Do our political institutions know how to deal with the social fallout of imploding digital media platforms?

Do politicians and regulators understand the social impact of decisions being taken by the tech giants? Do they know how to respond? (In the meantime, I’ve gone to the pre-historic elephant setup )

This post caught my eye.

It’s worth reading the full version here by Mic Wright. The rise and fall of social media platforms is something that future historians of a wide variety of genres will be debating for decades to come – assuming the climate emergency or some other global catastrophe doesn’t consume us all beforehand.

History repeating itself – similar themes, different technologies.

“One of the stories of the late twentieth and early 21st centuries in Britain has been the theft and destruction of public spaces: the sale of playing fields, the closure of parks, the removal of water fountains and public toilets, the privatisation and gating of roads where once anyone could walk.”

Mic Wright in Perspective Mag, 18 Nov 2022

The above may sound familiar to regular readers of my previous blogs over the past decade or so. I first wrote about the privatisation of public spaces back in 2011. It was off the back of an article by Anna Minton, – who expands on the concept in this 2013 article and has written and researched much more since. It’s something I even made short videos about – such as this one on the fencing off of grounds we used to have informal access to during my childhood.

We found that out the hard way during the Lockdowns of 2020 not only what we had lost, but what we as societies need.

In the post war years, such was the demand for housing that we built the houses but not the community facilities to go with them. It’s an error that ministers are perpetuating with flawed planning policies. In the 1960s, the residents of Arbury in North Cambridge complained about the lack of community facilities.

Fast forward to the 2010s and instead of designating land to the west of Arbury and south of the A14 dual carriageway as open park land, the University of Cambridge and its colleges put forward the sites for development. As a result, large swathes of residential estates lack easy access to large green open spaces. Furthermore, some of them have university college playing fields that might be better used for municipal parks – judging by the comments of one of the colleges at the last local plan hearings about how under-used such land was by students. I wrote about my concerns regarding the lack of access for the residents in Arbury and King’s Hedges in this piece. This is a classic case of The University of Cambridge and its member colleges only looking out for each other, and not for the all of the people who make up our city. If they did, they would have designated a much larger plot of land for a North Cambridge Park.

How the present generation of senior decision-makers in University circles have failed to meet the high standard set for them by the former Vice-Chancellor Sir Ivor Jennings.

Headline reads "Vice chancellor opens university plan exhibition - our duty is to improve city"

Above – Sir Ivor Jennings in robes from the Cambridge Daily News 01 June 1962, from the Cambridgeshire Collection.

“How does this link with what’s happening with Twitter and Facebook?”

Decisions are being taken that affect the day-to-day lives of millions of people and yet the mechanisms of regulation and user feedback are utterly broken – as they are in British politics. Hence in part the Labour Leader’s commitment to abolish the House of Lords. It remains to be seen what he’ll replace it with, but it’s worth noting that the Lords does a far better job of scrutinising legislation than the House of Commons.

One thing that has been missing in much of the debate on the actions of the big social media and tech firms is systems of accountability. Accountability to investors is one thing – primarily related to returns on investment. The catalogue of major breaches of regulations by large firms seems to happen time and again, and we hear the phrase ‘lessons will be learnt’ that I wonder if they ever are.

With the continued chase for the corporate [insert choice of currency/medium of exchange] – in particular from advertising, the algorithms that decide what appears on our social media feeds has changed over the years. What used to be feeds full of updates from the people I follow, is now full of junk. It’s no longer a curated public space public space. Some have compared it to the enclosures of 200 years ago in England. Others share their concerns about their inability to maintain friendships they struck up on Twitter.

What we’ve already lost, what we are still to lose – and why politicians and our political institutions seem impotent in the face of these changes

One of the things I’ve lost from both Twitter and Facebook are the former communities of online friends that I used to have. Their updates show up so rarely in my feeds because of the changes made by the firms that the very reason for me using their services from a social perspective is vanishing. Where does that leave those of us who, like me have a very limited mobility? The conversations we used to have online, from the productive to the light-hearted are no longer what they were. The positive externalities that we used to get from using social media in the early days seem to have long gone as the corporations and bots have carved up what’s left.

This actually creates an existential crisis for me – something that I’ve only really started thinking about in the past few weeks. What is my means of communication with the outside world – in particular finding out things from non-mainstream sources? What will our methods be about finding out about events both local and also live-streamed from all over the world? If it isn’t already, at some stage this will become a major public policy problem for governments. Such is the speed of change that it may well be a general election issue that the political parties have to wrestle with because a critical mass of the voting public will demand it. Even more so if it has a detrimental impact on those both most dependent on, and least able to respond to the changes.

One of the many bitter ironies of the UK leaving the EU is that the louder the pro-Leave MPs shouted about Britain becoming this unleashed global force, the more diminished it has become over time in the face of huge economic forces that have overwhelmed its public policy-making capacity. One of the things President Macron of France got spot on was the amount of international diplomatic time and resources that had been spent on dealing with the UK’s messy and protracted exit from the EU that could have been put to much more productive purposes to the benefit of the many, rather than the few. Such as the regulation of multinational corporations, or the tougher controls on polluting industries that are presently exempt from taxation (and the damage they do to the environment) such as aviation and shipping fuel. It’s no surprise that the COP27 Climate Conference produced such a weak outcome when it was full of fossil-fuel lobbyists.

“Social media for the common good”

As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said:

“We do things for society with the resources entrusted to us. Billionaires take that money, pocket the change, and take that money to Wall Street. When one person amasses that much resources off the back of working people, it does not help society. It hurts society. Every billionaire is a policy failure in a society that cannot provide free healthcare and that has enormous amounts of poverty”

See her video below.

Above – the full version can be seen here.

The same applies to the UK – for example the profits for the oil companies, utilities, and firms headquartered in tax havens. The extraction of wealth has happened on such a scale that we see its impact in our town centres. In what should be one of the busiest months of the year for retailers, Cambridge’s showpiece shopping centre, the Grand Arcade has got numerous empty units. Local newspapers have imploded in the face of declining advertising revenues that have moved to the social media giants, with little political response to re-divert at least some of those resources back to local media outlets – which is effectively an oligopoly of a few large media firms such as Reach PLC using multiple ‘local’ brand names.

Is there a non-profit alternative or are we stuck in a vicious cycle of the rapid rise and fall of new social media platforms becoming popular, harvesting data, being bought out, and then imploding or declining?

When we think of the carbon emissions alone, how much of the content we scroll through is stuff we’d rather not have to see in order to get to what we want? And don’t get me started on this industry! How does “The Polluter Pays” principle apply to the online world? Because if our economic, political, and regulatory structures cannot make that happen, isn’t it more than time for an overhaul?

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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