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Break Up Social Media Itself

Written By: - Date published: 8:31 am, March 2nd, 2018 - 23 comments
Categories: Deep stuff, democracy under attack, facebook, International, Media, uk politics, us politics - Tags:

Does technology threaten democracy? Here’s a recent dialogue from the most recent Munich Security Conference which suggests that it does.

It is time to regulate the power of cyber criminals and cyber monopolies.

I’m going to approach this briefly in two ways.

The first is through cyber-security.

The second is through the lens of social media dominance.

Right. If what happened in the United States 2016 elections occurred in New Zealand or Australia’s 2017 elections, we would be justifiably outraged, expect the traitorous perpetrators to be on trial, take relevant diplomatic actions, and change a whole suite of laws and enforcement powers to stop it from happening again. With me?

Maybe Kim DotCom had a point. We should take lessons from what we have already seen. The British get it: “So I have a very clear message for Russia: we know what you are trying to do and you will not succeed.” – British Prime Minister Theresa May, 13 November 2017.

Social media platform attacks using near-monopoly providers are now the major way that political campaigns are run in every developed democracy. They are used by these campaigns and their proxies and funded with tens of millions of dollars because they work. This is a national security issue for the world.

Yet proposing strong global regulation of such international cybercrime is not an easy row to hoe. It has been tried many times before.

The international cybernorms process again came to a halt this summer when the relevant United Nations group of Governmental Experts could not agree on a final communiqué. Some fundamental disagreements have come to the fore despite progress made over the past years. Contentious topics included, in particular, the applicability of the rules of international law. However, the nature of what cybersecurity entails also remains open to debate. The U.S. and its Western allies primarily focus on the security of infrastructure, hardware/software, and data, whereas Russia, China, and other states would prefer to broaden the debate to include “information security,” which would also consider content as a threat that should be addressed.

As a result, the way forward for cybernorms is unclear. The U.S. and Europe have shown signs of developing an approach that would unite and concentrate on the effectiveness of a naming-and-shaming approach.

Cybercrime has reached unprecedented levels of activity and scale in 2017, in particular with ransomware attacks such as WannaCry, which in May of 2017 eclipsed all previous attacks and infected an estimated 300,000 victims in 150 countries. Whereas the focus of cybersecurity efforts in previous years was on occasional worst-case scenarios such as large attacks on critical infrastructure, increasingly it is every day.

Now let me just name China for a moment: it has a full alliance between authoritarian states and large, data-rich IT monopolies, bringing together nascent systems of corporate surveillance with already-developed systems of state-sponsored surveillance. When they attack they attack with skill and with power. New Zealand certainly has greater social freedom than China, but the power of China upon us including our social networks is real and growing.

There are plenty of other countries to name as the origins of attacks, but I am sure you already know them.

Attempts to get a global framework around this issue include:
• 2011 SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) Draft international Code of Conduct for International Security
• 2013 OSCE Confidence-building measures
• 2014 NATO Wales Summit Declarataion
• 2015 SCO Draft International Code of Conduct for Information Security (revised)
• 2016 NATO Cyber Defence Pledge
…plus bunches of United Nations sponsored dialogues, which continue. A full list of efforts underway can be found in the Cyber Policy Initiative, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Which is to say, we don’t need to wait for the results of any one investigation into any one country or any one election or any one attack. Each of those summits has fat reports worth reading, and plenty of tough diplomatic efforts to strengthen states against sustained cyber-terrorism, which is what one country attacking another through digital devices really is. Efforts have been underway for a while to get proper global policing over this massive global problem, which haven’t worked so far, but will continue probably until it gets so bad that they do.

This is where we segue into the need to regulate ordinary social media.

Mining and oil companies exploit the physical environment; social media companies exploit our social minds. This is particularly nefarious, because these companies influence how we think and behave without them even being aware of it. This interferes with the functioning of democracy and the integrity of elections. Because internet platform companies are networks, they enjoy rising marginal returns, which accounts for their phenomenal growth. The network effect is truly unprecedented and transformative, but it is also unsustainable.

