Dr Sander Zwanenburg argues for an end to the concentration of power in companies with a dominant social and behavioural footprint in our societies

The power social media companies have is mind-boggling. The worldwide oligopoly has shown it can all but eliminate the voice of the world’s most powerful person. And as it shut one mouth, it went about its daily business of directing billions of eyes.

It goes further. It optimises its cocktails of content by blending advertising with social affirmation and proper content, so that it not just directs the eye, but it conditions the user to keep scrolling and coming back. We get hooked. Over time, the stream of nudges in our personal information feed alters how we think and what we do, in favour of the highest bidders in the market for attention. And the mighty algorithms have less intentioned effects too. They have led people into echo chambers, where gut and gossip rule over nuance and truth.

Every day social media companies attain more power still. They build on its three key ingredients: dominance of communication channels, collection of user data, and the extraction of valuable insights. WhatsApp’s controversial new user terms illustrate the continuous efforts to integrate channels and user data. Similarly, cookies and ‘Like’ buttons become increasingly prolific throughout the web, signalling more and more data supply lines for Google and Facebook. It does not end there. These juggernauts continue to partner with or buy up promising start-ups, converging even more data. Clearly, their hunger for user information cannot be stilled.

Of course not. All this is practically governed by internal policy of companies that operate in capitalist settings with small top-level management teams. The profound ethical and societal decisions these companies make are of great collective importance, but lack collective input. This is unsustainable. What can be done?

Simply regulating more will not be enough. One problem is that social media exists internationally, far beyond the reach of any jurisdiction. Another is that regulating information technology is always slower than developing it.

Cutting up the main players will also be ineffective. The real power and convenience of social media lie in aggregation, in scale; not in a plethora of segregated apps. Cutting social media up will quickly be reversed as the business models seek scale for user convenience and monetisation.

Can we expect the free market to correct itself? Perhaps more sustainable business models will appear in the social media landscape? Pay-for-service models – think Netflix – are arguably more likeable as they do not need to see the user as the product. Yet convincing people to pay for social media when it’s been provided free of fees is an uphill battle. It is unlikely this battle will reach the tipping point to realise a true network effect and a switch en masse.

Likewise, free models driven by volunteers and philanthropists – think Linux, Wikipedia, and Signal – may be governed by public-minded motivations, yet they face the same formidable barriers to entry. While we have seen people flocking to Telegram and Signal after WhatsApp’s announcement, only time will tell if they build enough momentum to tip the balance. Even if they do have success in replacing the tech giants, there is no guarantee the power is shared and used for the public’s benefit.

If the power will continue to grow in capitalist settings for the foreseeable future, should we use the capitalist system itself to ensure the public is served appropriately? With our money, our savings pensions and our collective tax spending, we could buy up ownership shares of publicly-traded companies, and create a louder voice through shareholders’ resolutions. This in itself is a good idea, but tragically, ownership does not always equal voting power. In Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg holds a minority ownership, but a majority of voting power. So do co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page in Google. These super-voters are effectively in complete control and have developed a record of rejecting many, if not all, shareholders’ proposals including those to distribute power.

We need to recognise the immense value and convenience social media provides us. Social media has become a basic infrastructure in our society, like our roads and railways. We need to own it and govern it collectively. Through our history and around the world we learn that democracies with the distribution of power work better than authoritarian regimes.

An end must come to the concentration of power in companies that have a dominant social and behavioural footprint in our societies. This will open up channels to allow for collective governance, whether it is through ethical investors, pension fund managers, or our treasuries. By spreading voting power, ultimately, our individual choices of which app to use and which network to visit will have more of an impact. Ultimately this should help us tap into the tremendous value of social networks in a more ethical and sustainable way.

Dr Sander Zwanenburg is Lecturer in the Department of Information Science at the University of Otago.

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