icm2re logo. icm2:re (I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything) is an  ongoing web column  by Brunella Longo

This column deals with some aspects of change management processes experienced almost in any industry impacted by the digital revolution: how to select, create, gather, manage, interpret, share data and information either because of internal and usually incremental scope - such learning, educational and re-engineering processes - or because of external forces, like mergers and acquisitions, restructuring goals, new regulations or disruptive technologies.

The title - I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything - is a tribute to authors and scientists from different disciplinary fields that have illuminated my understanding of intentional change and decision making processes during the last thirty years, explaining how we think - or how we think about the way we think. The logo is a bit of a divertissement, from the latin divertere that means turn in separate ways.


Chronological Index | Subject Index

What hath God wrought?

About the need of legislation on social media

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2021). What hath God wrought? About the need of legislation on social media. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Print)], 10.6 (June). http://www.icm2re.com/2021-6.html

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2021). What hath God wrought? About the need of legislation on social media. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Online)], 10.6 (June). http://www.icm2re.com/2021-6.html

London, 10 October 2021 - Netflix has made freely available on YouTube, until the end of October (as far as I can read from the news as of Today), the docudrama The Social Dilemma, an interesting anthology of opinions and witnesses directed by Jeff Orlowski and collected among scientists, engineers ,creative people managers and scholars. They all express concerns about social media ways to generate advertising profit, by way of monetising human relationships and emotional responses to personal information that some, including myself, Lanier and others (with null or marginal space in the media), have been trying to share amid various professional communities for almost twenty years. These ideas are becoming topical now with drafted legislative bills and debates on the need, impact, usefulness of regulations on how to run social media.

The documentary contains voices of many young experts at first employed at Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google who have then left or have been dismissed by these large organisations, mostly because of their opinions on how to carry on the business - or in other terms on how to exploit some bits of scientific knowledge in ways that are fair and acceptable by everybody.

Will we reduce the issue to matters of freedom of expression, once again? This on how to regulate new media is, in fact, an old story, particularly in the workplace and in politics. In a democratic and open society it is impossible not to sympathise with those who dare to think and talk differently wherever they are and whatever they stand for, and so at the end of the day, any valid and substantial argument in favour of legislative controls become blunted and it takes a long time to understand that, once again, legislation that limits the power to abuse of others' data facilitates freedom the expression.

Where do we stand on the issue? Should we call for regulation in the digital advertising and the social media space now? Should we abstain or postpone on grounds of "immature market development"? Should we accept only measures for the protection of children and adolescents (they would soon find a way to hack?)

Let's have a look from a distance

An inventor that struggled to have his new communication technology accepted was in the 19th century Samuel Morse. He had learned something about electricity at the beginning of the Century but it took several years before he could be authorised by law and had the funding to make a demonstration of his bizarre idea of transmitting information as electrical signals sent through a wire. Then the electric telegraph became a great success internationally and opened up the door to all the fantastic inventions of modern media of communication that followed. In 1844, Morse received the first message ever sent over a wire, from Baltimore to Washington: "What hath God wrought?".

When "The Facebook" started in 2004 as the online network of Harvard College students, physicists and mathematicians had already brought into the social sciences field tools like graph theory and mathematical models that were used and useful, through specific software programs, to show, analyse and study the structure of social networks. The technique had been successful applied also in the intelligence and military fields to track terrorists following 9/11.

Since the late 1990s, different scholars and schools of thoughts have considered social media and the conversations they host, together with all the dynamic threads they build around individuals, groups and communities, as a sort of permanently available material for studying, analysing and deconstructing human relations, emotions, behaviours, values, plasticity to social influence and more.

Social scientists (but also academics from other sectors and professionals working in healthcare, in finance, in government) have therefore been very keen on accepting a rough, primitive and fundamentally uncivilised idea of mining and monetising digital human networks that everybody can now analyse through technologies without any particularly sophisticated skill. Social networks are seen as the pipelines that distribute cultural clues, behavioural norms, commercial messages and so on and so forth to the mass - and the prevalent attitude of scholars and professionals towards this state of affairs of the sector has been to remain morally and culturally neutral or agnostic, or pretend to be as such, for years.

