- Explain how social media platforms are exploiting the info. Ecosystem.
Social media platforms achieved unrestricted growth by adopting a laissez-faire approach to user-generated content. This approach seeks to indemnify content-hosting intermediaries from the liability arising from user-generated content.
Social media’s disinformation matrix: As private firms, the social media platforms enjoy the freedom to decide what content they desire to host, which is reflected in differential content standards across different platforms & differential application of standards for the same content. Also, since all major social media platforms are primarily US based, their content is moderated by the American First Amendment principles, which prohibit government from curtailing free speech, to restrict only a narrowly defined content category. Social media platforms have used this to their advantage to reject any interventionist approach towards misinformation.
For social media platforms, “free speech” is a business model instead of a principled imperative. Platforms have opportunistically used “free speech” & protection against liabilities to advance their business models. While traditional news media is liable for its published content and so, must invest resources to vet information before publishing, social media has the advantage of protection from liability – promoting unvetted content, and thereby speedily getting the content to users. Platforms have exploited this twin advantage to boost user engagement, ignoring the deleterious impact of misinformation on the wider democracy. Platforms keep users engaged by constantly populating feeds with new contents. This deliberated process is called “amplification” which is based on user engagement signals. Since hateful & polarising content gets more user engagement, this value-neutral approach has amplified misinformation and other harmful content.
Misinformation & propaganda have become pervasive also due to the blurred distinctions between different sources of information which has removed the credibility & ideological positioning of the consumed content. Instead, engagement is seen as a bigger driver, making virality instead of quality the main determinant of a source’s credibility. This has eroded the distinction between vetted information, propaganda & misinformation.
Also, content moderation is politically fraught – important high-profile content moderation decisions are often ad hoc, driven by external pressure – especially government, media and public relations. Platforms are known to take down or block content on specific government requests while making exceptions for powerful users.
The impact is acute for India because platforms have de-facto control over the content distribution along with low digital-literacy among users.
Thus, instead of focussing on the amplified misinformation distribution, the discourse have carefully focussed on measures to reduce the conflict with freedom of speech & expression. “Free speech” is just a justification for lucrative business model that privileges user engagement over information quality. Thus, there is a need to reset the terms of the debate in a manner that addresses the problem of disinformation more than its conflict with “free speech”.