Science and Tech Editor
Social media is everywhere – but can we trust it with our data or our wellbeing?
We are each now inextricably connected to the internet. Even if we deleted all of our accounts and communicated exclusively on an old Nokia, there’d still be an imprint left over: a digital ghost that is nigh-impossible to completely exorcise. I don’t think I need to make the argument here that social media is a necessary evil — we can, of course, survive without it; but living off-grid is becoming more and more insurmountably impractical. In that case, how do we make it work for us? Would it be possible to create a version of social media that is user-focused, non-addictive, and invulnerable to exploitation? Perhaps, but no entrepreneur would back this concept — by taking away the negatives we also inevitably remove access to all revenue streams.
This is why we cannot trust that corporations will self-regulate. The companies that are mining our data have absolutely no obligation to us — their obligation is to their shareholders, and their purpose is to make as much money from each of us as they possibly can. When we sign up to use a site — be it social media, music streaming, or online shopping — we’re signing up to be surveilled. Our data is sold over and over to anyone who’s willing to pay. Any legislative attempts that have been made to curb the power of these tech behemoths have been largely unsuccessful — it’s marginally easier to unsubscribe from annoying emails now that the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has come into effect, but it appears to have made little to no difference otherwise.
The adverts we’re being served are getting more and more creepily personalised by the day. We can be pretty certain that apps aren’t using our microphones to listen to our conversations, but isn’t it even more worrying that recommendation algorithms have become so powerful they can now predict what we might be talking about out loud? Algorithms run every part of our experience online — the most obvious is the films recommended to us on Netflix, but the most concerning is the posts we’re served on websites like Facebook. The Cambridge Analytica scandal was terrifying in many ways, but the largest issue uncovered has not been solved: if a company has enough of our data, it can still precisely target us with both advertising and with propaganda.
So, since they won’t govern themselves, and we can’t govern them, what can we do? Fining them won’t help — they pay functionally no tax as it is and the fine would never be large enough to make a significant difference to their profit margins. We could ban them, certainly, follow the route of authoritarian nations like China and block access to these sites from our shores, but that would merely serve to isolate us. The only real, permanent solution is to create a competitor that doesn’t need to make a profit. And the only way to get enough funding and traction for a project of that scale is to do so with state investment.
Nationalisation always requires some level of trust that the government will handle things better than a private company will, but with transport or telecoms or electricity, the stakes are much lower — we might be late for work because our train was cancelled, sure, but we won’t be arrested or potentially killed for it. We can hopefully agree that, as it currently stands, the government of the UK is at least slightly more trustworthy than a multi-national for-profit company. However, we still need to be aware that if that changed and people’s data was easily accessible for government surveillance, then the repercussions of them doing something against the law — say, as an extreme example, if homosexuality were recriminalised — would be much more severe than if our data were being harvested by a corporation. Still, since corporations are completely undiscerning about who they sell data to and cannot be trusted to keep it anonymised, there’s the potential for similar problems. If a company would share, say, a suspected terrorist’s personal messages with the police, then why would they not do the same for someone breaking a different law? GCHQ and other government organisations have been surveilling our internet use for decades — there can be no question that our data is already compromised and that people are already being targeted.
Perhaps a useful comparison point would be the BBC. It’s trusted by millions of people to provide (relatively) unbiased reporting and produce worthwhile entertainment using public money. It isn’t tasked with churning out propaganda for the government, but rather with informing the public for the greater good of society (although, admittedly, it has been used as a propaganda machine in the past, even if through a now rather unfashionable truth offensive). The BBC operates independently of the government in spite of being funded almost entirely by the British public. A similar model could work for this national social media service — a license fee of sorts could be levied on users in order to pay for servers, employees, and so on. People pay a subscription for Netflix, why not for their social media too? This would also allow for investment in improving the service rather than having to provide profits for shareholders.
The truly difficult issue with this concept is that of global communication. A huge draw of current social media services is the ability to converse with anyone (almost) anywhere in the world. By nationalising this service, you risk enclosing people within their own echo chambers even more than before. Without wandering too far into the realm of the technical, a possible solution could be the use of RSS or an RSS-like method for delivering posts. This is what’s used to deliver podcasts and is the reason you can listen to them on whatever app you choose. It essentially offers a standardised delivery format, potentially allowing people located elsewhere (and therefore without access to this nationalised site) to subscribe to people’s social channels as well. It’s the simplest solution to this complex problem that I can come up with — I’m sure many people much cleverer than me would be able to figure out how to make it work and to keep it secure.
Another early issue will be with tempting people onto the site; promises of security and no adverts can only go so far. Reaching a critical mass of users would be vital for the ongoing viability of the project — if your peers use a site, you are significantly more likely to sign up as well. Unfortunately, unlike when Facebook was founded, spreading a new site through word of mouth between overlapping circles of students just won’t cut it anymore. Most importantly, excellent designers and developers must be hired. It must be advertised with extreme care. This site has to attract across generations — it must be cool, but also functional in the extreme. It must never crash. It must not have any kind of recommendation algorithm. Other specifics are not as important — whether or not to include a variation on “likes”, the mechanics of “following” people, public and private posts, the mechanism for tackling abuse, and so on. What really matters here is the complete privacy of people’s data and the avoidance of hosting propaganda. This project, above all else, would require an awful lot of money and an awful lot of imagination.
It seems unlikely that an idea like this would ever materialise in the current climate and under our current leadership. Still, things change quickly nowadays — perhaps soon we’ll have a leader who is willing to entertain radical solutions to all the brand new problems created by technological advancement. It’s certainly worth putting them out there, just in case.