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How to clean up social media and stop the peddling of vitriol for profit

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Styli Charalambous is the CEO and co-founder of Daily Maverick, having joined the effort a few months before launch in 2009. Over the years, he has studied media models and news innovation efforts. He has also helped launch various projects and products within the Daily Maverick orbit.

The impact of social media on our mental health is well documented. Not that we need data to convince us – we all know that endless doom-scrolling is the equivalent of attaching a vacuum cleaner to our life force.

Deep fakes, false lives, real bullying and hate speech dominate much of the discourse causing harm in real life. It’s telling that since social media became a thing on mobile phones, the suicide rate of American teenage girls doubled while rates of depression increased by more than 60% in boys and girls aged 14-17. And this is before overlords Zuckerberg and Sandberg tried to peddle Instagram for kids.

Of course, not all content on social media is bad. There have been incredible movements enabled by social media that were unlikely to have seen the light of day using traditional media. I am thinking of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the murder of George Floyd. The #MeToo movement and even the Arab Spring. So while the advent of social media has been a net positive, it is time to draw a line under the Wild West period that threatens humanity on more levels than you might imagine.

Facebook (and Instagram) and Google (through YouTube) are the two biggest players in the space that have been exonerated from any wrongdoing in the US under the exemption granted by Section 230 of the online communications act – drafted in 1996! The thinking then was that online platforms were the equivalent of digital message boards and that they shouldn’t be held responsible for the malicious postings of others.

This is unlike traditional media, which are held accountable for what is published on their pages, either by law or industry regulation. The problem is that these platforms are nothing like bulletin boards. Once a user has shown a preference for a certain type of content, AI-powered algorithms are designed to push similar content to that user. A troubled teenager with an eating disorder – here, have some more fries with that. A misguided youth sucked into a right-wing conspiracy theory – let’s top that off with some hate speech and a side dish of lynching videos.

These platforms do make editorial decisions (albeit by the virtual hands of machines) to push more content in front of people that is potentially harming themselves and others. And like all other media, they need to be accountable for their actions (or inaction). One of the worst cases in recent history was when military personnel in Myanmar used Facebook to spread lies and misinformation that sparked a genocide and the displacement of 700,000 people.

Clearly, something is seriously wrong and, unfortunately, the only way to fix it is to legislate it. Every previous attempt to engage with these organisations has failed and these companies will continue to ruin democracies and lives in the pursuit of profits. No single organisation, or industry body, holds an inkling of influence over these giants, so it is left to our governments to try to help. The good news is that our government is broke and we can use this opportunity to salvage some of the rent that is extracted on a daily basis and leaves South Africa untaxed.

Case law already exists in SA where social media posts can be regarded as defamatory. (Remember Penny Sparrow and friends?) But what we need is a legal update to acknowledge that liability can extend way beyond defamation when posts are personalised and amplified at a scale that can result in mental health breakdowns, physical violence and even death. In those cases, these platforms should stand as the co-accused because their algorithms actively promoted the offending works.

With no ombud process available to offer accountability, any unresolved complaints should proceed directly to a special court. Each defamation conviction could result in a fine of up to R80K (payable to an oversight body that operates like the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa) and damages to the injured party. For more severe transgressions like being party to genocide, suicide and murder – fines should be linked to revenue generated in the country. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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