Leong: Social media cannot be the backbone of healthy democracies

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Somehow, the burden of ensuring the future viability of modern democracies is shifted onto the shoulders of internet search giants, major social media platforms and their owners.

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This was highlighted last year as investigators began to examine the events leading up to the uprising at the US Capitol in Washington.

And that has been an undercurrent of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the internet fueling an endless parade of conspiracy theories and fake treatments, undermining the public health response to the crisis.

This frightening situation did not develop by accident.

Big companies on the net want to make as much money as possible and to do that they need to get as many people as possible to use their services.

To say that these companies were successful is an understatement.

Nearly 92% of internet searches take place on Google, owned by Alphabet.

Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, owned by tech company Meta, have billions of users between them.

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The same goes for YouTube, another Alphabet entity.

Twitter, although relatively smaller, controls influence due to the way it is used by politicians, celebrities and those who wish to follow them.

These are private spaces that have become so large that we have confused them with public squares.

These companies have been very happy to usurp the benefits of being a central gathering place but reluctant to take on the responsibility of replicating and promoting the social norms that allow true public forums to function properly.

They are certainly not public parks.

They are more like the lobbies of a shopping mall, equipped with technology to know who you meet, where you have lunch and what stores you like to visit.

The algorithm thinks it knows what users want to see. It doesn’t matter what it is.

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He knows me well enough to offer a seemingly endless stream of videos depicting cute puppies and kittens in all their cute puppy and kitten glory.

But he also tries to sell me dog food…despite the fact that I don’t own a dog.

And judging by news reports from the past few years, that same algorithm also can’t figure out that images of mothers lovingly breastfeeding their babies aren’t actually sexually explicit images and probably shouldn’t be reported or banned.

Do we really want to entrust the well-being of our democracies to these companies?

Yes, their applications and sites make it very easy to stay in touch with our families and friends.

They keep us hooked and engaged by showing us material organized by machine.

They introduce us to like-minded people or people who share our interests and hobbies.

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As a result, they turn users into easy targets for those willing to pay to whip up products, services, or ideas.

They have created an internet mirror of our lives – including the most important political parties.

And because these online mechanisms were tuned to show people what they want to see, they ended up creating nightmarish echo chambers rather than encouraging intelligent discourse bridging political and philosophical divides.

But at the end of the day, despite the ease with which we can weave our virtual social networks and the power accumulated by online businesses, these tools are just as vulnerable to interruptions as everything else on the Internet.

There are millions of people who have lost access – or never had it in the first place – because a despotic government decided so.

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It’s not the solid foundation on which democracies are built, because it’s something that search engines and social media were never meant to be.

These services may be perceived as public gathering places, but they are really just private playgrounds for hyper-targeted online advertising.

The purpose of these services is to create a profit for their parent companies and shareholders. That’s it.

People and governments should treat them accordingly.

[email protected]
On Twitter: @RickyLeongYYC

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