By Candice Baloyi, South African living in Oslo and writer at Shifter
“The entire world steps back and observes the happenings of the tech world like it is a museum or amusement park,” writes Candice Baloye.
Yesterday the news came out from Wall Street Journal that Cambridge Analytica , a data firm that worked for President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, is shutting down following allegations about its misuse of Facebook data and the campaign tactics it pitched to clients. After listening to about four of the testimonies of US members of senate in the Facebook case a few weeks ago, out of frustration I simply switched it off. In part, because they were addressing the issues surrounding Facebook today like they were giving a lecture named “Introduction to Social Media: The wonders of the internet” in a first-year marketing course. Mostly however, because of the ridiculousness of blame being indulgently lumped on to Facebook.
This is not an article about the correctness or specifities of Facebook “selling” data without permission to suspect parties, and many of the issues surrounding Facebook are not. However multiple parties are using the current downturn of Facebook to leverage less justifiable, more grey area issues they have with Facebook. Riding Zuckerberg’s train of apologies hoping to get a last minute, hasty, under pressure apology. Facebook is not a government, they are not the UN, they are not school teachers responsible for sorting reliable information for us and they most certainly are not the only ones profiting on the public’s data. The imposing of them to be all of these things, indeed Facebook’s up-taking of these roles when the going looks good, has caused many of the issues which now persist with the platform.
Facebook has progressively appreciated themselves a moral role in society. Somehow molding themselves as guardians of the internet, in charge of where it goes and what can be done with it, out of the clay of a “communication platform”. This combined with governments’ and legal bodies’ lack of understanding of Facebook and social media in general, has culminated in the situation we have now. A company which has taken responsibility in areas they do not have the jurisdiction or competence in and governments which have not filled in the gaps where they need to. The question of “to regulate or not to regulate” is an oversimplification. It is a matter of society, understanding the changes which have taken place in our means of communication and expression and then deciding the role of each relevant party in this new medium of exchange. Currently, out of confusion and misplaced outrage, governments (namely the US Government) have designated Facebook complete onus of all the aspects of society Facebook interacts with. Additionally, over the years Facebook has indulgently done this themselves. We have failed to update the tasks of governments in a modern age, and to limit access into certain aspects of our society to tech companies, because no one really understands the extent of their application except for themselves, and sometimes not even them.
One of the gravest mistakes modern society can make, is to allow tech companies which interact with certain aspects of society to take responsibility for these aspects and for governments to allow this because they are intimidated by the technology. Technology usually serves to improve the conditions of an industry. To augment the benefits and services of said industry. Majority of the time, the specialty of companies producing tech for industries is technology or business not that specific industry. A startup which produces educational software should not be entrusted to revolutionize the entire education system (although they might claim to be able to), it is for teachers to decide in what ways and to what extent they see fit for this tech to be applied, to vet products brought to them. This is optimal.
Facebook sets out to improve communication within the world, and indeed they have done this. Looking at Facebook (or any social media platform) one can see almost the entire psychology of society and its interactions. Because of this phenomenon, it seems that Facebook interacts with many integral parts of society: political agendas, “aggravating” conflicted areas, distribution of news. Facebook does inherently interact with these aspects of society, but does it then take complete ownership of these? This is what is being implied by the public, civil society, governments and Facebook at times. This is ridiculous and irresponsible, it shows the fear of different parties to interact with a technology they do not understand. When Russian intelligence use Facebook to influence the US election, was it for Facebook to become an artificial intelligence firm and intercept these? Or for the US government to extend their capabilities and understanding of the workings of society to dealing with Facebook as a platform which obviously needed to be surveyed? Additionally, had Facebook intercepted political messages they would have come under fire for this on principle, as took place with the questioning line of Ted Cruz in the testimony.
Facebook is fast becoming a primary source of information and news “collection” for the public. Facebook’s tampering with this distribution is reckless and dangerous for our society. However, news organizations and the public (those most competent on the subject) have not been enabled to direct the transition of news distribution on Facebook as governments aren’t aware of the seriousness of the issue. Just because there is news on Facebook does not mean Facebook understands the complexities and integrity of news distribution. Beyond a question of responsibility, it is a question of capability and competence. Facebook is incapable of understanding the optimal way for it to interact with all aspects of society. They need to step back where it is necessary and relevant parties need to identify how their roles have changed and step into those.
This is a complex topic to explore because these developments are uncharted territory. I do not know where the lines should be drawn, but I do think they necessarily should be. To ensure that crucial aspects of society do not crumble because they were in the wrong hands. This is applicable not only to Facebook but to larger tech. The entire world steps back and observes the happenings of the tech world like it is a museum or amusement park, accepting whatever gadgets and developments are thrown at them. But there needs to be consistent engagement between institutional society and emerging tech to ensure the safe and optimal future of the world. This competition between institutionalized and emerging will ensure competent and truly applicable developments. This rather than one side using the world as it’s test lab and the other relinquishing all responsibility to another out of intimidation.