Why haven’t we regulated social media yet?

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Seven years after the Donald Trump campaign exploited social media to upend liberal democracy and unleash a new paradigm of networked populist politics, the technology remains untouched by meaningful regulation.

Even as China, Russia and Iran use Western platforms to disseminate propaganda, and democracies face waves of domestic misinformation, a strategic approach toward the technology by society and government is absent.

Turning away from policing misinformation: Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk.Credit: AP

Facebook owner Meta has recently refused to act against some accounts posting racist and abusive material ahead of the Voice to parliament referendum. X-platform owner Elon Musk has relaxed the fight against political misinformation speech, the Washington Post reports.

After Trump’s shock 2016 election, the prospect of a foreign government interfering with a sovereign election seemed to galvanise the public. Somewhat shocked by Facebook’s role in the affair Mark Zuckerberg famously said it was “crazy” to think fake news had influenced voters.

As 2016 recedes further in the distance, there has been scant comprehensive legislation or resolution in the country’s home to the platforms.

A major part of the problem with tackling social media is that we struggle even to agree on the big picture for sensible regulation.

Looking back, it’s almost like we never left the year 2016. Even today, we remain in a state of perpetual reaction to the technology.

So it’s instructive to contrast our current brain fog with the public response to the invention of the A-bomb at the end of World War II, recently depicted in the film Oppenheimer.

Soon after the bombs were dropped in 1945, a group called the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists “began as an emergency action, created by scientists who saw an immediate need for a public reckoning in the aftermath of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki”.

The group held lectures, lobbied politicians, and aimed to inform a debate of existential importance.

The group’s mission “was to urge fellow scientists to help shape national and international policy” and “help the public understand what the bombings meant for humanity”.

Dr Robert Oppenheimer, atomic physicist and head of the Manhattan Project.Credit: Reuters

The formation of the group – still active today – reflected one way the A-bomb altered global politics, war and culture itself.

Nothing like a weapon of mass destruction to galvanise the public.

Yet the reaction to social media since 2016?

Endless studies, reports, testimony in Congress and Canberra. Today we can’t seem to focus on social media in a sustained enough manner for long enough to have the discussion needed.

Other technologies today have met with a rapid response from governments seeking to safeguard citizens.

The emergence of cryptocurrency has seen some decisive regulatory action, given the risk it poses to the treasure of nations and consumers.

Artificial intelligence’s potential is being assessed by governments who also recognise it as a field with profound economic and national security advantages.

The Cuban missile crisis. John F. Kennedy meeting with advisor. Nuclear technology helped prevent a third world war in the 20th Century.

But social media stands apart. It’s so embedded in our daily habits, it’s much harder to approach.

Of course, there are differences between social media and nukes: Atomic bombs were weapons created and deployed by governments, they produced big destructive explosions.

Social media platforms function as for-profit information monopolies. For a user, they are a button on a phone’s screen, and a portal to a global network.

Yet, social media has altered the world as much as A-bombs.

Social media reflects and expedites a new era when power shifts from centralised government to decentralised business.

In 1945, soldiers fought for governments. Today mercenaries such as the Wagner group have been decisive in war.

In the 1950s, computers were run by governments. Now, hackers and ransomware gangs operate as commercial enterprises.

And companies such as Starlink and various drone makers hold game-changing power over battlefields.

Perhaps social media’s tight integration with media, at least until 2016, prevented a more critical view of the technology from forming when it should have.

And perhaps, the distraction and confusion surrounding the prospect of regulating Facebook, Twitter, TikTok is itself an effect of the technology.

Today, neither the platforms, nor politicians have the perspective to discuss the big picture: how to balance free speech on social media, and the freedom to innovate with the broader freedoms of a liberal society.

Lost in this ‘Long 2016’, we fail to see our predicament from the outside.

The longer law lacks sufficient authority over social media platforms, the longer the platforms erode a culture of the rule of law, with fallout for our politics, society, health and our democracy itself.

One doesn’t have to be a nuclear physicist to see this.

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