This question cannot be ignored any longer. There is a real need in a world of “filter bubbles”, Brexit, President-elect Trump and seemingly unending online vitriol to assess what is creating such deep division in our societies, stymying the goal of politics to reasonably discuss ideas in order to reach workable, sensible solutions. We must think boldly about how we can revamp our digital technologies to break individuals out of their echo chambers into the democratic lobby of reasoned discourse.
I was reminded of these ideas, first written in January 2017, by an opinion piece in the Guardian, where respected columnist Simon Jenkins argues for a scheme of online identification to tackle the deluge of vitriol that has turned a “global village into a lynch”. We need governments to step-up to the challenge and every new revelation, from antisemitic abuse on social media group associated with the British Labour Party to Russia’s cyber propoganda only strengthens my case.
Our actions must be based on the classic “harm principle” – the “golden rule” that we do to others as we wish done to ourselves, focusing on the consequences of our actions for other people. As Google’s old motto “Don’t be evil” implies, this is a challenge for all of us: freedom must always be accompanied by responsibility. These fundamentals must be the drivers of any effort to clean-up cyber-space. We can see that untrammelled, uneducated self-expression and thoughtless clicking has a desperately corrosive effect on our polity. Already in Russia, we witness what happens when a deliberately-constructed fog of confusion casts doubts on all fact claims, causing perturbed individuals to crave strong, authoritarian leadership that seems best placed to help sort out the mess.
Tackling the root causes
Crucially, digital technologies should not be scapegoated. The anger and venom expressed online is rooted in fundamental inequalities in our societies, such as the fact average income growth for 90% of American has been negative for the last two decades. As Plutarch once warned, “an imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of a Republic.” Nevertheless, politicians have allowed income inequality to soar to levels higher than at any time in America’s past. Too many believe – with justification – that their life chances are thwarted by corporate special interests and the mechanisms of government only really benefit the elite. Reforming how digital technologies operate, without addressing this gaping wound, can only ever provide the body politic with the scantiest of sticking plasters.
There is, nevertheless, a clear role for strategic law-making. Today’s “filter bubbles” have been created by the mechanics of search engines, like Google, and Facebook news feeds, which prioritise serving-up stories ever-more precisely calibrated to individual preferences. They lead to a situation where politics has become viciously polarised, caught in mutually exclusive feedback loops, meaning prejudices only ever seem to be strengthened and minds closed-off from opposing arguments.
For those who are enriched by web traffic and ad revenue, they must be compelled to re-invest into their systems. They should ensure better fact-checking, flag-up where sources are considered “Trusted” (i.e. non-partisan, balanced) and clearly explain how their algorithms influence the flow of information. Above all, they must work to promote respect for truth and our shared humanity, censoring what is patently false and abusive. The scale of distribution on social media is such that even 1% of fake news can have devastating consequences, especially in a tight election race.
If Facebook employed a proper, independent editorial team, they could assess the quality and reliability of articles from news sites, giving each one a ranking to influence how much they appear on their users’ feeds, creating an incentive for proper journalism, rather than the current clickbait-promoting model. Moreover, where a one-sided source is knowingly displayed, Facebook could automatically include a link to another article that provides counter-arguments and/or balance. As a matter of urgency, they must act against such obvious abuses of free speech as the Macedonian fake news factories and ensure news that is fake cannot outperform what is real. Whilst their recent proposals seem promising, their implementation must be closely scrutinised.
Just as the USA once passed an “equal-time rule”, something similar is required today to ensure the general public are encouraged to give both sides of an argument, whether encountered on or offline, a fair amount of attention. Without contact, empathy shrivels up and compromise becomes virtually impossible, effectively subverting democracy.
Whilst these changes might seem daunting, legislators should tap into the zeal of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to create a better world. They must be reminded of previous bold claim, such as Zuckerberg’s declaration: “we make money to build better services.” What holds back so much progress is the fear that unilateral action would merely embolden unscrupulous competitors and lead to diminished market share, so regulations that apply to everyone fairly are required to create a level playing field. Moreover, many experts believe that the social media marketing model leaves no incentive for tackling the problem as what is fake (yet inflammatory) generally leads to more engagement – exactly the kind of situation where regulators should step-in to pre-empt harm.
Digital technologies are, of course, not limited to any single jurisdiction, so lawmakers must strive for international cooperation. Just as efforts to tackle global warming require restrictions on pollution from every country on Earth, so cleaning-up cyber sewers and policing information superhighways will necessitate collaboration. Where such support is not forthcoming, digital media should flag-up sites or accounts that are subject to integrity standards, making clear what is coming from suspect jurisdictions.
Earning your Digital ID
Before entrusting individuals with the freedom to drive a car, governments across the world understand the importance of some form of licensing system to ensure those behind the wheel have reached a minimum standard. This evolved over many year: firstly, as a means of simply identifying vehicles and their owners; today as a vital means of improving road safety. Similarly, we compromise our freedom to browse whatever we like by downloading and updating virus protection because we realise malicious coders can unleash devastation. We accept that this slows down our web browsing, especially when our computer shuts down for yet another update, but that is a price worth paying for greater security.
