The world has experienced one single night without social media, after two of the most important websites (Facebook and Instagram) and an instant messaging application (WhatsApp), were disrupted. This news item gained utmost prominence across conventional media, including satellite channels and electronic websites, also becoming the big story for everyone.
For the latest headlines, follow our Google News channel online or via the app.
Is it normal for such ultramodern gadgets to attract so much attention? The answer is simply, yes. These websites and applications have become an integral part of people’s lives. The disruption coincided with a new and shocking revelation by whistle-blower Frances Haugen, former content manager at Facebook, who unveiled shameful, severely damaging policies adopted by the world’s number-one website as its modus operandi.
The snowball quickly grew in size when the US White House intervened. Haugen was also summoned to testify before a committee in the US Congress; and giant corporations, banks, investors, and countries around the world railed in fear of the effects of the disruption of these websites and the interruption of their services. For many years, such websites have sought to convince people that they alone represent the future, and that all remaining human inventions are worthless.
According to the BBC, Haugen explicitly said: “The company's leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer but would not make the necessary changes because they have put their astronomical profits before people.”
This incident - albeit important - is not new. Rather, it is an extension of an ongoing debate about social networking sites, applications, and all its various offshoots. The sudden few-hour hiatus, however, rightfully re-ignited the previous controversy over “socialization” and its multiple dimensions, including aspects pertaining to innovation and creativity, legal and political debates, and philosophical and ethical discourse—all of which are worthy of mention, discussion and reflection.
In terms of the novelty, innovation and creativity of these sites; they represent a realistic success that brought about their potent and influential presence in the lives of billions of people, and their ever-growing number of users. Had it not been for this, they would not have drawn so much controversy. As for the other types of controversy, they remain worthy of deeper thought and analysis.
During the crisis, the White House commented by using an interesting choice of words, saying: “Communication platforms have proven that they have a power that they cannot control,” which is an accurate expression, because out-of-control power is synonymous with chaos and devastation. This is an undeniable reality regarding the roles performed by social media websites. The White House statement added by saying the incident proves that “self-regulation is not working.” Mark Zuckerberg gave a generic response to that statement later.
These words from the White House are significant, coming from a Democratic administration that for long allied social media giants, websites and applications to undercut former President Donald Trump’s administration, that lobbied fiercely against the pervasiveness of social media and its evasion of any binding laws of the state and its institutions. This is what the Democrats are currently having to face, because the notion of these websites is the complete opposite of the notion of the state; and that requires detailed elaboration which we don’t have time for here.
An important question in this context is: which is more important for mankind and society, freedom or security? Is it better for some individuals to exercise unrestrained freedom - even at the expense of causing harm to others, or to safeguard the security of people and societies - even at the expense of restraining the freedoms of some individuals and groups? This is a philosophical dimension that must be recalled. A legal debate took place years ago in America when a terrorist shot and killed several people, and when the security services tried to access the suspect’s mobile phone they could not, because modern social networking sites and the like provide strong encryption that is difficult for government agencies to hack into. At the time, Apple refused to cooperate with the state under the pretext of protecting individuals’ privacy, only yielding to do so following a court order forcing it to decrypt the mobile phone’s security to allow investigators to uncover details regarding the terrorist plot and preclude any further terrorist attacks in the future. Social media later introduced the so-called end-to-end encryption, so that it cannot submit to laws even if it wanted to do so — and this is an ongoing philosophical and legal debate.
Another political controversy is illustrated by the following paradox: social networking sites allow terrorists around the world to create accounts and pages to broadcast propaganda and spread ideologies, while at the same time closing former US President Trump’s account and preventing him from communicating with his constituency! Which of the two, then, poses more of a danger to people? The controversy continues.
These websites and applications target the new generations, and given that children constitute the majority, of course, hence targeting them becomes a priority for social media across the board. But are these sites committed to protecting children? The reality and Haugen’s testimony respond in the negative. Children’s ideas and morality are the last thing these sites care about, their sole priority is to turn them into a source of quick profit. Who, then, is responsible? The state is responsible, and the state’s hands are tied in terms of the accountability of these sites; yet another philosophical and ethical debate pending resolve.
There is a segment of young people of both genders that has benefited from these sites, through gaining acclaim and influence, as well as income and wealth - which is positive for this segment. The question here is why do groups of this segment remain unbridled by any governing laws save for “individual motives”? The answer is that the controversy, in its aforementioned dimensions, is not over yet.
Social networking sites are a great tributary to what I dubbed in 2016 as “systematic triviality.” Needless to say, these sites are neither educational institutions, nor prestigious universities or research centers. Their role is not to educate and refine people; instead, their far-reaching pervasiveness, influence, and lack of accountability have rendered them monsters in their own right, whose influence prevails on the human level in all political, economic, social, security aspects, as we all as other walks of life.
Finally, the “dictatorship” of social media is a cruel and domineering dictatorship that operates and influences beyond control. It negatively affects the lives of people and new generations, especially children, and destroys their psyche, provides misleading information, adopts cultural and political prejudices, promotes contradictions and causes terrorist crimes one way or another. However, the rare consensus between the right and the left within the US Congress may serve as the correct start for regulating the operations of these sites and applications.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.