Even though I’m working on the next part of the EU tax reform analysis as promised, I felt the urge to reflect on the latest episode of the famous socio-political sitcom, “Let’s Grill The Big Tech”, starring various politicians from around the world (first and foremost the US Congress) and the CEOs of tech giants, think Facebook, Twitter, Google and Amazon.
Not that there’s much “new” to write about. There aren’t really “good boys” and “bad boys”: the story, with its twists and turns is much like Game of Thrones, with everyone plotting and fighting against everyone else.
Skip recap if you’re familiar with the events of the previous seasons.
The pilot (and Season 1) aired right after the 2016 US presidential elections, with social media giants (especially Facebook and Twitter) being accused of turning a blind eye to Russian meddling before and during the campaign. (Remember that year? Before that, social media was the star of the show, bringing democracy to the remotest parts of the Earth, giving voice to people oppressed by draconian regimes, gathering support for issues neglected by mainstream politics, etc. etc.)
2017 gave us elections in Europe (European Parliament and the Catalan independence referendum). Though maybe less interesting and definitely less high profile than the year before, you could hear about Russian groups trying out their new tactics and techniques. This season also saw questions emerging about Russian interference in the Brexit vote.
2018 was another eventful season, with a rare sighting of Mark Zuckerberg wearing a suit and a tie and trying to answer the questions of the congress(wo)men or him venturing on a European tour. Recurring spin off episodes, like the Cambridge Analytica scandal were also extremely popular.
2019 ended with tensions and expectations running high (much like when Daenerys sets sail towards Westeros at the end of Season 6 of Game of Thrones) with the 2020 US elections approaching fast. In addition to that Rep. David N. Cicilline opened a Congressional investigation of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google, aiming to explore whether the tech industry’s most influential quartet of companies had attained their status through potentially anti-competitive means. Also, the season earlier featured Facebook agreeing to a record-breaking $5 billion settlement with the US government and also to do more to protect users’ privacy rights. Also, Google was fined in Europe. (To be acquitted later in Season 5.)
End of recap.
So, if I’m calculating right, now we are around Season 5 of the series and around Episode3 of this year’s plot (the first two being the Munich Security Conference/Mr. Zuckerberg’s European tour and the global advertising boycott organized by civil rights groups as a punishment for the disinformation policies of Facebook). The previous episodes also precluded this one: the antitrust subcommittee has held hearings since June with smaller competitors, culminating in the joint, albeit virtual congressional hearing of Messrs. Bezos, Cook, Zuckerberg and Pichai. A high-profile investigation unseen since the early 2000’s (Microsoft).
And just like with the Song of Ice and Fire saga, there’s no end in sight. (I mean the books now, not the series.)
Honestly, one shouldn’t expect that after this last Congressional hearing (Ep. 3. of this year, with a new twist, virtual testimonies), groundbreaking legislation will be accepted soon, neither in the US, nor in EU. Similarly, you shouldn’t expect Facebook or Google being divided into smaller companies by the end of this year.
Why? A few minutes excerpt from the Congressional hearing reveals the real problem hindering the solution. You can have three guesses, but the answer is simple.
In theory, the six hours long hearing was about antitrust rules. Yet, Republican lawmakers at different times tried to derail the conversation and to talk about allegations of anti-conservative bias and political censorship on their platforms.
The hearings also laid bare the bipartisan frustrations with Big Tech (and the inability of many politicians to wait politely as long as someone else speaks):
“Social media companies need to step up and protect our civil rights, our human rights and our human lives, not to sit on the sideline as the nation drowns in a sea of disinformation,” said the Democratic chair of the antitrust subcommittee, Rep. Mike Doyle, adding “Make no mistake, the future of our democracy is at stake and the status quo is unacceptable.”
Following this the Republican co-chair, Rep. Bob Latta cited another reason: “We should make every effort to ensure that companies are using the sword provided by Section 230 to take down offensive and lewd content”. Then he continued “But that they keep their power in check when it comes to censoring political speech.” Another Republican Jim Jordan (actually head of the House Judiciary Committee) also said similar things: “We all think the free market is great. We think competition is great. We love the fact that these are American companies. But what’s not great is censoring people, censoring conservators and trying to impact elections. And if it doesn’t end, there has to be consequences.”
