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The Emperor's thumb is back - in an (un)expected modern fashion

The storming of the Capitol still reverberates as President Trump has left the Capitol. Meanwhile, America, the ultimate defender of our contemporary democratic values, is beginning to lick its wounds and wonder, bemused, how it could have come to this, and what lessons can be learned from four years of divisive leadership and its surprising apotheosis. I would like to take a moment to note the enormous social significance of recent events.

Indeed, with the decision to deny Trump access to its platform, Twitter (followed by Facebook and others) has willingly or unwillingly usurped the role of the Ultimate Moral Authority that imperially decides Good and Evil - and digital Life or Death. Censorship is once again lurking around the corner, and this time not by a dictator or an enlightened despot, but by the new gods of the social media.

The question that can and must be asked is whether we can just accept this as a democratic society. What is at stake?

Social media have become dominant

One can't deny it any longer: social media are omnipresent. They dominate our daily lives in an unimaginably intrusive way - according to various sources, we all spend an average of more than 2 hours a day on them. Conglomerates Facebook (owner of Facebook/Instagram/Whatsapp), Alphabet (Google, YouTube) and Twitter account for the majority of these, forming a de facto oligopoly that reaches more than 65% of the world's population directly and on a daily basis. Such reach and concentration of a few private players on a global scale is unique.

Unparalleled knowledge of - and access to private information

While we all shudder when the government wants to collect information about our contacts and movements in the interest of public health as part of the Covid crisis, we are opening the door wide to a much more intrusive transfer of personal data to social media platforms. The lure of free personalized services in exchange for privacy is evidently more infectious than the government's bid for better public health in exchange for limited insight into our goings on.

Algorithms are supporting covered censorship, polarization and anti-social behavior

The algorithms on which social media platforms rely to direct the flow of news are based on clustering based on similarities rather than differences. This leads to people feeling increasingly confirmed in their own lifestyles, and less and less receptive to dissenting opinions. This leads to dangerous polarization and de facto anti-social behavior, where one's own opinion is mainly reinforced back as an echo. Moreover, these algorithms also contain many built-in filters that are normative and can easily be steered-as is currently already happening de facto. Today, however, no form of democratic control is exercised over this.

Knowing and disposing of (digital) Life and Death

For many people, having a digital profile and activity has become a question of "to be or not to be". For many, identity is defined by their success on social media - measured by number of followers, likes and comments. For many, in these times of physical lockdown, it is even the only way to still count.

Thus, shutting off one's digital voice can be compared to the digital version of deciding on one's Life or Death. In a religious society, such decision-making power is reserved for God; in our Western democratic secular society, until recently, it was reserved for the interplay between the legislative, judicial and executive branches. But as of last week, this role has thus been gloriously assumed by a select club of private corporations that have long been beyond the grasp of any individual country - the best evidence being that in the blink of an eye they have deprived the most powerful man in the world, the President of the United States, of the right to speak digitally (however justified this decision may have been).

The new Oligopoly of Facebook, Alphabet and Twitter aims to generate profits by allowing advertisers to place personalized ads on users. The founders and managers of these companies undoubtedly have above-average competencies in data engineering, artificial intelligence, digital marketing. Nothing wrong with that. However, now these people and companies are placed in a position where they decide - without democratic mandate and without any kind of democratic control - about people's digital lives - the alternative of the imperial thumb of the time.

In this way, we as a society have unwittingly given up not only our individual privacy, but also our democratic freedom and more specifically one of its foundations, the right to free speech. Moreover, we have transferred this to private players who escape all democratic control and thus place themselves above the judicial and executive powers. And that seems to be a bridge too far.

Need for a social debate

A profound social debate is appropriate about whether and how we want to deal with this.

Is breaking up the current oligopoly of Facebook, Alphabet and Twitter a solution? The idea is gaining in importance, and it would avoid that in the future, for example, EU leaders could be silenced by US-based private companies. On the other hand, this would not necessarily curb the increasing polarization, and each of the broken-down companies would continue to be able to censor to their heart's content - but that is also the case with the traditional media today.

Or do we want to set up some kind of moral authority to impose and implement decisions of an ethical nature, and if so, how can we best give this concrete form? Given that social media do not allow themselves to be muzzled within national borders, it seems appropriate to work out a broadly supported international solution for this, by analogy with bodies such as the International Court of Justice in The Hague or the United Nations in New York. But doesn't that seem a bit too much like a new Inquisition, and who will decide within that body what is and what is not allowed? There have been many attempts in history to set up a guardian for the ultimate truth, usually with disastrous results.

Or do we want to limit it to an 'ethical appeal' to the social media sector to self-regulate and come up with their own proposals?

Several solutions are possible, but it seems to me that it is crucial that we all, and Europe in particular, make our voices heard in this debate. Specifically, Europe should be paying close attention to ensuring that American social media companies do not jeopardize European interests through their censoring algorithms and policies, and on the other hand, Europe as the cradle of Western values can make an important contribution. Of course, it seems crucial to test any solution against a broadly supported democratic base. If not, arbitrariness and opportunism lurk around the corner, and ultimately repression, revolt and violence.

Reflection on conscious capitalism as a starting point for a debate?

Perhaps the current reflection on conscious capitalism and governance can provide a good basis for an in-depth debate on the subject, in the first instance within the business world itself but by extension also within the other sections of society? There are increasing signs that pure profit-seeking and self-centered action may have led to unprecedented prosperity for some, but has disastrous consequences for certain minorities and, in the longer term, for the survival of humanity itself. Predatory or cuckoo capitalism carries with it the seeds of further polarization between "The Haves" and "The Haves Not," and conscious capitalism is precisely about taking all stakeholders into account in pursuing the social goals of a business or organization.

Can we not use this movement as a basis for a broader reflection on which dampening mechanisms we should provide to stop the unbridled excesses of free speech as we know it today in (social) media, without lapsing into arbitrariness and censorship?

One thing is abundantly clear: the past few years have shown that the principle of the "invisible hand" is not sufficient to reach a workable solution. If we continue to allow people with less good intentions to continue to proclaim lies, misleading or inflammatory messages with impunity through platforms that are inherently polarizing and belong to companies that escape democratic control, then we can assume that the polarization in our society will further escalate. This could abruptly endanger the freedom that many people take for granted today, and it therefore seems to me that boundaries must be established within which social media companies and their users must operate. To simply leave this demarcation to the oligopolists themselves, without democratic scrutiny, seems to me a dangerous social choice, and will be all too readily seized upon by the opponents of the right to free expression in order to silence others in this way.

Power to the Voter or to the new Emperor(s) - that is the choice we face, and which we should take to heart.

Kris Vansanten

Socially committed entrepreneur and Managing Partner Quanteus Group

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