultivate the opposite of the virtue of humility, expressed as an acknowledgment of what we don’t know and an openness to weigh evidence and potentially give up preconceived ideas. Capitol Hill rioter “QAnon Shaman” is now evidently keen to give up some of his, though the weight of law enforcement may have been a factor.
There are many positive aspects to social media. There are uncounted numbers of groups and people who organize to help others and make their communities better. But that should not blind us to other risks.
At its best, good journalism should encourage us to think critically about groups and events in our communities and about the governments who represent us at different levels. That’s not to say that journalists always succeed. This is also not to say that social media platforms are going to turn us into a bunch of mindless zombies. But as the news business in Canada and elsewhere continues to falter, let’s contemplate an information diet that is oriented around selling us to advertisers rather than one that is oriented around making an earnest attempt to let people know what’s going on in their communities.
Aneurin Bosley is an Assistant Professor at Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication.