Social networking. Society's greatest bastion of opinion, debate and argument. Whether it's a president venting (probably) from the toilet, a Kardashian's ovaries or your friend's dad who keeps posting articles on immigration that maybe, might be, definitely are racist, you'll be hard-pressed to find an access point to opinions as immediate and extensive as a social network.
From a historical standpoint, Facebook is often considered the first successful social network, although I cry "fake news!" at anyone claiming it was the first to exist. 1997's SixDegrees stands as the earliest version, followed by Blogger (1999), Friendster (2002) and Myspace (2003). It is notable quite how long Facebook has managed to survive, if not thrive, in the fickle and fast-paced world of online networking, growing as a product but also as an informative entity. It tops the membership charts worldwide, with 1.8 billion members. Although it is worth remembering that 428 users die per hour, never to poke us, angry react or send a Farmville request again.
Facebook is, of course, no longer the lone survivor in the modern world. The combined audience exposure of the top 5 social platforms is estimated at over 2 billion people. Twitter, Snapchat and LinkedIn all operate some form of news service or feed in their applications. Certainly, not all those users are exposed to the same adverts, posts and news on any of the largest platforms. However, following the reporting on Twitter Bots and their effects in producing perceived alt-right support in the 2016 US election, the power social platforms currently possess is substantial and only partly within the control of the companies themselves. Certainly, it is a power considerable and unpredictable enough to be seen as a legitimate political tool and a shaper of opinions, on par with any syndicated news outlet. When you have a registered audience that dwarfs China's population, and an exposure likely much larger than that, the responsibility of how these platforms wield their influence suddenly becomes at least as important as that photo of Kanye West where he looks a bit fat now; which apparently is very important.
Last week, Mark Zuckerberg announced new plans to increase transparency within Facebook's advertising structure, largely in response to the claims of Russian-sponsored political adverts being shown on the site. Users could check origins, purpose and cost of adverts they encounter across the site. Twitter also announced last week that its site had received payments of over $250,000 from Russian TV network, Russia Today, to post political adverts targeting the 2016 election. The responses by the heads of these platforms are likely attempts to appease public outrage and avoid legal interventions, which should be concerning enough in the currently turbulent climate of world politics.
In a Pew Research poll, 25% of Americans claimed to receive their political news from social media; only 15% went directly to candidate websites. Platforms like Snapchat and Twitter are fun, current and initially have little direct application to politics or economics; we are accustomed to online advertising. The issue only becomes worrying when we peel back the surface ever so slightly, and find the subtle indicators of foreign influence, political agendas and focused advertising. It all seems inconsequential or immaterial until a fake-tanned, racist, TV show host becomes the leader of the free world.
It's unlikely anything drastic can immediately be done on this issue, at least in an interventionist sense. For example, were Twitter to suspend Donald Trump's account, the ramifications of that act would be significant (#imaginethehashtags). It could legitimately alter political discourse and public engagement, not to mention, significantly reduce my reasons to visit Twitter. On the flipside, every time Trump blocks an American critic, does that qualify as a first amendment right being breached? And is it even a social network's responsibility to monitor that form of conduct? The sheer size of social media as an entire platform is growing exponentially, regardless of the legal quagmire it exists beside. Television news or print journalism has a certain accountability, for the most part. It is at least easier to see when they're lying to you, or reporting selectively. The difference within social media, possessing an audience share to rival those TV networks, is that they have neither the prerogative nor the obligation to be politically or financially transparent. To deny the dangerous power social networks, and their newscasting structures, have is to deny a clear and present threat to informed and transparent political discourse in the modern world.