What we as a society understand as true is changeable, and questioning the truth can only be done with a healthy public debate. But the dominance of the platforms that facilitate our public debate makes difficult.
Something is the truth only until proven otherwise, my parents used to tell me. It says something about how what we see as truth can change. By now I have also learned to always question the truth. Not because we are always wrong, but because we might always be wrong. And the only way to find out is by being open to being wrong and having a critical conversation.
Users should have a choice, not just between Facebook and Facebook, or between YouTube and YouTube.
Recently there has been lively discussion about the source of the coronavirus. Experts believe that this virus spread naturally from animals to humans. This is disputed by others. How we think about this as a society is constantly changing, and with that also what we consider to be true. Public debate plays an important role in questioning the current truth. It exposes you to ideas that challenge your own. The debate contributes to the formation of your opinion and what you see as truth.
This only works if that public debate can take place in complete freedom, with room for all points of view and nuances. But that public debate is currently made impossible online by a few very dominant companies, including Facebook. Three months ago Facebook bannedFacebook: "We are expanding our efforts to remove false claims." posts from its platform that claimed that the corona virus is man-made. They marked this discourse as "disinformation which, according to the authorities, […] could lead to negative results". Last month Facebook changed its mind. They told"Facebook no longer treating 'man-made' Covid as a crackpot idea" journalists: "In light of the ongoing investigations into the origins of COVID-19 and in consultation with public health experts, we will no longer remove the claim that COVID-19 is man-made from our apps".
Power over the public debate
Whoever directs our public debate directs us in our thinking, in our worldview and in our truth. The dominance of Facebook, and a very limited number of other parties, in the online public debate means that they determine what our public debate is about and how it is conducted. They determine what we can talk about, because there are few alternative places online where public debate can take place. If these platforms are of the opinion that something should not be a topic of conversation, then it cannot be.
In addition, they also determine the form of the conversation, through all kinds of choices in the design of the platform. The auto-play functionality of YouTube automatically takes you to the next video that is slightly more radical than the previous one, in order to keep you on YouTube as long as possible. Due to their limited length and the retweet counter below, the messages on Twitter don’t invite you to tell a nuanced story. Earlier, researcher Holly Robins investigatedA taxonomy of content manipulation this extensively on behalf of Bits of Freedom.
Ambitious regulations are desperately needed
Our online public debate has been stifled. This is partly due to the dominance of companies such as Facebook and Google. Their business model, where everything is done to keep the user on the platform for as long as possible, exacerbates that damage. The only way to break out of the downward spiral is to make sure the user has a choice again, so that power shiftsFour measures to limite the dominance of platforms like YouTube and Facebook from the platforms to the users. This can be done by focusing on ‘interoperability’, to use a technical term. It would allow you, as a Signal user, to send messages to a WhatsApp user. This makes it easier for us as internet users to choose which platform we find most appealing, instead of our only choices being between Facebook and Facebook, or between YouTube and YouTube.
Whoever directs our public debate directs us in our thinking, in our worldview and in our truth.
At the end of last year, the European Commission published a bill limiting the power of these platforms. That proposal is not ambitious enough. The limited forms of interoperability that it contains are not going to change anything materially. That is why European legislators should amend the proposal, so that we might have something meaningful to choose again. That is the only way to get back a healthy online public debate.
This is a translation of an article in Dutch. The translation was kindly provided for by Celeste Vervoort and Pieter.