by Andjelija Kedzic
Due to the unintended creation of a new General Purpose Technology (GPT) – the Internet and the emergence of the network society, our world is increasingly reliant on network architecture which transcends physical boundaries as it connects and shapes our society around a system of interconnected nodes. In 2021, we have witnessed the distance between the virtual and the real diminish through the case of the ongoing Covid-19 global pandemic, which brought to light the increased volume of misinformation, disinformation, and fake news to spread through the networks. Even though in the previous years there have been calls both from the US and EU to regulate emerging technologies such as Facebook, they remain largely unregulated despite the increased activity on the network architecture, successful transition from traditional to a digital lifestyle, higher volume of false news spreading through the emerging technologies as well as higher volume of cyberattacks that increased by 600% in 2021 (SonicWalls, 2022). Due to the complex and interconnected nature of the network architecture, it is arguable that there is an urgency to regulate emerging technologies such as Facebook, in order to prevent other possible undesirable consequences.
Before network society, our society has been shaped around labor-saving machinery, where the steam engine was the GPT for the Industrial Era (Allen 2011, 37). In 1969 the US military unintendedly created a new GPT of this era – the Internet, which was shaped by economic, military, social, and ideological factors (Naughton, 2006). As GPTs have the potential to reshape and impact pre-existing economic and societal structures, they have been regulated in various ways, such as standards for the production of steam engines, speed limits of cars, working hours in factories, safety rules, etc. Yet, the GPT of this era – the Internet, has arguably just seen the beginning of becoming regulated.
Our network society remains semi-regulated through the lens and mentality of the industrial era, in which the process of interactive creativity is contradicted by the legislation of property rights that has a legacy from the industrial era (Castells 2006, 19). One can argue that it was due to a lack of regulatory adaptability that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Federal Communication Commission (FCC), the agencies responsible for antitrust and communications regulations and enforcement, did not succeed to create an adequate regulatory framework for emerging technologies such as Facebook. As early as 2011 Facebook settled with the FTC and agreed to provide certified privacy audits for the next 20 years and improve privacy controls (FTC, 2011). Yet, the FTC approved Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram in 2012 and WhatsApp in 2014 and therefore indirectly allowed. Facebook to have a monopoly over the market. For that reason, one can argue that the cornerstones for adequately combating misinformation, disinformation, and fake news through platforms such as Facebook, lies in understanding the dynamics and consequences of the previous and current regulative framework and the business model of Facebook platform that has 2.93 billion monthly active users (Statista Research Department, 2022).
After the Cambridge Analytica Scandal, Facebook became less transparent and less willing to share their data with researchers as well as on one occasion provided inaccurate data on misinformation to the researchers, which arguably increases the risk of inadequately mitigating the spread of misinformation, disinformation, and fake news (Dwoskin, Zakrzewski, Pager, 2021). Indeed, the public is mostly informed about the business model of Facebook through whistleblowers. The most recent whistleblower Frances Haugen (WSJ, 2021) claims that Facebook optimizes its algorithms to engage more of its users and therefore increase revenue ads, even if that means showing more hate speech, fake news, and violent content. One can therefore argue that the profit incentive behind Facebook’s recommendation algorithm is significantly misaligned with the public interest, which became more salient early on during the pandemic.
Due to the conflict of interest, lack of transparency, as well the FCC’s and FTC’s decreased effectiveness and influence, the risk of mitigating the spread of false news as well as harmonizing the volatile digital environment increases. In addition to this, it is evident that in such an unregulated environment the risk of not being able to timely detect and define the risks, as well as adequately prepare and adjust for the future global crisis, such as the Covid-19 global pandemic, increases. Therefore, one can argue that with the current usage of sophisticated tools that emerging technologies are offering, the risk of a less resilient society increases rather than decreases.
Despite the US (FTC and FCC) and the EU’s calls and efforts to regulate emerging technologies such as Facebook, due to the increasing complexity of emerging technologies, it is arguable that there is a need for establishing a new regulatory body, that will adequately adjust its regulations in terms of market, data, privacy, and, content moderation, according to the fast-paced changes and continuous development of the emerging technologies. Such a regulatory body will set the cornerstones for combating more effectively and efficiently the spread of misinformation, disinformation, and fake news. Beyond this new body, two additional measures are needed. First, to increase transparency, regulators can demand open-source algorithms, which would be beneficial tool for adequately regulating platforms. Secondly, basic media and digital literacy skills are a necessity for every user in the era of a society that is shaped around interconnected nodes. In conclusion, as regulations, business models of emerging technologies, data, privacy, and content moderation are tightly connected and intertwined, one can argue that precondition for combating misinformation, disinformation, and, false news lies in properly understanding such dynamics and therefore creating a new regulatory body that will be able to comprehend such complexity of today’s emerging technologies.