Social media is enduring a slow reckoning. The balance between platform and content continues to waver as commerce, politics, journalism and the private citizen all seek comprehensive governance of a space that still feels as nascent as it is nebulous.
The latest effort to determine the shadows from the landscape came in November this year at a US Congressional hearing, at which the CEOs of Facebook and Twitter, Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey, were summoned to give evidence on how they dealt with content deemed as offensive, indecent or likely to inspire hatred. While the details of the discussion focused on how Facebook had not blocked hateful posts because the poster had not racked up enough ‘strikes’, and how Twitter was willing publicly to judge but not delete posts, the broader question of who is responsible for policing social media remained unanswered.
Based on what has, and what hasn’t, been said, Zuckerberg’s current philosophy on the social media landscape appears to be one that is governed by the laws of the analogue world — not by the digital providers. This position does not offer a clear way to resolving the problem; however, there is a more practical solution that can cover the confluence of the legal, commercial and ‘constitutional’ demands faced by social media’s guardians.
By ensuring every social media account is assigned and attributed to an individual or company (essentially a clear legal entity), social media platforms and public bodies would be able to police this space comprehensively without infringing the publishing rights typically enjoyed by a free society. There are many parallels here, but perhaps the clearest is with how banking ensures ownership of assets and traceability of identity through multi-factor verification. In finance, this guarantees authentication and security while giving scrutinised bodies the latitude to inspect and inform on nefarious practices and individuals. This creates an understanding for all parties that the system is only as valuable as it is secure. Secure for, and from, its users — and its managers.
By obtaining a social media account in a similar way to how we obtain a bank account — by giving up traceable data — we would be able to largely eliminate the abuses that have disfigured the medium. The millions of unknown accounts and bots which troll political figures and which dynamite avalanches of fake news and conspiracy theories would end. This would protect our social fabric by ensuring key tenets of democracy such as scrutiny, accountability and checks & balances materialise digitally. It would also bring back the premium on responsible and constructive online debate — think LinkedIn where people are who they say they are, versus Twitter.
Such a system would not be perfect by any stretch, but technology such as blockchain already exists to record and attribute social media use while anonymising crucial data. Further, the commercial case for platforms such as YouTube and Facebook, who use targeted ads, would be stronger because advertiser and recipient alike would enjoy a more accurate and transparent data service.
As with a bank account, verified social media accounts should not limit what people do with their media but they should guarantee anonymity of data beyond what is public. While your preferences may be known, a retailer need never know your name. This endorses the current encryption technology already being developed and makes it easier to root out fake accounts. Fraud and hacking within accounts would also be preventable as logins could require biometric two-step verification such as a fingerprint or a face scan. This again is similar to what is already in place in personal banking.
Undeniably, this is different in theory and practice to the open-ended mission that created Facebook and Twitter. No-one could have predicted how complex the journey of social media would become, or how their navigators’ brief has become a battle for the soul of the digital fifth estate. That is why verified social media is so important. As with finance, this should create an understanding for all parties that the system is only as valuable as it is secure. Verified social media can ensure freedom of expression and freedom from perversions of that freedom.