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Out of my depth: Facebook and Co.


November 24, 2019


Let me try to wander far away from whatever competence I may have. Every day, you can read reports of debates about the risks posed to society by the social media, which are used to disseminate fake news, conspiration theories and hate. They are reported to meddle in elections in democratic countries. They allow fringe groups with noxious agendas to grow and act. Law-abiding countries seem powerless. And, yet, a couple of simple tricks would do.


The amazing aspect is that there is nothing new with the social media. Except for the underlying technology, the debates mirror earlier ones on the freedom of opinion and on monopolies. These two issues have been studied and disputed in great depth earlier, solutions have been found and refined. These solutions only need to be adjusted to the new technology.


For a few centuries following Gutenberg’s magic invention of the printing press, exactly the same happened. Newspapers sprang up and, as with all inventions, ill-intentioned people used them for bad purposes, disseminating the same insanities and profanities as the social media. It was less efficient than the web but probably as dangerous. The initial reactions were as poorly thought as what is taking shape now. Governments used the bad press example to silence good press when it was irreverent. The press argued for self-regulation, which failed, as self-regulation often does – just think of the financial industry before 2008. In the end, the democratic countries adopted laws to regulate the press.


These laws vary from country to country but there is a common core. The regulated media are free to publish what they see fit as long as it does not infringe on fundamental social values such as decency and honesty, with a view to avoid spreading falsehoods or hate against particular groups. These social values change over time so they need to be updated, but the key idea is that some things are not fit to publish. The democratic process determines social values. Of course, it is much more complicated than my simple, possibly naïve, description but the principle is clear and simple.


The challenge is well understood. Freedom of opinion and speech is a fundamental requirement in democratic societies and it includes the freedom of the press. At the same time, like most other freedoms, it cannot be boundless because it can be exploited for anti-democratic forces to undermine society. The equilibrium is difficult to find but, after decades of experimentation, most democratic countries have found acceptable and effective compromises. These laws, initially created to deal with the written press, have been extended over time to radio and television. It was easy because the new media were clearly determined to be the press with other technologies.


This is a good place to start. The next step is to recognize that, nowadays, many people get their information from the social media. The millennials, it seems, don’t read newspapers, don’t listen to the radio and don’t watch television. Instead, they surf the web. They do not send the antiquated letter to the Editor, they chat among themselves. They tend to develop links with like-minded people, pretty much as people used to be defined by the newspaper that they read. The social media are replacing the traditional media. They ought to be defined as press organizations and governed by the same laws and regulations as the traditional media. These laws and regulations have been thoroughly tested and improved, they are largely accepted and ready to use. I fail to understand why this is not done.


There may be difficulties in defining what is a social media and what are private discussions. Indeed, clusters of discussions emerge on the web, but they merely replace the meetings of old time, including those held informally at the pub. This is all for the better, with limits. It is generally the case that public meetings are regulated while pub discussions are free. The dividing lines on the web are especially delicate to draw, but so are the traditional lines between public and private meetings. Somehow, through trial and error, we have learnt how to deal with the old dividing lines, there is no reason not to adapt them on the web, and improve them over time. We just need to start, which does not seem on the agenda of current debates. Doubtlessly errors will be made but that is not a good enough reason to let the indignities of the web continue to prosper and shake the foundations of democracy.


Beyond freedom of the press, another classic battle is being fought. The social media are dominated by a few giants. They are subject to massive economies of scale, which means that the bigger you are, the more difficult it becomes for competitors to emerge and, when some do, you just buy them. The reason is a well-known process called network externalities: the more people are connected to each other, the more appealing is the network. The result is called a natural monopoly. We saw that, for example, with the telephone, which is more useful the more people can talk to each other. The telephone industry was monopolized and highly profitable, until the monopolies were broken down into competing firms. Of course, each network externality case is different, which allows the dominating firms to argue that they should be allowed to continue dominating the market. What it really means is that the measures to be taken are not strictly from the shelf, but taken they must be. Like their traditional predecessors, the social media use their power to influence public opinion to defend themselves and scare policymakers. This is lobbying at its worst.


Freedom of the press and monopoly power are two distinct issues. Too often, the public debate mixes them up. These issues need to be considered separately because they are very different and the solutions belong to different logics and therefore regulations. Progress on one issue will not solve the problem of the other issue.


After denying their responsibilities for as long as they could, the social media skillfully exploit these delicate questions to promote self-regulation and quash the natural policy issue. This is what Mark Zuckerberg says when he asks policymakers for guidance on how to self-regulate Facebook – a.k.a. to exercise content censorship – while he warns that he will fiercely resist any anti-monopoly action. He also claims that he cannot instantly catch devious actions. That really is his problem. The wonderful technology that the social media have developed and keep developing can be directed to monitor content in real time, but it probably would be quite costly. Why invest in it if the main result would be to lose customers who would migrate to less rigorous websites? This is one limit of self-regulation and a key reason for legal intervention.


The easy trick is to declare that the social media are media organizations and then apply the existing laws to fine them heavily for unacceptable content, maybe as proportion to the time it remains posted. It is safe to bet that they will invest in the technology to eradicate illicit content in real time and that they will turn down dubious political advertisement. The state has ready-made tools to make the social media a vibrant and healthy source of information and debate. It can also apply anti-monopoly legislation, including special provisions that apply to the press, to make it a competitive industry. Am I wrong and it’s not that simple?

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