Dear Minister Donnelly, can you please impose more restrictions? I won’t take an emoji for an answer. Then again, which emoji could come even close to the sensory onslaught unleashed in the past few days? Without even stepping foot outside the door we have been treated to a bizarro ensemble of events on our screens.
Who would have thought the DUP, representing the 17th Century , is now positioned in voter polls as a centrist Unionist party to the left of Jim Allister’s TUV with 10% support? Did an army of retail traders almost take down Wall Street last week? In our last article we did say, “Let’s be careful out there” but we weren’t quite expecting manic nostalgia trading in late-millennial names like Gamestop, Nokia and Blackberry to crush the hedge fund wizards.
Not exactly the stuff of ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ but if we are talking fires how do we top first-term Congress Representative, Marjorie Taylor Greene, who suggested that Californian wild fires may not have been due to climate change. This is where the GOP would have liked their latest Qanon fruitcake to leave the climate debate but no such luck; Marjorie has been vocal on social media advancing the theory that a “space laser” funded by Jewish banking families created a solar beam to set California ablaze. We would be veering into comedy teritory if it weren’t so serious. Public health and safety is at risk and it all boils down to misinformation.
Boris and the Brexiteers were always going to shaft the DUP and its wish for a stronger Union. One by one, all those misleading Brexit campaign messages have been thrown under a very large red bus. Now, council staff at Larne port have been withdrawn due to threats to their safety. Meanwhile over on Wall Street, the staff at retail trading platform, Robinhood, won’t want to read the online Reddit vitriol aimed at them; the keyboard warriors are blaming Robinhood(and other brokers) trading restrictions in Gamestop shares for a 65% downward return to reality yesterday. Conspiracy theories abound and leave little room for the most basic of trading constants; more sellers than buyers and a share price will fall. Yes, last week’s meteoric Gamestop share price rise was a complicated mix of short sellers, borrowed stock, margin/debt trading, options instruments and liquidity but, in truth, it was just a lot more buyers than sellers. We probably don’t need to tackle the “space laser” conspiracy theory but we will confront the major contributing cause.
Social media platforms are the dominant source of public misinformation in the digital era. Kim Kardashian hit our screens in 2007 but governments and regulators have failed to Keep Up With the consequences of influencers communicating via social media platforms. There are now 4.2 billion social media users around the world according to a just-published report by Hootsuite. This writer is old enough to remember broadcasters had standards authorities, financial advisors had regulators and politicians had credibility. The power of Reddit, Twitter, Facebook etc to promote influencers to billions of people has been a game changer and raises three fundamental questions:
Should social media platforms be regulated like traditional media broadcasters? The fact that millions believed Brexit lies or US election misinformation has massive implications for modern democracies.
Should social media platforms be regulated like financial advisory businesses? The Reddit account, r/WallStreetBets, built an audience of over 4 million people last week and convinced many of those that Gamestop was not hurtling towards retail obsolescence. Hundreds of thousands of retail investors followed influencers like Davey Day Trader and Roaring Kitty and invested in Gamestop. Many will lose money they can’t afford to lose in inappropriate single-stock investments.
Should social media platforms be regulated like critical national infrastructure? The national security risk here is not that a social media platform ceases to function. Rather, it falls into the wrong hands and is used as an instrument of chaos, as destructive as a failed electricity power grid. Malign messaging can threaten, even overthrow democracy. Only this week we are reading about a challenged election result in a far away land, the imprisonment of senior political leaders and the attempted restoration of a disgraced party to power. And that’s only the briefing papers for the upcoming US Senate impeachment trial of Donald Trump. Meanwhile in Myanmar the military has taken power and shut down the internet. The tragic irony of that action will not be lost on the Rohingyan minority in Myanmar. As recently as 2013 the military used a Facebook campaign to incite genocidal violence against the Rohingya population. These events did prompt US Congress scrutiny and Facebook has admitted it was “too slow to prevent misinformation and hate”. But doesn’t it all sound too familiar?
The most advanced nation on the planet experienced a societal near-miss when Capitol Hill and Wall Street faced down a social media insurrection. It seems inevitable we might not be so lucky next time. Action is urgently required. Social media platforms must state what they want to be, and what they don’t want to be. Then they must act, or governments will. There are now more than 4 billion reasons why they will and every Minister of Health on the planet is anxiously watching the steady rise of the Anti-Vax movement. Over to you Minister Donnelly……