Online power being consolidated by a few large players has enabled them “to weaponise the web at scale” according to the man who invented it, Sir Tim Berners-Lee.
Sir Tim, who is founder of the Web Foundation, was marking his creation’s 29th anniversary. “This year marks a milestone in the web’s history: for the first time, we will cross the tipping point when more than half of the world’s population will be online,” he wrote in an online letter this week.
But, he warns about the state of affairs that we are all too familiar with in this post-truth era, “we’ve seen conspiracy theories trend on social media platforms, fake Twitter and Facebook accounts stoke social tensions, external actors interfere in elections, and criminals steal troves of personal data”.
The problem is the concentration of power in the hands of a few big tech firms has compressed “a rich selection of blogs and websites… under the powerful weight of a few dominant platforms”. He doesn’t specifically name them, but he means Facebook, Twitter and Google (and its YouTube subsidiary). More damaging, especially for the media industry and therefore for freedom of expression, is that Google and Facebook claimed 60% of the digital advertising spend last year, according to a new survey.
Sir Tim warns that “this concentration of power creates a new set of gatekeepers, allowing a handful of platforms to control which ideas and opinions are seen and shared”.
These “dominant platforms” maintain their strength “by creating barriers for competitors” by buying startup challengers and new innovations, while hiring the best talent in the industry. “Add to this the competitive advantage that their user data gives them and we can expect the next 20 years to be far less innovative than the last.”
It’s a dire warning, that has been confirmed by a study published last week by MIT that fake news spreads “significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information”.
“False news reached more people than the truth; the top 1% of false news cascades diffused to between 1000 and 100,000 people, whereas the truth rarely diffused to more than 1000 people. Falsehood also diffused faster than the truth,” according to a paper by Soroush Vosoughi, Deb Roy and Sinan Aral published in the journal Science.
These all truths we have unfortunately come to know as true – having lived through the Gutpa twitter bots and the evil Bell Pottinger – but they have been confirmed by the web’s inventor and this study.
Despite these threats, South Africans have used these platforms to good effect. Last week, after Malusi Gigaba told Parliament that he hadn’t conferred citizenship to the Gupta brothers, South Africans took to Twitter with pictures of ID books, a passport, election registrations and even picture of Guptas voting to prove he was wrong. This is the same cabinet minister who the North Gauteng High Court found lied under oath that last time he was home affairs minister. His days must be numbered.
As bad as social media can be, this fightback proves that it can be used for good.
This column first appeared in Financial Mail