This excerpt from “Internet är Trasigt: Silicon Valley och Demokratins Kris” (“The Internet is Broken: Silicon Valley and the Crisis of Democracy”) has been translated from Swedish. Published October 8 by Natur & Kultur, the book has been nominated for the August Prize, Sweden’s national book award.
In the fall of 2017, Google’s vice president for news, Richard Gingras, went on a rare visit to Stockholm. He was there to advertise a subscription model for news, part of the company’s attempt to show goodwill towards a media industry whose business model Google had severely undermined. Gingras had called for a meeting with a number of media executives, but the questions he received were about something completely different from Google’s new service.
“Nazis are using YouTube to harass journalists. When will you go from word to action and remove this kind of content?” asked Peter Wolodarski, editor-in-chief of Dagens Nyheter, a national Swedish daily.
Gingras became increasingly annoyed. The meeting was supposed to be an amicable PR event for Google, but instead it became another heated moment of misunderstandings between the company and news media.
“The law is the law. We cannot be the judges of what is real journalism and what is not,” said Gingras at the Stockholm meeting.
Gingras refused to acknowledge the actual problem. Sweden has among the most liberal laws in the world for freedom of expression and freedom of the press, which makes it hard to ban content. But Swedish media has also created independent publishing guidelines, a voluntary system of ethics and norms, used for reviewing controversial content. Historically, it has worked very well, since it ensures that journalism is kept free from the hands of legislators, while simultaneously creating a series of working standards for responsible journalism.
In recent years, right-wing propaganda websites have increased their impact in Sweden, as in most other countries in Europe. They look just like serious news websites, and they usually don’t violate the law. But they do not follow the ethical guidelines of the national press. On Facebook and Google, these propaganda websites are still able to spread their content, making it appear as if it comes from serious news outlets. In this way, the platforms are contributing to the undermining of trust in traditional media, even in one of the world’s most stable democracies.
When Gingras said that “the law is the law,” he perfectly illustrated one of Google’s biggest problems: the question of how a global company, run from California, could possibly manage to administer complex and sensitive issues regarding regional media and the infrastructure for democracy, which operates differently in each country, depending on history, norms, laws and legal traditions.
A notorious example of this type of conflict is Facebook’s offer to India to fund the expansion of their mobile internet. Through the so-called “Free Basics” program, a limited mobile network would be free for millions of people. The problem was that Facebook would own the infrastructure and that those who wanted access to the entire network, not just the limited version, would have to pay for it. India’s Telecom Regulatory Authority (TRAI) banned the initiative because it violated principles of network neutrality, on the grounds that a private, fee-based Internet would hinder innovation and raise barriers to entry for new companies.
The decision was a cold shower for Facebook. When they launched the initiative, they tried to brand themselves as primarily working to create a better world. Instead, the initiative came off as a clumsy and greedy attempt to take over one of the world’s biggest and fastest growing internet markets.
From old and stable democracies to developing countries, the pattern is the same. According to Freedom House, online manipulation and disinformation tactics played an important role in elections in at least 18 countries over the past year and contributed to physical and technical attacks on human rights defenders and independent media.
”On Facebook, the tools of our profession are turned against us to incite hate, create straw enemies and build alternative realities” says Maria Ressa, the founder and editor of the The Rappler network in The Philippines and the 2018 winner of WAN-Ifra’s Golden Pen of Freedom.
Ressa is short, intense and radiates optimism, even though she receives (is living under) constant death threats. She founded her news website in 2012, and it successfully attracted readers with its clever, innovative journalism. Everything was going fine, until 2016, when President Duterte won the election in the Philippines with a hard-right populist message and a successful social media campaign. Since then, 20,000 people have died in Duterte’s “war on drugs,” which has often involved the casual slaughter of civilians.
The Rappler reported on this. Since then, Maria Ressa and her colleagues live under constant fear of violent repercussion. In Duterte’s country, no opposition to the government is tolerated. In his arsenal is a new weapon: well-organized armies of internet trolls, who whip up hatred and harassment campaigns, spreading lies about Maria Ressa and her editorial staff. They call them CIA agents. They call them communists. They threaten that Ressa will be raped and murdered.
In the Philippines, there is a serious risk that these threats can turn into real violence. Yet, Maria Ressa and her reporters continue writing.
“In the last few years, I’ve been fighting a battle on two fronts. Partly against President Duterte and the state propaganda on social media. But also against Facebook, which has not taken responsibility for the hatred and lies that spread on their platform. They have no control. They are sitting in Silicon Valley and do not see that their business causes people to lose their lives,” she says.
With The Rappler, Maria Ressa embraced new technology. She used the internet and social media to innovate how journalism was created and distributed in the Philippines. But the same technology also allowed weapons to turn against her.
“When Facebook fails to take action in the global south, it means people die. I urge my friends there: please move away from technological colonialism.”
The headquarters of our tech giants are in California, but their impact is felt across the world. Facebook and the other titans of Silicon Valley will eventually have to deal with the global backlash and the real problems they have caused. Across the world, numerous proposals for national legislation are trying to come to terms with the new challenges of weakened and impoverished media institutions, strengthened government propaganda campaigns, and organic waves of populist hatred, trolling and bigotry, poisoning the public conversation.
In Germany, a law recently came into force that forces tech companies to investigate complaints about public and illegal content within 24 hours. Failure to do so could risk a fine of up to 50 million euros. The law is aimed at large companies, with more than two million users. Facebook has already been forced to hire a large number of moderators to ensure compliance with the law.
In France, President Emmanuel Macron has proposed a bill “to fight fake news,” which would force tech platforms to clearly report who pays for sponsored political content. Macron was a victim of a disinformation campaign in the 2017 election and now wants to give French judges the right to block or delete paid social media posts with misleading political information.
In the spring of 2018, a few weeks before the Cambridge Analytica scandal shook the tech world, Tim Berners-Lee wrote a letter in The Guardian. As the creator of the open web, Berners-Lee is generally an ideological opponent of regulating the web. But now, he said, a line had been crossed.
“We’ve looked to the platforms themselves for answers. The responsibility – and sometimes burden – of making these decisions falls on companies that have been built to maximize profit more than to maximize social good. A legal or regulatory framework that accounts for social objectives may help ease those tensions.”
The founders and early employees of Facebook and Google likely did not anticipate that they would contribute to a global crisis for the infrastructure of news and democracy.
Regulation is never easy to get right. But the current regulators of our news environment, Facebook and Google, have proven that they are not up to the task. As long as we hand the power to regulate global news feeds to a handful of privately owned companies, the risk remains that they will prioritize their owners and stockholders, rather than the citizens in the countries in which they operate.