Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Facebook should consider making key changes to ensure it becomes a better forum for free speech and democracy, according to a new report by academics at the University of Oxford in the UK and Stanford University in the US.

The report comes as SA prepares for polls, which are likely to take place in May. Facebook and other social media platforms including Twitter, have been blamed for allowing the rise of misinformation, which is said to pose a danger to democracy.  

In 2018, Facebook acknowledged that the explosion of social media poses a potential threat to democracy, vowing to tackle the problem and turn its powerful platform into a force for “good”.

This was after social media platforms faced a backlash for facilitating the spread of  fake news ahead of the 2016 US election, the Brexit vote and other crucial elections around the world.

The study titled Glasnost! Nine Ways Facebook Can Make Itself a Better Forum for Free Speech and Democracy,  published on Thursday, proposes, among other measures, an external appeals body; more user control over news feeds; regular auditing mechanisms; and better content review and fact-checking mechanisms.

The authors of the study note that the growing influence of Facebook — as well as other platforms such as Instagram YouTube and Twitter — in the personal, cultural and political life of billions of people has led to widespread concerns about hate speech, harassment, extremist content, polarisation, disinformation and covert political advertising.

However, the report notes that amid calls for government regulation, Facebook recently begun working towards regaining the trust of the public, politicians and regulatory authorities, largely through greater transparency. The platform is also consulting widely with researchers, journalists, policy-makers and civic society activists.

The report’s lead author, Timothy Garton Ash, said: “There is a great deal that a platform like Facebook can do right now to address widespread public concerns, and to do more to honour its public interest responsibilities, as well as international human rights norms. Executive decisions made by Facebook have major political, social and cultural consequences around the world. A single small change to the News Feed algorithm, or to content policy, can have an impact that is both faster and wider than that of any single piece of national [or even EU-wide] legislation.”

Commenting on the impact social media is likely to have in SA’s general elections, technology expert Arthur Goldstuck noted that this will be the second such election in which online platforms will play a crucial role.

“For many, social media and instant messaging are their prime purposes for going online and, as a result, it also becomes their primary platform both for finding information and for expressing views. That makes it a lightning rod for election campaigns,” said Goldstuck.

He said, however, the fundamental difference between 2015 and 2019, aside from the rapid growth in the number of people using social media, is that there is now a spotlight on fake news, and attempts to manipulate voters.

“Of course, it [fake news] will still happen, but it will likely be a case of targeting those who are already converted. It also means that there will be little trust in political messaging on social media if it is coming from a party other than the one that a person is already supporting.

“Social media at election time encapsulates the so-called ‘echo chamber’, in which people only want to read and hear views with which they already agree. Divisive campaigns driven by algorithms and ‘war-room’ tactics, as in the last municipal elections, will still exist, but they are likely to be exposed more quickly, as the media will be on the lookout for them,” said Goldstuck.

phakathib@businesslive.co.za