Over the past decade, governments have tried to contain the explosive growth of social media companies, but they’ve had little success in doing so.
The lucrative practices of Facebook and Google are kept under a blanket of complexity. Big tech is designed to seem impenetrable in the same way that the finance industry is presented as being too complex for the average person to understand. Tech is painted with fancy jargon and pioneered by elusive CEO’s who have a comprehensive track-record of being misleading, and this complete lack of transparency makes it pretty much impossible for companies such as Google and Facebook to be held accountable. For the most part, they’ve had a carte blanche to do as they please and have accumulated such societal influence that they’ve overtaken the state in many key respects, which is what I’ll be exploring in this article.
What people can and cannot say has historically been the jurisdiction of the state, and they’ve historically drawn on a variety of foundations from religious creeds to constitutions when setting the legal standards and boundaries of what people can say. But as social media forums have become the epicenter of discourse, it’s become increasingly up to the corporate hierarchies of Facebook and Twitter to set the general standards of speech. Twitter and Facebook have been subject to an increasing amount of scrutiny from the public to be more aggressive in cracking down on hate speech, and the fact that this outcry has not been directed towards the government is a clear indication of who holds the chips. It’s not the government, it’s social media companies, and this transfer of responsibility from the state to private social media companies is a crucial element of Facebook’s and Twitter’s state-like influence.
Data has always been admired as a prized asset by governments. It provides unparalleled insights into the general trends and dispositions of citizens and gives governments an unrivaled edge over their opponents. It provides them with a clear indication of what people are concerned about, why they’re voting for whom, and on what grounds. If anything has come to light from the Edward Snowden exposé, it’s that governments crave data and would go to extreme lengths to get it. But it’s clear that social media companies have pioneered data harvesting at the expense of governments. Social media is ‘free’ in a monetary context, but there’s a profound cost to using these platforms. In exchange for usage, users provide them with a catalog of personal data and unrestrained access to their private devices, giving companies like Google and Twitter all they need to provide overtly personalized experiences. This is the second key respect in which social media companies have well-exceeded governments. Mass surveillance has been a forceful ambition for governments across the world, but social media companies have firmly established themselves as the surveillance elite. Google, Facebook, and Twitter have established an unshakeable monopoly on data harvesting and have their fingers on the pulse of every individual who uses their platforms.
However, jurisdiction over speech and an overwhelming dominance over personal data doesn’t quite elevate social media companies to the status of being a ‘state within a state’. Their influence is unprecedented, and they arguably have far more control over individuals than governments do. But there are key differences between the two which will continue to separate one from the other.
Firstly, social media companies are ultimately just that – private companies; and for as long as social media companies exist, they’re bound to the state’s legislative influence. Thus far, social media companies and search engines have steered their own agenda because governments haven’t been able to keep them in check. As I’ve mentioned, the cloak of complexity gives them the autonomy to drive down whatever path is most profitable. But this is being cracked down upon as governments start to get a grip on the escapades of social media companies. Democracy has been consistently jeopardized by fake accounts and misinformation and as a consequence, the credibility of social media platforms as a reputable news source has been thrown down the drain. Governments are becoming conscious of the harm being caused by this and are ramping up their control over these companies.
Secondly, and most importantly, people have the option to opt-in and opt-out of their services. It’s completely down to individuals as to whether they engage with social media, but states aren’t really subject to such arbitrary whims and decisions. As a member of society, you’re contracted to oblige the rules and laws of a government and pay taxes, and opting out isn’t really a feasible option. You don’t make an account with a government and then simply have the option to delete it when it no longer suits you. This is a crucial distinction between states and social media companies, and one which will always subjugate Twitter, Facebook and Google to the status of a private company, rather than something more autonomous such as a state.
Overall, the growing scrutiny and legislative constraint of social media companies and search engines is constraining their freedoms which they’ve been flagrantly abusing up until recently. But the fact that governments are keeping them more in check doesn’t eradicate their control over the likes of free speech. They remain an uncontested giant in data control, and for that very reason, they’ll continue to be a force to be reckoned with.