It took Facebook eight and a half years to reach a billion users, and half that time to reach the second billion. At this rate, Facebook will run out of people to convert in less than three years. You can comfortably say that Facebook alone has more direct social power on humanity than the United Nations and all its entities put together.

There is a similarity between Internet platforms and gambling companies. Casinos have developed techniques to hook customers to the point that they gamble away all of their money, even money they don’t have. Such digital industries are usually age-controlled. Social media companies deceive their users through manipulation, deliberatively engineering addiction to the services they provide. Given the power over adolescents of social media as a form of addiction, it’s time to open that debate about putting age restrictions on social media as a whole.

Something potentially irreversible is happening to human attention in our digital age. This is not a matter of mere distraction; monopolistic social media companies are actually inducing people to surrender their autonomy. This of course sounds pretty similar to those who decried the expansion of television in the 1970s following colourisation, and those 1950s arguments about the ‘debasement of the youth’ with comic books. But just because the argument has the same flavour, doesn’t mean it’s nutrition-comparable. We are talking about the rapid and immersive commercialisation of how we actually speak to each other, and asks us to do that simple addiction test: can you socialise without it? Young people today, I mean really …….

Seriously, it takes significant effort to assert and defend what John Stuart Mill called the freedom of mind. Once lost, those who grow up in the digital age may have difficulty regaining it.

This has far-reaching political consequences. People without the freedom of mind can be easily manipulated. This danger does not loom only in the future; it already played an important role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Claiming social media doesn’t influence elections is as naïve as the U.S. television companies in the 1960s who decried any limit to political advertising or monopolistic power. So they were regulated. The best parallel moment we are in is to television: during its early years, the United States Federal Communications Commission permitted a single company to own a maximum of five television stations nationwide. It also reminds me now of the era in which the Bell company was forcibly broken up into a series of “baby Bells”. The state must powerfully regulate the social media monopolies with a similarly-sized stick.

In the U.S., regulators are currently not strong enough to stand up to the monopolies’ political influence, as we saw recently in the “net neutrality” debate.

The E.U., however, uses a different definition of monopoly power from the U.S. Whereas U.S. law enforcement focuses primarily on monopolies created by acquisition, E.U. law prohibits the abuse of monopoly power regardless of how it is achieved. Europe has much stronger privacy and data protection laws than America.

The E.U. Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager is the champion of the European approach. Look her up: she’s a champ. It took the E.U. seven years to build a case against Google. As a result of its success, the process of instituting adequate regulation has been greatly accelerated. Moreover, thanks to Vestager’s efforts, the European approach has begun to affect attitudes in the U.S.
So it can be done. It’s possible.

Global political control of social media through monopolistic platform corporations is now the single largest control over the social behaviour of humanity. It’s more directly powerful than the whole of Islam. While the many efforts to rein in the influence of either social media or cyber-policing have only rarely been successful, the collective effort to do so must continue if states are to retain any semblance of their future capacity to govern.

This post goes out not only to the left, but also to this government, to the GCSB, the SIS, to Google, Facebook, Baidu, and all foreign governments who seek to twist our autonomy for their own interests.

23 comments on “Break Up Social Media Itself”

  1. Sparky 1

    Govts will not stop this from happening. Many are, in my opinion, co-opted globalists who represent big business lobbyists.

    If anything, govts will, I predict, go on working closely with big money to ensure the public only gets the messages they deem suitable. Which amounts to “everything is fine, nothing to see here, go about your business”.

    Ironically by cracking down on line activism and whistle blowing they may well bring people together directly which is probably where real change will occur. Armchair activism is really just that and no more.

  2. Kevin 2

    Wow. When their political aspirations are threatened, then its time for action.

    Its a pity they don’t show as much concern for corporate monopolies whose behaviour threatens the aspirations of Joe Public.

  3. Sparky 3

    A timely article on govt and freedom on line…..


