Social Media – A Threat to Privacy and Democracy?

Breakfast with Bwana

By Anil Madan

Imagine if anyone could discover your mobile phone number simply by looking it up in a list of numbers aggregated by the service provider of your mobile service and worse yet, imagine if other people could listen in on your “private” conversations with your family members, friends, even your doctor.

And imagine if businesses were able to advertise to those who had telephone numbers because your service provider let them do so for a fee? Well, it was not so long ago, that a list of telephone numbers was readily available. It was called a Telephone Book or Directory. And Telephone Books had ads in them; in fact, telephone service providers even made a list of businesses providing all sorts of services and charged the businesses for the privilege of being listed. That was called the Yellow Pages.

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Oh, and I forgot to mention there was a time when party lines were common. Neighbours could listen in on your conversations and so could the Operator of the telephone company.

We weren’t too upset about that or concerned about privacy, were we?

Remember the election of 2016 when Donald Trump won, and the Democrats began to scream “Russian collusion?” The utterly false charge was advanced that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to win the election. Did you notice that before the 2020 election, the Democrats were still making charges of Russian interference, ostensibly on behalf of Trump while the Republicans half-heartedly made charges of Chinese or Iranian interference on behalf of Biden? Have you noted that since the election no one is talking about Russian collusion or Russian interference except in abstract terms? Certainly, the Democrats don’t want to promote the idea that Joe Biden’s success was due to foreign interference in the US election.

Trump and the Republicans claim that the election was somehow stolen, but we are not hearing claims of Chinese or Iranian interference. The problem here is one of proving not only the fact of interference, but that it made a difference.

It has become fashionable to talk of social media sites as a threat to privacy and indeed, a threat to democracy. And there is a growing clamour for social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter to moderate (meaning police) the content on their sites. There were cheers in some quarters when Trump was shut off by Twitter and then Facebook because Trump persisted in posting false claims that he had won the election and that the election had been stolen. All of these claims were without supporting evidence.

Yet, the de-platforming of users, particularly of a President, raises serious questions not just about the power that private companies can wield, but in the balance, of how much misconduct is acceptable from political leaders before they are shut down and shut out.

Concerns about privacy abound, but why should this be so? No one is forced to create an account on Facebook or Twitter and to voluntarily enter information that one certainly has the right to keep to oneself, whether it is one’s birthday or, which hotel one is staying at or a myriad of likes and dislikes.

What I am suggesting is that when we think of social media platforms, we may just be focusing on things that do not represent the real problem and mostly, do not matter.

The issue is not so much privacy as the feeling that somehow, one’s “space” in the sense of dignity, is being invaded when a social media platform “sells” information about oneself to sellers and marketing companies. Yet, such selling is done anonymously. There is little value in the identity of any single person other than to scammers. Marketers are after a larger aggregate market. And if one, as a user of such platforms, is inundated with ads for particular services and goods, it is because an algorithm identifies one as “potentially interested” in such services and goods, hence a potential customer. But nothing compels us to buy a product that is advertised and if we do purchase it, presumably it is because we WANT to.

No one seems to be upset that when watching say, a football game, or the Olympics on TV, one is inundated by ads that are aimed at the demographic of likely viewers. Ah, but they don’t know that you are watching, goes the refrain. 

The more serious problems with social media come in many shapes and dimensions. An enormous amount of time is wasted by people in posting and reading vacuous nonsense. That time would be better spent reading a book or writing a letter. But then, we live in a different age.

This, of course, is the most persuasive argument that social media doesn’t really matter. There are simply too many posts in any given day on both Facebook and Twitter, with enough diversity of views, to make any real difference. No one person can read all of them. But that too masks the problem that people read what they WANT to read and the algorithms of social media sites direct and amplify this type of confirmation bias.

To be sure, there are problems of cyberbullying and the mere existence of social media platforms extends the impact to a wider audience. But that is not so much a problem with social media as it is a problem with monitoring the conduct of adolescents.

The concerns about freedom of speech, the spread and amplification of disinformation and conspiracy theories, and the enabling of violent cults and other groups are far more serious issues.

In the US it is fashionable to declare this country as a bastion of free speech protected by the Constitution. Yet, people seldom stop to point out that the First Amendment to the US Constitution is directed to the enactment of laws by Congress that may abridge freedom of speech and related freedoms: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” This prohibition is now interpreted as extending to the legislatures of the states by virtue of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.

