Taming the social media juggernaut

Syed Tashfin Chowdhury | Published: May 14, 2019 21:03:04

-Reuters file photo

During the past week, social media users experienced a rude awakening from the explosive op-ed piece written by Chris Hughes, a long-time friend of Mark Zuckerberg and co-founder of Facebook, in the New York Times. In the lengthy piece, besides asking for Facebook's 'break-up', Hughes recommended the formation of a new agency in the USA that can ensure regulatory monitoring of social media platforms and tech companies and also uphold privacy rights of social media users online.

From the total number of social media platforms available online, the biggest and most influential is Facebook. It accounts for nearly 80 per cent of the total social media users worldwide.

Since then, Nick Clegg, Facebook's vice president for global affairs and communication, has hit back at the idea raised by Hughes, through another op-ed piece in the New York Times. However, the points mentioned by Hughes could not be refuted by Clegg entirely. A wide-angle analysis of how Facebook has done little to address serious issues in the areas of user privacy, spread of negative propaganda, monopoly tendency, dominance over other social media platforms and more, can explain the situation.

BIRTH AND GENESIS OF FACEBOOK: Way back in 2003, Harvard University in Boston, USA was struggling with the idea of having a 'face book', a paper-based platform where names and personal information of the university's students would be available. Inspired by an editorial in the student paper, Crimson, undergraduate student and "programming prodigy" Mark Zuckerberg launched 'theface-book.com' on February 04, 2004.

At the time, membership was only restricted to students of Harvard University. As more than half of Harvard's students had registered by March of 2004, Zuckerberg sought the help of Dustin Moskovitz, Andrew McCollum, and Chris Hughes to help manage the website. As its popularity grew over the following few months, the platform opened up membership to Columbia, Stanford, Yale and other Ivy league institutions of USA and later in Canada.

Soon after the company was moved to Palo Alto, California, it began to get investments from some of the biggest names in Information Technology in the USA. Somewhere in between this, 'the' was dropped from 'thefacebook.com'. Finally, on September 26, 2006, Facebook opened free membership for anyone around the world with a valid email id.

At the moment, it has more than 2.20 billion monthly active users. Besides helping with networking and communication, the platform is also facilitating online commerce, video communication and providing other services like gaming, hosting pages and groups etc. The company is currently valued at nearly $ 500 billion.

The social network platform's total worth and global outreach makes it a formidable facility for users and small and medium entrepreneurs. Over the years, it has remained free, though more and more revenue-generating options for the platform have been popping up.

PRIVACY ISSUES: One of the biggest problems faced by users of Facebook is the issue of privacy. Without the proper privacy settings on, strangers can still get a hold of user's facebook status posts, photos, shared files etc. Some firms have harvested the material that people openly shared for all manner of purposes, including targeting advertising and creating voter profiles.

A plethora of such incidents drove regulators to intensify scrutiny of Facebook's privacy practices. The Federal Trade Commission of USA considered a multibillion-dollar fine against the company for violating a 2011 privacy consent decree. In March of this year, the agency said it would create a task force to monitor big tech companies and potential anti-competitive conduct.

To address the problem with privacy, Zuckerberg said in March, that instead of encouraging public posts on the social media platform, he would focus on private and encrypted communications, in which users message mostly smaller groups of people they know. This shift would partly be achieved by integrating Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger so that users worldwide could easily message one another across the networks, he said. Facebook has acquired apps like Instagram and WhatsApp. Messenger is a separate messaging app linked with Facebook.  In effect, he said, Facebook would change from being a digital town square to creating a type of "digital living room".

But this would not entirely address the privacy problem faced by users. Many users have time and again complained about how they are bombarded with advertisements of things that they have recently talked about with their friends or peers on messenger or WhatsApp.

Also, Facebook can gain access of phonebooks in smart-phones of users. The names and numbers of contacts on the smart-phones, which has Facebook apps installed, are scanned. Later users are sent 'Facebook friend request suggestions' based on recent calls made to contacts.

Such private information of users are being collected and used for advertisements and other purposes as has been revealed through the Cambridge Analytica scandal and a few others in the past.

After every single incident, Facebook claimed to be taking steps that will address privacy issues seriously. But till date there is no concrete evidence of what is actually being done and how significant such steps have been in ensuring privacy of users.

DISINFORMATION AND 'VIRAL' CONTENT:  As its number of users worldwide continued to grow alongside internet penetration and affordability of smart-phones, Facebook continued to introduce new facilities into its 'news feed'. Primarily, the 'news feed' is a hub where the latest activities by the user's friends, family members and pages being followed show up. Around 2010, Facebook opened up the scope for users to share links of news and video clips from other websites.

Most users are unaware of the authenticity of websites that claim to be 'news sites' but are essentially propaganda machines. So, they end up sharing 'news' which are false. Such tendencies have led to many violent conflicts across the world in developing and developed countries.

