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The social dilemma – optimising for clicks or consensus?

The social dilemma – optimising for clicks or consensus?

The Netflix film Social Dilemma shines a spotlight on our damaging addiction to social media, posing significant questions about its negative impact on governance, democracy and society. Can this descent into digital dystopia be arrested?

The Covid-19 crisis has exacerbated what was already a global “information pandemic”. With many of us having transformed into “baby zoomers” and become engrossed yet further into a hyperconnected world, the pandemic has brought renewed attention to the impact of our “always on” culture on an individual and societal level.

Three primary issues have come to the fore: the impact on individuals and their mental health (largely as a result of doomscrolling); the impact on policymakers and businesses whose space for complex decision making has been crowded out by real-time effects; and the impact on societies and social cohesion due to fake news, misinformation and disinformation.

While it is tempting to cast social media as a one-dimensional villain, a more nuanced view is required. To be sure, there is some good, some bad and some ugly.

First, the good. Advocates argue that social media is a net positive because it has enabled the flow of critical news and information in real time, thereby facilitating agile, responsive governance and fostering a climate of greater accountability. Indeed, during Covid-19, social media watchdogs have left little room for inept politicians to hide growing body counts behind press conference facades.

The bad? For critics, the deluge of misinformation and disinformation on the internet has exacerbated fear and hysteria, resulting in irrational behaviour such as panic-buying of toilet paper, and the rapid spread of baseless conspiracy theories and fake cures.

Then the downright ugly. Online communities are fragmenting into warring tribes with common ground and reasonable compromise falling victim to the culture wars pitting “us” against “them”. Moreover, the dangers posed by big-tech platforms and their use and management of citizens’ data has fuelled the climate of polarisation and undermined social cohesion.

Understanding these problems is one thing; finding the way out of the labyrinth is quite another. As we grapple with social dilemmas and re-evaluate how to reap the very real benefits of free information flows, without being overwhelmed by their negative effects, we have to think beyond the good vs bad binary, into something more constructive.

Essentially, there are two levers with which to address the problems posed by social media: regulation and education (or a combination of the two).

The education lever requires convincing and empowering citizens with the knowledge they need to take personal responsibility for their own digital behaviour and encouraging users to demand accountability and transparency from the private platforms with which they interact. This shift towards “conscious consumption” of data and information can be seen as a form of “digital ketosis” – curating one’s information consumption in the same way one takes care of one’s physical body.

The problem with relying on education and self-directed consumer activism to change user behaviour is that digital addiction and subconscious manipulation is a very real problem. As with biological addictions, the psychological lure of social media is simply too powerful for many individuals to resist on their own.

The dangers of a purely laissez faire user-directed market of ideas can be seen in current American-style, “wild west”, social media flows, where almost anything goes in the name of freedom of expression. The result is dangerous populist political divisions that have allowed formerly fringe extremist ideologies, such as the notorious QAnon movement, to infiltrate mass consciousness.

For this reason, there is also a strong argument for regulation. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation and South Africa’s more draconian proposed “Internet Censorship Bill” are both examples that intend to help citizens help themselves, by levelling the playing field and demanding transparency and accountability from platform providers and users alike.

Social media platform providers and shareholders, like the algorithms they employ, should be understood as amoral and profit-seeking. As Robert Hudson, president of the Information Technology Professionals Association, observes, social media platforms are, essentially, mirrors that reflect, amplify and satiate user desires, for better or worse.

This means we cannot and should not expect social media platforms to regulate themselves – they will follow the market (that is users) and give them what they want in order to maximise clicks and profits within the constraints of the law. For this reason, if users and shareholders are unable or unwilling to call service providers to account, regulators are required to set better rules to protect citizens and uphold social stability.

The problem with relying on regulators, however, is the potential case of “out of the frying pan and into the fire”. In many instances, regulators have perverse incentives of their own to expropriate the power of social networks for their own ends of anti-democratic power consolidation. A case in point is Australia, which has criminalised using social media to organise anti-government protests.

The other major problem with regulation is its unintended consequences. Despite noble intentions, regulations could inadvertently work in the best interests of the very social media giants they are looking to curb, by protecting them from new competition, thereby allowing them to consolidate their market dominance.

