Two events related to tech giant Facebook this week should force us to stop and reflect about how the rise of social media has impacted us as societies, especially in the Arab world.
Two days of testimony to US senators by whistleblower Frances Haugen, and the six-hour outage of Facebook and other popular Facebook-owned products such as Instagram and WhatsApp, show not only how addicted we have become to these platforms, but also revealed two of their major flaws: They are neither reliable nor trustworthy.
They are not reliable in the sense that Monday’s outage disconnected millions of people from their de facto news sources. This is not an exaggeration. In 2020, a massive 79 percent of Arab youth obtained their news from social media, compared with just 25 percent in 2015, according to the Arab Youth Survey. The outage should be a stark reminder that you should never put all your eggs in one basket, and a cautionary tale for those technology enthusiasts who lobbied for a world in which Facebook feeds and Twitter posts replaced traditional media outlets and credible news sites.
The writing has always been on the wall, but many chose not to notice it. Until January this year Donald Trump was arguably the most powerful man in the world, but that did stop Twitter and Facebook from denying him access to their platforms. The point is not whether those bans were justified after the horrific attack by some Trump followers on the US Capitol. The point is that even Trump, with all his power at the time, could not strong-arm the social media companies into maintaining his presence on their networks. This should be a warning to those news outlets that have spent the past few years giving away their content free of charge to these platforms instead of investing time and money on their own sites: You can lose it all at any time.
The other issue is that consumers’ increased reliance on social media for news comes at a price, and not just financial. The rise of fake news and partisan media outlets has led to massive distrust among the general public; the Edelman Trust Barometer 2021 reported that 59 percent of them thought journalists purposely tried to mislead people by saying things they knew to be false, or publishing gross exaggerations. Meanwhile, an estimated $2.6 billion a year in advertising revenue is flowing into the coffers of publishers of misinformation and disinformation, according to NewsGuard and Comscore. And none of this would have been possible without the increasing popularity of social platforms, in the sense that they gave every Tom, Dick and Harry an audience and rewarded them for growing it — regardless of whether they were spreading real or fake news.
If a social media post instigates hate, threatens the well-being of innocent individuals or infringes on people’s rights, the company that gave a platform to that post should not be immune from liability or absolved of its responsibilities.
Faisal J. Abbas
You may think that all of this is mere coincidence — but that is where Haugen comes in. The day before her testimony on Capitol Hill, she explained in a TV interview how Facebook’s news feed algorithm is optimized for content that generates a reaction. The company’s own research shows that it is “easier to inspire people to anger than it is to other emotions,” Haugen said. “Facebook has realized that if they change the algorithm to be safer, people will spend less time on the site, they’ll click on less ads, they’ll make less money.” In other words, purely to maximize their profits, social media platforms may have increased divisions in our societies, inspired hate attacks, convinced people to vote for policies or politicians who acted against their own interests, and created a global trust deficit that has led to an unprecedented blurred line between fact and fiction.
There is no evidence that the operators of social media platforms wanted any of this to happen, and the malign intentions of users, whether individuals, governments or private entities, are equally to blame.
Is it too late to act? No, it is not. In a report by our research and studies unit here at Arab News, media expert Juan Senor argued that only journalism could save journalism, and pointed out that subscribers to credible news sites actually increased during the pandemic — so we know there is a market for the truth, honestly reported. What should happen now is that tech companies, governments and respectable news organizations combine their efforts to defend that truth. Governments should tax technology companies fairly, and some of those revenues should be invested in traditional media outlets.
Finally, let us put to bed once and for all the argument that Facebook, Twitter and the like are not publishers. They are — just as Arab News, The Times of London or The Washington Post are — and they must be subject to the same disciplines. If a social media post instigates hate, threatens the well-being of innocent individuals or infringes on people’s rights, the company that gave a platform to that post should not be immune from liability or absolved of its responsibilities.
• Faisal J. Abbas is the editor in chief of Arab News.