The huge controversy over the collecting of data about millions of people accumulated through Facebook may well be a welcome turning point in the apparently irresistible rise of the giant tech companies. By the end of last week, Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, was busy belatedly apologising while his share price sank, and Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, was calling for “well-crafted regulation” of this vast new industry.
The arguments and proposals that have emerged in recent days are all about how to protect privacy. At last, Facebook and its ilk are waking up to the dangers of passing on a mass of information about their users to others. This has come on top of huge and justified pressure on social media companies to stop the spread of hatred and criminality on their sites.
It’s clear that a wave of law and regulation is about to catch up with the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Google. The brilliant people who run these companies could have got ahead of all this and reformed themselves if they had really thought about these issues early enough. My advice to them is to think about what’s coming next and anticipate it. Because this is something bigger even than the passing on of personal data. It is the role of social media in an alarming trend: The narrowing of the human mind.
Since its inception, the internet has had the potential to open up our thinking and knowledge. For the first time in history, we all have instant access to ideas from everywhere and the entire span of human learning. There will be many benefits of that, not least in scientific and medical advances.
Yet, it is hard to identify anywhere at the moment where public debate is becoming more tolerant, more understanding of others’ viewpoints, and more widely informed about alternatives. Across the world, politics is becoming more polarised between extremes. Such trends have many causes. But it doesn’t help that the world of the tech companies is designed to keep you hooked and give you a lot more of what you already want. For consumer items this seems natural and is just good selling: If you download science fiction movies you will be offered many more of them, and if you keep buying books by a particular author online you will be presented with their next work as you finish each one.
Yet, once this becomes the method of spreading political ideas and information there is an obvious problem. It is therefore of fundamental importance to the future of a free society that contrasting views about parties, elections and governments are put in front of us. Now that social media has become one of the main means by which people get information — 67 per cent of American adults receive their news via Facebook, according to one survey — it is becoming increasingly urgent to put this right.
The companies concerned want you to be addicted, so they can harvest the data about your habits and sell more advertising, they present you with views and material that reinforces the views you already hold.
Recent evidence has shown that watching political videos on YouTube leads to being offered more radical and extreme material, whether of the Left or Right. Certainly an environment has developed in which people are more likely to believe in ludicrous conspiracies or “fake news” because they don’t hear the evidence against it. It is a well-known psychological truth that we are all subject to “confirmation bias” — believing things that support our existing opinions. For many millions of people in Britain and elsewhere, their main means of learning about the world is now set up to exacerbate that bias rather than counter it. That is the road to intolerance, bigotry and narrow-mindedness. So what should be done? Of course, we can, as individuals, make sure that we read a variety of excellent newspapers and listen to balanced radio shows. But most people won’t. Better still, the bosses of social media could announce they understand this and are taking action.
We should come out and say that these sites are now media companies, and as important as early TV stations as part of our society; stations whose output has always been carefully regulated. We would apply a version of those rules to social media, including a total ban on political advertising and a requirement for contrasting views and rebuttals to be shown together in whatever way possible. And the algorithms by which they decide what to show people would have to be published.
Zuckerberg and others might be horrified by such an idea. But they would be wise to take their own action to make rules of this kind unnecessary. For people who are so clever at seeing and shaping the trends of the future, it would be encouraging if they could see this one coming.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2018
William Hague is a former British foreign secretary.