The Guardian view on free speech online: let law decide the limits

Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook’s F8 developer conference on 18 April 2017. ‘The difficulties of this position cannot be resolved by the facile idea of the “community values” to which Facebook appeals.’ Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty

The revelations we publish about how Facebook’s data was used by Cambridge Analytica to subvert the openness of democracy are only the latest examples of a global phenomenon. All over the world, governments are coming to grips with the destructive power of social media. In recent weeks, Sri Lanka, Britain, Indonesia and Myanmar have all seen measures taken against hate-speech campaigns. In some cases the companies that publish and profit from them have acted themselves; in others the government has taken direct action. In Sri Lanka, the government reacted to a burst of anti-Muslim rioting by completely shutting down Facebook, WhatsApp, and the messaging app Viber for a week on 7 March. In Britain, Facebook banned the neo-Nazi Britain First movement, which had acquired 2m “likes”, after two of its leaders were jailed. The leaders’ personal pages were also removed. Why it took the company that long to act, when the hateful nature of the pages had been obvious to the whole world ever since Donald Trump retweeted one of their made-up news stories in 2017, is difficult to explain.

YouTube can not only profit from disturbing content but in unintended ways rewards its creation. The algorithms that guide viewers to new choices aim always to intensify the experience, and to keep the viewer excited. This can damage society, and individuals, without being explicitly political: recent research found that the nearly 9,000 YouTube videos explaining away American school shootings as the results of conspiracies using actors to play the part of victims had been watched, in total, more than 4bn times. Four billion page views is an awful lot of potential advertising revenue; it is also, in an embarrassingly literal sense, traffic in human misery and exploitation.

None of these problems is new, and all of them will grow worse and more pressing in the coming years, as the technology advances. Yet the real difficulty is not the slickness of the technology but the willingness of the audience to be deceived and its desire to have its prejudices gratified. Many of the most destructive videos on YouTube consist of one man ranting into a camera without any visual aids at all. Twitter uses no fancy technology yet lies spread across that network six times as fast as true stories.

Although Twitter and YouTube pose undoubted difficulties for democracies, and even for some dictatorships, it is Facebook that has borne the brunt of recent criticism, in part because its global ambitions have led it to expand into countries where it is essentially the only gateway to the wider internet. Facebook’s dominance is especially marked in Myanmar, where the UN has blamed it for a role in inciting the genocidal violence against the Rohingya. The company’s ambitions to become the carrier of all content (and thus able to sell advertising against everything online) have led it inexorably into the position of being the universal publisher.

The difficulties of this position cannot be resolved by the facile idea of the “community values” to which Facebook appeals – and, anyway, that only begs the question: “Which community?” Mark Zuckerberg talks about a “global community” but such a thing does not exist and may never do so. Communities have different values and different interests, which sometimes appear existentially opposed. Almost all will define themselves, at least in part, against other communities. The task of reconciling the resulting conflicts is political, cultural and even religious; it is not technological at all. For a private American advertising company to set itself up as the arbiter of all the world’s political and cultural conflicts is an entirely vain ambition.

Into the vacuum left by Facebook’s waffle, nation states are stepping. Many are despotisms, keen to use surveillance capitalism for direct political ends. They must be resisted. The standards by which the internet is controlled need to be open and subject to the workings of impartial judiciaries. But the task cannot and will not be left to the advertising companies that at present control most of the content – and whose own judgments are themselves almost wholly opaque and arbitrary.