The language of the First Amendment is absolute and has frequently been interpreted by the Supreme Court to be absolute in its prohibitions regarding abridgement of the freedoms protected by the government.

Contrast this with the Constitution of India which declares: All citizens shall have the right… to freedom of speech and expression, but goes on to add the caveat that nothing in the clause declaring that right shall affect the operation of any existing law, or prevent the State from making any law, in so far as such law imposes reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right conferred… in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.

When it comes to freedom of speech and expression, the Indian Constitution may actually afford broader protection when it comes to social media platforms than does the US Constitution because the Indian Constitution is not directed solely at abridgement by the government. The US prohibitions simply do not apply to private companies; the Indian cognate has broader language in expressing an absolute right to freedom of speech and expression. The tradeoff is that in India, the right is subject to governmental interests, but not subject to private interests. The Indian government may have greater leverage when it comes to regulating private companies notwithstanding their cries that it is interfering with free speech.

The long and short of this is that the world’s largest platforms are US based for now. Therefore, Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp are well within their rights to bar users who violate their rules.

Herein lies a problem. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act declares that these Internet-based user platforms are not to be treated as publishers. This has the effect of immunizing them from libel suits. But since the companies have taken it upon themselves to be monitors of what is posted on their platforms, they may well be subject to liability for misfeasance in performance of that function.

As we are coming to learn, social media sites facilitate the spread and amplification of disinformation and conspiracy theories. This is simply a function of confirmation bias. But social media companies bear a huge responsibility here because their algorithms serve to increase and concentrate the aggregated information to those most likely to be susceptible to it. This is the information analog of the advertising side, i.e., identifying those most susceptible to reception of the information or advertising at issue. 

One has to acknowledge that it is difficult to monitor and police the spread of disinformation and conspiracy theories. Yet, it is an imperative. Social media platforms owe this as an obligation to society at large. When people post baseless claims that discourage the wearing or masks during a pandemic, or worse, anti-vaccination falsehoods, it is not unreasonable for society to expect that social media platforms will take action.

Of course, this requires an enlightened view of long-term self-interest on the part of companies that own such platforms. The pursuit of profit does always yield to long-term wisdom. Part of that wisdom may lie in encouraging users to report posts containing falsehoods and disinformation.

In the same way, social media platforms often serve as a convenient conduit for information fed to violent cults and conspiracy theorists. The danger here is that social media platforms will be used as the logistical communications means to promote and effect violence. The question here is whether control of such functions is up to the platform or up to Intelligence and security agencies of the government. I suggest that this is a joint responsibility.

Perhaps, Section 230 needs to be reconsidered. Immunity for social media companies that provide intelligence about dangerous activities and incitement may be a worthwhile addition to the protections afforded such platforms. Of course, this should be joined with severe penalties for failure to report.

Finally, the question is what impact do these platforms have on democracy? The evidence is mixed at best. As we can see, in China, Russia, Turkey, Pakistan, and perhaps even India, there is very little impact in terms of upending government initiatives and abuses.

In the US, rather than upholding democracy, these platforms served to cause a near insurrection as the wildfire spread of falsehoods, conspiracy theories, and calls to action served to catalyze an insurrection at the Temple of Democracy, the Capitol of the United States.

Hark back to the US presidential election of 2016. Despite claims that Russian propaganda influenced the outcome of that election, the truth is that no proof whatever has been offered that actions by Russia or any other foreign power actually made a difference. That election was decided by some 80,000 votes spread over counties in three swing states. American candidates spend millions of dollars on ads and strategic campaigning. It is difficult to believe that the Russians were sophisticated enough to get voters to affect the election in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio with 80,000 strategically placed votes.

Nor should we be too ready to accept that somehow social media companies were responsible for the huge voter turnout in the 2020 presidential election. That voter turnout was probably more a function of greater voter attention to the election in view of the pandemic that limited engagement in social activities or attendance at sports venues, or tourist destinations. And it may well have been grassroots organizing and initiatives to get voters out that worked. If social media platforms are actually encouraging voter turnout, that should be viewed as a positive development.

This does not mean that vigilance against falsehoods and disinformation should be allowed to slip or that falsehoods and abuse should be tolerated.

Social media platforms have demonstrated the power of rapid and widespread communication and the attendant possibilities for swaying opinions and attitudes. With greater power comes greater responsibility. We are seeing very tentative moves in the direction of exercising responsibility.

Much remains to be done.


* Published in print edition on 2 February 2021

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