It has become obvious for many to accept that the digital networks are indeed subject to engineering action and pressure for social influence, for political, commercial or education purposes without any special authorisation, funding, piece or legislation or special permission to do so: this idea has only very recently come under debate, and it is now seen more critically than it was when Facebook was launched in 2003-2004. There is a deeper understanding of the consequences of Facebook's business model - that in the meantime has been adopted by all sorts of organisations that hold personal data, from political parties and hospitals to hotels and gyms- in terms of human rights, personal and cultural identities.

Matters of data responsibility suddenly have arisen and found many totally unprepared: the idea that somebody in a social, common space can buy, sell, sponsor, endorse, steal, troll or delete our acts of communication, expression, fears, happiness, relations and all range of emotional situations appears in its horrific essence, particularly to parents, relatives and friends of more vulnerable individuals that are the easiest to be targeted and exploited.

Monetising personal data and online contents can be a legitimate business model but that does not mean that it can and it should be done without rules, without respect for human rights and privacy of personal and family life and without a proper corpus of legislative sensible measures fit for purpose. In that respect I agree with those - experts and young professionals, scholars, families, parents, teachers - who think that some usages of personal information over social networks, including tracking or sentiment analysis, should simply be outlawed and legislation should dive deeply into the way in which algorithms are designed, developed and maintained.

In my personal use of social media, I experienced all the good and all the worse side of several platforms that allowed me to connect with others. I invented and sold products and services. I found and lost friends. I have learned so much and shared my knowledge as well. But I was trolled and harassed and I had to delete my accounts and self censor myself in several occasions, also under the pressure of friends and colleagues that did not want to be associated with me anymore because of the misrepresentation I was targeted with. I reached a point in which I just became too busy and too tired to react to the unwanted comments or followers, and trying to express my concerns or my point of view on that just took too long, deleting the unacceptable associations of defamatory contents became time consuming and also a very anxious thing to think about every day.

I re-discovered the immense pleasure and power of connecting and talking with other people without the need for third parties to be involved or to have to wear a judgmental hat every time you say a word, because so many ears are listening and trying to attach their messages and their frames of communication to what you are saying just to pass the time. Although I sometimes miss the chance of sharing my enthusiasm or my indignation for something that has just happened with the entire online world, I must say that I am 58-years-old and I do like cooking, gardening, working and talking to people face to face or in private digital conversations so that very little time remains in my diary for staying hours chatting online. So, I do not actually regret to have only seconds for Twitter or Facebook and no interest at all for more recent social media tools. But I understand the pain and the sorrow of young people that can develop awful feelings of being excluded or bullied or just undervalued while dodgy software mechanisms exploit the addictive attitude they can develop spending time online. It is extremely important they are taught time management and emotional intelligence skills so that they can learn "who and why does it keep you busy".

I would make micropayments in return for online services and contents that do not interfere with private matters of sentiments, beliefs and personality. I would accept advertising displayed as visual messages, not targeted, shown on my YouTube or WhatsApp or (as YouTube and Amazon have already started to do) in movies I watch online. Advertisers willing to reach me do not really need to invade, allude, use, exploit, nudge or steal my personal information and dig into my private relationships. I like the idea that social media exist. What I do want to be outlawed is the human and algorithmic invasion of private emotions, feelings, relations, spaces of life for the sake of someone else private fortunes. They need to rethink the way in which they make money, how they design and develop applications of artificial intelligence, the same notions of data neutrality and data responsibility. They need perhaps to stay small or become smaller, be open to global safe usages and at the same time more integrated with local cultures.

Conclusions

I want social media spaces to be free for everybody to express their opinions and personalities. For this it is vital that platforms (that are indeed publishers) are regulated exactly as other media and public spaces are. I want people to have equal access to resources that foster imagination, facilitate learning, entertainment and communications for all sorts of purposes and generate profits and wealth, according to civilised and very well sounded, culturally-driven, rules and values.