In response to the questions and accusations, the four chief executives fiercely defended their businesses, either as rags-to-riches success stories, or as the fulfilment of the American Dream made possible only through American ingenuity. They also pointed out the sustained support of their giant customer bases.
They also repeated (and many times they did) that during the last few seasons of the series, Facebook, Twitter and Google have collectively spent tens of millions of dollars on new technology and personnel to track online falsehoods and stop them from spreading. I’ve lost count on how many accounts (and networks of accounts) were blocked or deleted after they were found to be linked to political parties, radical groups, hackers, trolls or Russia’s famed Internet Research Agency. Tech firms issued policies against political ads that masquerade as regular content, updated internal rules on hate speech and removed millions of extremist and false posts.
Yet, just like the mythological Hydra, whenever you cut one head, two new grows in place. For every step taken by the firms, two steps are taken by those who want to reach their users: foreign interference campaigns have evolved; other players appeared on the scene ( think China or Iran), domestic groups are copycatting the techniques developed by state actors; those tactics became more sophisticated; boundaries between foreign vs domestic, state vs non-state content became even more blurred and political campaigns have adapted their strategies.
And bipartisan politicians aren’t helping: Republicans (including President Trump) accuse the companies of censoring conservative content, while Democrats blame them for allowing fake news to spread. Politicians from both ends of the spectrum are highly critical of the dominance of Big Tech, though for different reasons. But at the same time, both parties, and make no mistake: every single party and politician in Europe, too, are using their services extensively.
Donkeys and Elephants both learned from the Bear and the Dragon. Politico.com ran an article a few days ago in which it drew attention to the fact that as a new trend, seemingly grassroots-look-alikes are popping up on social media and spread their messages, yet it turns out they’re linked to political parties. Bringing an example from Michigan, Politico lists media outlets like “The Gander” and “Grand Rapids Reporter”, which may first appear to be grassroots newsrooms filling the void left by years of layoffs and under-investment in local reporting. Both publish daily updates on social media about life in the swing state, mixing a blend of political reporting with stories about local communities. Yet these outlets are part of nationwide operations with ties to Republican or Democratic operatives.
Or there exist groups on Twitter that are paying not for political ads, but for so-called issues-based ads related to party platforms, for example promoting the Second Amendment or abortion rights.
So much about playing by the rules.
There’s another, even more theoretical question to be answered, if we ever want to reach the final season of the show, at least before another spin-off pops up: Should Facebook/Twitter really silence, let’s say the President of the United States? If you ask a Democrat, yes, Trump used his large follower-base to spread disinformation about mail-in voting. But what about asking a Republican?
You might be tempted to try to ban politics from social media altogether. TikTok, however has shown us, that it is almost impossible: even this decidedly entertaining venture, aiming at fun and shareable videos, has become political after users started to share content with hashtags like #BLM. As of now, there are more than just cute singing gummy bears or teenagers lip syncing Lady Gaga on the platform: conspiracy theories, hateful content and other controversial videos found their way too.
If users are “buying” some kind of content it will find its way anywhere and it will stay there. You can try to cut down every single head of the Hydra, but you’ll end up with many more. Or, just like Heracles did, you can try and fix the problem at its roots: you could educate people about the possibility of meddling, teach critical thinking, etc.
Nevertheless, the market was unimpressed by this episode; in fact, all four companies’ stocks went slightly up.
Effects in the political are economic field are still a thing of the future; Season 5 being not the end, but maybe the real beginning of the series, and it might even reach Big Bang Theory-length. Coming up next? Expect more hearings, probably some even more focused. Expect more political demands and occasional government actions. Some drama in court rooms and parliaments. But the solution is not likely to come easy.
I’ve written this before (back in February, after the Munich Conference): as long as there’s no political agreement on what kind of political content should be removed or where does the freedom of speech end, tech firms cannot be held solely responsible, nor should they be expected to initiate extensive and expensive internal reforms. Just like with rule of law issues in Europe. First define the boundaries of the playing field and the rules of using the tools available. Only after that can you expect others to comply with them.