  4. SpaceMonkey 4

    Technology can just as easily be used for the betterment of Democracy as it can to undermine Democracy. In other words (and apologies to Shakespeare), technology is neither good nor bad; it’s our thinking that makes it so.

    It sounds to me like TPTB are worried at their inability to control the public discourse through digital channels, especially social media.

    And as to what happened in the US 2016 elections… it doesn’t NEED to happen here as we freely allow foreign donations to our political parties. Predominantly American and Chinese interests can literally buy their political power in NZ.

    This is a good post Ad… lots to digest.

    • Ad 4.1

      Much appreciated SpaceMonkey.

      Fully agree about China – we are getting really strong warnings from Australian intelligence and security agencies, as well as from academia.

  5. adam 5

    Thanks Ad missing out the greed factor of the corporations, but more importantly corporate terrorism seems a bit odd. Considering that the spy bases we here, were accused of that in relation with Europeans in recent times. And I think not talking about corporations actively influencing election in the USA, Brexit and others is a missed opportunity. It’s too easy to just blame other governments.

    Again the solutions are not going to work if we ignore the state of transnational organisations with their own agendas. Most of that time that agenda is greed. Personally it all seems like a band aid at the end of capitalism, ‘ant going to cut it.

    Thanks for writing this post.

    • One Anonymous Bloke 5.1

      So far as I can grasp, the European measures are aimed precisely at those transnational interests you mention.

      They’re changing their behaviour to suit,
      Job done? Probably not.

      • adam 5.1.1

        I found it all just a bit smoke and mirrors.

        Maybe I’m a cynic, as we been down this road before with finance, and it just meant they changed what they did on the outside, but stayed exactly the same on the inside.

  6. D'Esterre 6

    “Right. If what happened in the United States 2016 elections occurred in New Zealand or Australia’s 2017 elections, we would be justifiably outraged, expect the traitorous perpetrators to be on trial, take relevant diplomatic actions, and change a whole suite of laws and enforcement powers to stop it from happening again. With me?”

    Nope. I don’t know what you’re talking about. What happened in the 2016 US elections, to which you’ve taken exception?

    “The British get it: “So I have a very clear message for Russia: we know what you are trying to do and you will not succeed.” – British Prime Minister Theresa May, 13 November 2017.”

    Just because May says this, it by no means follows that she isn’t talking twaddle. She surely wouldn’t be the first UK pollie to open her mouth and sound like an ignoramus.

    • Bill 6.1

      Nothing happened that anyone’s taking exception to. Though a lot of people are taking exception to stuff that never happened.

      That May quote. It’s in relation to brexit, right?

      71p worth of advertising coming from accounts facebook links to Russian accounts.

      71p. That’s $1.35.

      The stuff no-one is taking exception to – as in it’s not any part of any media fueled arm waving public discourse – is the actions of Cambridge Analytica and associates.

      As far as I can tell from Russian finger pointers who commented on my post the other day, what everything’s finally boiling down to, is that what Cambridge Analytica did is okay because they were registered…and what the IRA did or didn’t do is absolutely not okay because they weren’t registered.

      Hell of a hullabaloo over a registration slip then, innit? (And that’s allowing for the argument that the IRA sought to influence the US election, though my tea strainer holds more water 🙂 )

      Here’s the link to the post.

      • Nic the NZer 6.1.1

        Understandably on noticing this topic getting TV coverage, Ad has immediately lit his hair on fire and started running.

      • Ad 6.1.2

        Every single intelligence agency in the United States is very clear that the US Presidential election was massively affected by Russia. Wikipedia sums up their collected thoughts:

        “On January 6, 2017, after briefing the president, the president-elect, and members of the Senate and House, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released a de-classified version of the report on Russian activities. The report, produced by the CIA, the FBI, the NSA, and the ODNI, asserted that Russia had carried out a massive cyber operation ordered by Russian President Putin with the goal to sabotage the 2016 U.S. elections.