This puts policymakers in a predicament layered with suboptimal outcomes. Should we blindly trust our politicians to make choices about free information flows? No, because centralising information controls poses a risk of regulatory overreach, propaganda and censorship.

But then, can we trust ourselves to make ethical choices? Again, the answer is no. A digital drug habit is hard to kick. For this reason, the only way out of the Catch-22 is to find a middle way with enough dynamic tension between the two levers to balance out the polarised risks of radical decentralised information and stifling central regulation.

So, while nations will end up picking paths that reflect their respective social values and political objectives, the most successful strategies will require a combination of top-down rules and bottom-up responsibility. Together, this will ensure that overall power over information flows is not centralised in a single power base – be that corporate/governmental hands or the madness of the crowds.

In this regard, Taiwan’s digital governance system stands out as a potential model to follow. Taiwan’s collaborative gØv ecosystem and the vTaiwan digital platform the gØv system uses for citizen engagement, is a de facto, national “social network” that connects civil society and the public sector to work together using technology.

The system allows — indeed encourages — citizens to participate in the democratic process by having a say on policy directives. Citizens are invited to join online platforms where contentious policy ideas are debated in a safe space, where advanced algorithms encourage collaboration, consensus and trust-building rather than unhealthy adversarial confrontation. The system does this by allowing all users to have their say on a particular policy issue, as one would do on social media.

However, unlike with the social media we know and use, the Taiwanese system does not allow fellow users to comment on other people’s ideas (therefore preventing trolling, mobbing and further polarisation). Instead, the Taiwanese governance system uses algorithms to find nodes of consensus among all the diverse views, grouping like-minded ideas together and finding threads of consensus to slowly, iteration after iteration, bring divergent ideas towards common compromise.

This is in stark contrast to the strategy employed by commercial social networks, which are optimised for clicks and likes and incentivise to send users down ever more polarised rabbit holes.

The vTaiwan platform has proven successful in finding policy consensus among citizen stakeholders for controversial issues, including how to regulate e-hailing services and other platform economy business.

As such, the model combines the best of free-flowing information, speed and accountability, while mitigating the worst effects of deception and polarisation.

Many may argue that Taiwan’s system is not suitable or replicable for other markets, but it is important to recognise the spirit and ideology behind the model: that policymakers should “create the vessel” (define the boundaries) and then allow civil society to fill it (define the policy details). The idea is that citizens should influence the rules they end up abiding by, and that the government’s role is to help citizens to do exactly that. In other words, the regulator’s role is to help citizens help themselves. It represents a fresh way of thinking about participatory democracy and the role of personal responsibility as an alternative to top-down regulation — something only possible if individuals know that their needs/wants have been heard and addressed in the resulting consensus.

While democracies do need to reconfigure and update their values and laws to adapt to the challenges posed by social media, we should be encouraged to think we do not need to destroy civil liberties in order to do so. Rather, perhaps, there is a way to use social media itself as a tool to strengthen participatory democracy in the digital age.

Social media is a mirror of society. A distorting and amplifying funhouse mirror to be sure, and a powerful tool that can be weaponised in the wrong hands, but a tool nevertheless. Free flow of information is not the enemy; rather, the root issue lies with how we engage with that information – and each other.

At the end of the day, solving the social dilemma requires the combined efforts of the same actors who caused the problem – us. DM

Ronak Gopaldas is a political economist, “pracademic”, writer and speaker. His work focuses on the intersection of politics, economics and business in Africa. He is currently a director at Signal Risk, a fellow of the Gordon Institute of Business Science and a co-founder of Mindflux Training. He was previously the head of country risk at Rand Merchant Bank. He is a Tutu Fellow and alumnus of the Asian Forum on Global Governance as well as the young African Leadership Initiative. @Ronak Gopaldas

Bronwyn Williams is an economist, futurist and trend analyst. She is currently a partner and foresight lead at Flux Trends, where she consults to corporate and government leaders around the world on how to turn socioeconomic trends into actionable business strategy. She is also a frequent media commentator, speaker and writer on “futurenomics”-related topics. @bronwynwilliams


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