Yet we do nothing to protect ourselves from the biggest threat online – humans bent on spreading lies, misinformation and hoaxes, or trolling those they see as hateful. This cannot continue, if we want democracy and society to flourish.
I propose that every citizen must log-on to access Internet (ideally through fingerprint-recognition technology). There should be a home page that web users are firstly taken to where they are logged in and their activity recorded and then properly tracked, if necessary, just as we would expect any public activity to be traceable back to an individual. The home page should also ensure that everyone is properly educated through online civics classes, ranging from training in spotting fake news stories to education about how voting works. There is also the potential to include (eventually) lessons to help prevent fraud and health checks with guidance on how to exercise more or eat better.
It would be impossible to communicate online unless a user was up-to-date with their classes, though browsing of curated sites could be possible (providing this does not open the door to circumventing the system). If an ISP can shut-down your service for downloading pirated material (which should happen much more!) or failing to pay your bill, then why can a mechanism not be established to bar individuals known to be breaking cyber-laws?
Importantly, as with vehicle-driving, people could “lose” their license and be forced to re-sit relevant classes with an actual test of understanding required before they are re-admitted to the online community. The lessons would need to be reviewed regularly and essential updates rolled-out as new threats emerge. However, for the vast majority of people each tutorial would only be sat once, which is vital if such a system is to gain public confidence and not become unnecessarily burdensome. An independent committee could rollout and review this public education and accreditation effort. The basic goal would be to ensure every citizen has a web-surfing license, as this can be a hazardous activity for the uninitiated, dangerous to both themselves and their peers.
Addressing concerns about web-surfing licences
Basically, the laws of our lands must be applied to cyberspace. We cannot afford to tolerate a Wild Web where only profit matters and the unscrupulous battle to feed humanity’s worst instincts. There should be no difference in how those using inflammatory language, whether on or offline, are treated. Whilst these changes seem drastic, a focus on explaining and educating citizens will help everyone see this clean-up is vital. The general public need to understand clearly who is actually being targeted – trolls and lie-merchants. We must be exposed to real-life stories of how spreading false gossip hurts people and not be permitted to click away from viewing the consequences of our action. Where required, appropriate sanctions – such as heavily restricting offenders surfing to read-only certain sites or a post-delay/review function – must be deployed, and are proportionate to the damage we have seen caused through misuse of ICT tools.
The key is to shift mentalities. What we type online is no different from what we say in the real world. Actually, we should be more responsible because digital media creates an unambiguous digital record of whatever we contribute. We should see ad hominem verbal attacks as reprehensible and irrelevant – tackling the player, not the ball. For example, there is no place in a mature democracy for liberals or atheists slagging-off dismissively “religious nuts” or “bigots” when they seek to present evidence on abortion or family issues. This also involves making space for the widest possible range of views, not dismissing genuine concerns as politically incorrect or backward. Testing and weighing-up “facts” – critical thinking – should be one of the most highly prized skills developed across education curricula. We must not let those who can shout loudest, or dominate the most online discussions because they have little else to do, win by default.
As with Wikipedia’s panels of editors, government should be providing online tribunals and appeal systems to establish law and order online. This would allow unfair judgements to be challenged and corrected, increasing confidence in the system. Branches of the police and judiciary that specialise in web disputes and transgressions could be an invaluable tool in fighting the corruption of our digital public spaces. Governments should not be allowed to celebrate reductions in official crime statistics, such as burglaries, and ignore the fact this most likely results from deviance migrating online.
Crucial to this strategy is the role of Internet Service Providers. Just as they are rightly facing growing pressure to cut-off those who use their connections to download or share pirated content, so they are ideally positioned to help manage a digital ID system. This could become a condition of trading, as with the regulations that gambling companies or print newspapers must abide by to pre-empt the damage they could cause if completely unshackled and allowed to prey on human vulnerabilities.
To those who claim that forcing digital media, such as Facebook and Twitter, to make editorial judgments amounts to censorship, then they must realise this already happens. The world’s largest social network has previously acted to remove any photograph on Instagram with a female nipple visible (unless said image is run through the Prism app to create the effect of a painting). This laudable policy was tested by the iconic “napalm girl” photo that captures a horrific moment in the Vietnam war, which was eventually ruled to be of exceptional historic and “global importance”, showing how with feedback and engagement digital media can make the right calls. Twitter, meanwhile, removes ISIS propaganda video. Every act of journalism, deciding what to publish and what to ignore, what stories are worth pursuing and which are a waste of time, involves a form of censorship. As previously stated, free speech on social media should enable a wide-ranging debate with diverse opinions, whilst restricting or marginalising those who peddle dangerous, repeatedly disproved and utterly discredited, myths.