        The agencies concluded that Putin and the Russian government tried to help Trump win the election by discrediting Hillary Clinton and portraying her negatively relative to Trump, and that Russia had conducted a multipronged cyber campaign consisting of hacking and the extensive use of social media and trolls, as well as open propaganda on Russian-controlled news platforms.”

        If that happened here, I would expect the intelligence communities to react the same way, in order to protect my country.

        Germany feels precisely the same way.

        It’s time to have globally enforced rules about how social media is used, just as we have rules for nuclear energy, chemical warfare, and other conventions about conduct of states against states.

  7. AsleepWhileWalking 7

    I think it is far more important to break up the Google market dominance.

    The outright censorship of yt wouldn’t have occurred if they didn’t feel invincible. Neither would the shitty treatment of advertisers on their platforms.

  8. RedLogix 8

    Well expressed Ad; the OP makes for an interesting read, especially your point, People without the freedom of mind can be easily manipulated. This is something my own thoughts have been edging around recently as well.

    One of the few advantages of age is that not only do you care less about what other people think of you, you have the opportunity to be a bit more honest about how you think of yourself … and looking back I realise too often I’ve traded in my own freedom of thought for something less valuable.

    Freedom of thought is not a simple virtue, none of us are islands, we are all part of a collective consciousness that influences each of us profoundly. Yet each of us navigates our way around this vast geography of meaning along our own unique trajectory.

    And for most of us, freedom of thought and freedom of speech are very tightly linked.

    • Ad 8.1

      It’s telling we both need pseudonyms to express ourselves publicly.

      Facebook pulling its news feeds last week was a deep admission of power.

      • RedLogix 8.1.1

        Well three things;

        1. I deleted my FB account last week. Not that I used it much, I just couldn’t stomach having one anymore.

        2. We’ve lost touch with our adopted son in China. The censors have done something because nothing gets through anymore.

        3. In light of this and other recent events, the thought passed through my mind that I wished to delete my entire history and presence from The Standard. I think in years to come we may all yet regret our expression here.

        • Ad

          I suspect many who are knowledgeable of the spread of cyber-tyranny will be thinking like us about our exposure.

          I am not on Facebook, Twitter, or any other such platform. I don’t want to go all tinfoil hat-tish, but I don’t have any air points or other such card either.

          Really, really sorry to hear about your lack of contact with your son.

          But I’m not going to stop here on TS.
          Democracy is dimming somewhat, and I value it too much to pull back from it entirely. Within a specific realm, we have to defend the freedom of our minds.

          • Anne

            Hear, hear both Redlogix @ 8 and Ad.

            The enemy does not lie within. I have sufficient faith in our security arrangements and the robustness of the democratic processes we enjoy in NZ. There’s plenty of room for improvement of course but we enjoy a better political and economic climate than most.

            But when it comes to off-shore entities it is a totally different story. Even among our supposed allies there are elements within them that cannot be trusted or believed. Trying to differentiate the wheat from the chaff is going to become increasingly harder for all of us to achieve.

            All the more reason to stay with The Standard because thanks to the hard work of moderators and sysop, lprent, freedom of thought and expression will never be dimmed here at TS…

            nor I might add the ability to bicker and squabble when we feel like it. 😈

  9. Each of those summits has fat reports worth reading, and plenty of tough diplomatic efforts to strengthen states against sustained cyber-terrorism, which is what one country attacking another through digital devices really is.

    Actually, it’s war.

  10. eco maori 10

    Can someone please explain why the Papatuanukue /Worlds media is not taking global warming we have to get the media printed and televised media sorted out as well I know who’s minupulating that phenomenon and its not CHINA.
    YES we have to get some good rules in place to protect our sovereignty from people using social any media to minupulate the outcomes of our democract.
    But one’s finger should be pointed in the right directions. Multi national companies have used media to minupulated people for years that’s why we are being feed foods that are bad for us we are using chemicals that are bad for us and the environment and all the creations on Papatuanukue the earth Ana to kai.
    Ka kite ano

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