I watched a Netflix documentary “Social Dilemma” recommended by several friends. After watching the show, I would now recommend it to everyone in my social circle who use social media at some level or the other. It gives an insider view of what happens in companies that are contributing to how social media is shaping up and what is done to drive behavior of people. I could relate to many behaviors depicted in the documentary to my own and more so in the recent few years when my social media usage has increased. Data is the new natural resource as many say, and this is what social media companies are collecting and using to understand our behaviors, best guessing our future behavior and trying to influence how we behave. Many companies engaged in social media until a few years ago did not even make profit and were burning investor money and yet investors were pouring more money into these companies. Why? Because they have customers and their data and the ability to drive and influence customer behaviors. Very valuable right!
Search for an airline ticket or a product on google and then see all the ads that are rained on you on all social media platforms and promo codes landing in your mail box all related to the vacation or the product you searched for. Sounds familiar? To me it was no surprise like probably to many of you. We have all read, heard and personally experienced this at various levels. These social media companies have too much data, power, influence and have largely gone unregulated. We have seen CEOs of some of these companies squirm, dodge, fumble at publicly televised hearings of the US law making bodies. Governments across the world have woken up to this malaise and are bringing in laws to regulate and curb the uncontrolled power of these large social media companies and to enforce ethical usage of customer data. We have seen several laws like GDPR in EU, CCPA in California, laws in UK, Brazil, Serbia, India and new laws in motion in many countries in recent times. These are welcome steps in the right direction.
Regulations on social media companies is one thing and we see some noticeable actions from governments. One area that has been relatively unattended to is regulation on social media users. Toxic content, misinformation, fake news, fake accounts and profiles, political and religious propaganda, uncensored videos, stalking, drug trafficking, child trafficking, cheating and frauds, serious crimes etc. are widespread ill effects of social media that is largely unregulated and there are no easy ways to remove this malaise. It is possible for vested groups to spread misinformation and propaganda by buying priority for their content from social media companies, it has come to light several politicians and celebrities have been able to purchase thousands of fake followers in a matter of hours, riots and social unrest have been engineered and even election interference by foreign countries has been a hot topic in recent years. It is possible for social media companies to voluntarily bring some controls and some are making new attempts to flag the authenticity of content and these methods will evolve with a combination of technology with the aid of AI/ML and government laws. Some governments recognize this malaise and have attempted to bring in laws to link social media to some form of unique verifiable identity. These attempts have not been easy to pass the legal hurdle of freedom of speech and fundamental rights in many democracies. This is a valid argument and many courts are reviewing the merits and demerits of the case. I personally believe everyone should have the freedom of speech, but not freedom from the consequences of their speech. If there is a willful misinformation or abuse or threat or crime in the name of free speech, then the perpetrator which may be a person or entity should bear the full consequence of their actions as per law of the land they operate or actions intended towards. Today many people or entities do not have any fear of the consequences of their social media actions as they know it is difficult for authorities to track and punish them especially with social media having no geographical boundary. These vested people or entities fearlessly abuse and issue threats to opposing views and opinions and spread false narratives to suite their interests. While most social media accounts need a mobile phone number and is one level of a tracking mechanism but is inadequate as there are loopholes on how people or entities with vested interests can procure fake SIM and phone numbers. I would argue everyone with a social media account needs a legitimate identity verified to operate in the virtual world just like we need an identity to open a Bank account or a driving license, stock trading etc. in a real world.
I have seen calls by several thought leaders for a Know Your Customer (KYC) kind of model or linking social media accounts to a legitimate verifiable identity. A solution is most urgently needed sooner than later. I wish the authorities will find a middle path where people’s fundamental rights are not compromised even by an inch, yet they have a valid identity in a virtual world for everyone to lawfully and peacefully engage in social media.
As always, I welcome your thoughts and opinions.