In Bangladesh, for example, in 2012, Uttam Kumar Barua of Ramu was tagged in an anti-islamic post. This led to a mob attack on the Buddhist communities of Ramu on September 29, 2012. 12 Buddhist temples were burnt to ashes and dozens of houses were damaged. Uttam had later claimed innocence. The people of his community still blame him and his family for the mayhem.

Similar anti-Islamic posts on Facebook had also led to attacks on Hindu and Buddhist temples in many parts of the country over the past few years. Across the border in Myanmar on July 02, 2014, a swelling mob of angry Buddhist residents agitated near the Sun Teashop in the commercial hub of Mandalay. The teashop's Muslim owner had been falsely accused of raping a female Buddhist employee. The accusations, originally made on a blog, had gone 'viral' after they were shared on Facebook.

The situation took a severe turn as soon as ultra-nationalist Buddhist monk Wirathu shared the post. A wave of killings and persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar began.

It seems that many unaware users of Facebook are more likely to post a 'news item' that they have come across and share, without verifying its authenticity. In fact, according to a Pew study from 2013, about 30?per cent of Facebook users get their news on Facebook, which is higher than any other social networking sites such as YouTube (10 per cent) and Twitter (8 per cent).

Some users take advantage of the reach of social media platforms to make some content become 'viral' intentionally. These ultimately affect individuals and families in a myriad of ways. For example, 18-year-old Nusrat Jahan Rafi's complaint against her madrasa principal Sirajuddaula to Sonagazi Officer-in-Charge Moazzem Hossain on March 27, 2019, was recorded by the latter on his smart-phone. The more than five-minutes long clip was posted on Facebook leading to threats to Nusrat and her family members. Subsequently, Nusrat was set on fire at her Madrasa, upon orders from Sirajuddaula on April 06. She succumbed to her injuries on April 11.

During the recent terrorist attacks in Europe, some terrorists had switched on the 'Live' feed on Facebook to document and broadcast the attack.

But Facebook was not held responsible for the spread of these content and the consequences caused by these. Most of these horrifying content continue to be in circulation on Facebook. This also proves Facebook's lack of accountability.

In apps like WhatsApp, content is encrypted. Dreading the capabilities of such apps, during election in some countries of South Asia, some governments had to shut down social media platforms.

After the Easter Sunday attack on April 28 of this year, Sri Lanka had also shut down social media platforms for nearly a week. This was done to stop the spreading of rumours and stop terrorists from coordinating through these platforms.

MONOPOLY TENDENCIES: In his op-ed piece in the New York Times, Chris Hughes mentioned, "Facebook's monopoly is also visible in its usage statistics. About 70 per cent of American adults use social media, and a vast majority are on Facebook products. Over two-thirds use the core site, a third use Instagram, and a fifth use WhatsApp. By contrast, fewer than a third report using Pinterest, LinkedIn or Snapchat. What started out as lighthearted entertainment has become the primary way that people of all ages communicate online."

Immediately after the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018, some users had taken part in the 'Delete Facebook' movement. These users channelled their social media addiction towards Instagram and WhatsApp. It was unknown to most of them that Instagram and WhatsApp are also owned by Facebook.

An example of Facebook's monopoly tendency was proved when they pushed users into installing 'Facebook messenger' into their smart-phones and devices. Messenger was released in 2011 to facilitate direct messaging between Facebook users. Facebook messenger became a separate app that had to be installed into devices for usage around 2015. Any user who did not install the app into their devices was not allowed to communicate with their friends and family members through Facebook's own messaging services during this time.

Hughes has also pointed out that Facebook is using its strength as a monopoly to copy the capabilities of competing apps. For example, Facebook copied Snapchat's version of 'stories' and disappearing messages. Even the 'living room' idea to address privacy mentioned by Zuckerberg in March of this year is inspired by the techniques used by China's Tencent, according to some IT observers in the US.

As Facebook continues to become a juggernaut that cannot be tamed, Hughes recommended US administration to break-up the social media network.

Hughes suggested the formation of a new agency in the USA that can regulate tech companies and ensure privacy of users, much like how Europe is making headway through the General Data Protection Regulation. The law guarantees users a minimal level of protection.

Such an agency can come up with a privacy bill that will specify the control that users would have over their digital information. "The agency should also create guidelines for acceptable speech on social media", said Hughes.

This could be considered by governments of developing countries like Bangladesh also. Technological professionals, who understand social media, their functions, facilities along with the legal and ethical aspects of these, can be recruited into departments under Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) or under the Ministry of Posts, Telecommunications and Information Technology?.

Such teams would also need to remain alert and updated about the laws and inquiries going on around the world on social media platforms. For example, lessons can be learnt from New Zealand and France's call to end online terror. Additionally, companies like Facebook, twitter, Google and others should be asked to open offices in Bangladesh. This would at least ensure some form of accountability.


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