An additional benefit of robust, accurate digital IDs would be to weed-out fake accounts on social media sites. For example, one concerned citizen, Sarah Thompson, reported over 250 bogus profiles to Facebook in one week, estimating that 75% of these were removed, but clearly these could be easily re-created and, for her troubles, Ms Thompson’s News Feed now feeds her spam-like content because it thinks that is what she wishes to read. Most of these counterfeit accounts were infiltrating groups set-up by Sanders supporters and sharing horrendous falsehoods, including “Hillary murders opponents” and “Clinton uses body doubles”, in an obvious effort to suppress the vote. Digital IDs would allow these propagandists to be de-activated, or at the very least, labelled unverified and completely marginalised, rather than the current social media system where each user with a reasonable profile picture appears equally credible.
Examining free speech?
The freedom to speak one’s mind, or click to share whatever one happens upon online, must always be exercised responsibly and with consideration for our fellow-citizens. We sadly see, far too often, how easily a toxic debate can create a poisonous culture that leads to an utterly appalling outcome. How we discuss issues and describe those we do not agree with can have serious, life-threatening consequences, as was so tragically demonstrated in the murder of Jo Cox MP by Thomas Mair just days before the UK’s Brexit vote.
Imagine the situation. You’re a lonely, mentally-unstable middle-aged man who for years has nursed a grievance against a world that seems stacked against you. Distressed by how quickly your country is changing, you feel adrift and helpless, increasingly sceptical of those who promise so much, yet deliver so little. Much of your view of what is happening outside is shaped by snippets of news and complaints you consume online, divorced from context and frequently reflecting embittered, angry prejudices. Slowly, your thinking is being warped and you start to believe that “something must be done” to fix all the problems which never seem to be sorted out.
Suddenly, a new group of mavericks and wannabe revolutionaries appears and seems to offer an answer to all your gripes – one swift, simple solution that will transform Britain for the better. They accuse those who disagree of being liars, scaremongers and traitors. As these rhetorical flourishes trip off their tongues, they fail to consider how others will follow through on their accusations and, with a twisted, sickening logic, reach fatal conclusions.
We have always understood that free speech must not be abused to whip-up a mob into taking the law into their own hands – those who incite violence must be sanctioned for their crime. So, should the drip feed of false information and ugly insinuation be tolerated because it is too difficult to disentangle cause from effect? No, we know that hate speech and fake news has contributed to grievous bodily harm, and even murder, and this must be addressed, not necessarily with a custodial sentence, but through removing the megaphone from those who have failed to show any respect for our shared humanity. When seemingly respectable politicians pander to prejudice they should be opposed by digital media that is replete with evidence exposing the falsity of their misconceptions. There should be no “filter bubble” to which anyone can retreat where every click only reinforces dangerous discrimination. Fantasy and paranoia should not be fed by an alternate “reality”, accessible via phone or PC.
Finding out the facts
We also need much more research into these issues. The widely quoted statistic – 66% of Facebook users “get news” from the site is very ambiguous. How much news exactly do they “get”? Do they just skim headlines or explore detail? Can they spot a fake? Is this their only source of news? Again, laws could be passed to make social media providers more transparent and obliged to reveal the answers to many of these important questions. For example, Trump’s recent campaign involved voting suppression tactics where his team used Facebook “dark posts” to target black voters with South Park-style animated videos of Hillary Clinton’s 1996 “super predator” comments, in an effort to discredit her candidacy. Whilst given the final election outcome this would appear to have been very effective, what was the actual impact of these stories on their intended audience?
Interestingly, one Facebook user who took part in a Guardian newspaper experiment to “burst” the “filter bubble”, concluded: “Maybe we should stop having social media… maybe the ability with social media for people to construct their own reality to create a mob is not worth it.” Of course, this is an extreme reaction to the problem, but does provide an important illustration of how society can change, if allowed to see the breadth of views around us.
Another issue meriting further investigation is the potential of technology to combat online disinformation. If an AI toolkit, inspired by photographs of a toddler’s hand, can be used to automatically detect new child sexual abuse media uploaded to online networks, what else is possible? How can Google change their search algorithms, so a search starting with “are Jews…” does not lead to nine out of ten top returns being loaded with vile anti-Semitism?
Quite simply, a more restricted, collaborative Internet is not a negative development, but a necessary evolution if society is to hold together. Change is urgently needed as the problems outlined above will only become more entrenched. Politics will become increasingly impossible and nations more divided, unless there is protected space for an agreed set of facts to emerge that can then be used to build consensus.
In order to make any progress, there must be a commitment to create more equal, fairer countries that do not leave anyone behind and seek to address genuine grievances. Meanwhile, through strategic regulation, all digital media must be compelled to stop cossetting users and ensure everyone is, where appropriate, exposed to arguments and evidence running counter to their deeply-cherished beliefs, as well as enabled to discern truth from error. Individuals should be required to obtain a web-surfing licence that checks they have the minimum knowledge and understanding necessary to navigate the great debate online, as well as the basic decency to engage in civic discussion.