Fixing the internet

Back in 2016 Kim Kardashian became the inaugural winner of The Webby Awards’ ‘Break the Internet’ award, having – as they put it – “shaped our understanding of how someone or something can draw the popular attention of internet users”. One nomination for this year’s competition could be the outgoing president of the US, whose ban from Twitter and other social media platforms after riots in Washington DC this week has sparked further controversy, and may really have broken the internet.

Like Ms Kardashian, Donald Trump had built up an enormous following on social media, racking up 88.3m. And in many ways, his tweets define his presidency: incoherent (remember “covfefe”?), often confrontational, and loved and loathed in equal measure. But for all the criticism that his enthusiasm for Twitter was unbecoming of the leader of the free world, social media sits squarely at the heart of all modern political campaigning. In fact, a combined $200m was spent by candidates on Facebook advertising during the US presidential election, accelerating a trend that first captured attention after the EU referendum and the Cambridge Analytica saga. A combined $81m was spent by Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016 – far more than was estimated to have been spent by Russia to help Trump ‘steal’ that election. 

Either way, the power of social media to influence people’s voting intentions is undoubted. Twitter went as far as banning political advertising in 2019, although its recent purge of Donald Trump and other right-leaning accounts suggests it isn’t shy about letting its own political leanings determine corporate policy. Likewise, both Amazon and Apple have taken steps to restrict certain political views – Twitter alternative Parler, for example, was taken offline as both tech giants refused to host its app. 

Such actions have once again raised the question of whether tech companies have become too powerful – if they can control what we read and hear, then arguably they control what we think and how we vote. When the internet was first commercialised, it was viewed as an innovation on a par with the printing press, making possible the immediate and global free exchange of information and ideas. Already fending off the prospect of tighter regulation, many are now rightly asking whether being political censors is a role they should fulfil. 

Political parties are not, of course, the only organisations using social media and personal data to further their ends. As we explore in this week’s cover feature, data is now the oil of the global economy – perhaps even more so than oil itself, and certainly so if the respective performances of the technology and hydrocarbon industries last year are anything to go by. But just as they may have stumbled into political overreach, the so-called ‘surveillance capitalism’ upon which their businesses are built may prove the final straw for many users. Facebook, for example, saw its value tumble this week after a change to its privacy policy prompted high-profile defections from its WhatsApp messaging service to smaller rival Signal. 

Regulation has often been discussed this year as a risk to the sometimes eyewatering valuations of technology companies, and frequently dismissed. But users can still vote with their feet, and this week’s events may prove the excuse that policymakers have been looking for to up the stakes. As republican senator Marco Rubio put it: “We’re now living in a country where four or five companies – unelected, unaccountable – have the power, a monopoly power to decide, we’re going to wipe people out, we’re going to just erase them from any sort of digital platform.” The internet  may already be broken – and fixing it may be painful for investors.

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