High Noon for Wild West Social Media as Europe Draws Pistols

By William J. Furney

Europe has had its fill of swashbuckling, cavalier social media firms who are undermining — even “destroying” — democracy in the very place it was born. The European Union has warned that these companies — American all, and mostly Facebook, Twitter and Google, and possibly the troubled Snapchat beloved, until recently, of teens — face regulation and the UK is planning to introduce its own rules and maybe even a tax on social media firms.

It’s true, though, that many users of these wildly popular communications platforms may remain blithely unaware of measures underway to clean up social media from the largely say-anything, unaccountable fora they have become. Even after the Cambridge Analytica scandal was revealed and users became aware their personal data was being sold and used, many still shrugged their shoulders and carried on posting. They’re getting a cool service for “free”, they muse, so what’s the big deal? But they’re paying a heavy price.

The EU’s security chief, Julian King, has had enough. Writing in Britain’s Guardian newspaper, he said technology was enabling politicians and political parties to get their messages out to bigger audiences than ever before and with incredible ease, as well as being able to directly target various, more niche segments of society. But, he said, the various tech platforms were too often being hijacked by nefarious elements to spread malicious information, and they took the form of both state and non-state actors in spreading fake news and stirring the political pot.

“Preventing our democratic processes, the very building blocks of our society, from being affected is not a concern for the future. It is a task of the utmost importance now, one that requires immediate action,” said the commissioner. “Indeed, we have been working on addressing this threat for a while and are looking to step up our response, together with our member states.”

He said the EU was “not resting on our laurels — we are constantly in the process of analysing the situation to see if we need to take any more action”, and especially as European elections are due next May and the bloc does not want to see a repeat of the fake news tsunami borne by social media that washed over the American and British electorates in recent times.

British politicians say in a leaked report into social media and its impact that “our democracy is at risk and now is the time to act”. They’re concerned about the “relentless targeting of hyper-partisan views, which play to the fears and prejudices of people, in order to influence their voting plans”. And the pols are furious with Facebook, a company brimming with the world’s personal information but one that’s not willing to impart with info about itself.

“Facebook has hampered our efforts to get information about their company throughout this inquiry. It is as if it thinks that the problem will go away if it does not share information about the problem, and reacts only when it is pressed,” the leaked report says.

The members of the British parliament previously requested that Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg appear before a committee investigating the matter, but the young billionaire with a firm eye on China declined, dispatching underlings instead and further riling the political elite. They say those deputies who appeared before them “provided witnesses who have been unwilling or unable to give full answers to the committee’s questions” and they still want their Marky man.

Meanwhile, Europeans’ growing dis-ease with social media is echoed on the other side of the Atlantic, with a survey earlier this year showing the majority of Americans also believe these freewheeling platforms of endless opinions and manipulations also hinder democracy.

And just like with Europeans and their evolving view of social media, more Americans now want Facebook, Twitter and all the other sites regulated.

“That’s a seismic shift in the public’s perception of Silicon Valley over a short period of time,” said the Axios news site, which commissioned the survey. “It shows how worried Americans are about Russian meddling in the 2016 election, but it also reflects a growing anxiety about the potentially addictive nature of some of the tech companies’ products, as well as the relentless spread of fake news on their platforms.”

It’s little wonder that it’s not just the valuations of these enormous companies that have been plunging, but confidence, and trust, all round.

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