OFLS Hosts Social Dilemma Panel Discussion
OFLS recently brought together Jeff Orlowski (Director of the Netflix Documentary ‘The Social Dilemma’), Dr Silvia Milano, Dr Brent Mittelstadt, and Megan Ma (pre-eminent academics in the fields of Law and Computers) to discuss the challenges posed by social media to today’s society. The panel explored several thought-provoking issues such as data privacy, digital ethics and the future of digital regulation.
Addressing the question of whether social media acts as an effective tool of manipulation, Jeff expressed concern at their underlying business models. Providing advertisers with unique tools capable of calculated targeting of users represents, in his view, a form of manipulation. Megan noted that viewing social media as a tool for manipulation parallels with addiction, since if something is a tool it waits patiently, but, instead, social media demands attention.
But does manipulation indicate or require a nefarious intent on the part of these companies? Brent suggests that it does and argues that while social media platforms are designed with effective choice architectures that stimulate certain behaviours, without access to the underlying systems, they cannot be deemed manipulative. Silvia disagrees, and finds that all forms of communication are manipulative, what is troubling is how magnified the effects are under social media.
On the issue of data neutrality, Jeff finds data, in substance, as neutral, but how it is used is subject to change. Silvia argues that this is a trick question. Are we referring to data as a representation of something, whether it is a faithful representation of an underlying reality, or are we questioning the consequences of the data by its usage? Brent agrees that data, in the first sense, is not neutral as it reflects society’s biases back to us. He notes that European data protection laws recognise that while one might collect data only for one reason, that does not mean that that is the only way the data can be used.
On ethical concerns, Brent speaks of algorithms as being so difficult to pierce, that one never knows whether they are receiving curated content or being discriminated against. Jeff is concerned about the erosion of respect for the truth. He says that big social, with its user generated content, amoral algorithms, financial incentives, and a global reach, together have led to society breaking down. It is clear that self-policing over the last 21 years has not worked, we need to look for other solutions.
The startling reality of the data economy provokes calls for the end of mass data collection altogether. Jeff draws attention to a statement by Shoshana Zuboff that reads “What industrial capitalism did to nature, surveillance capitalism has done to human nature”, who then argues that it should be outlawed. He asks where such a line could be drawn, and how it could practically be implemented.
Brent admits that we are likely beyond a stage where we can stop data collection in full. However, he highlights the potential offered by partial solutions, such as banning the trade of audience data, and notes the European GDPR as being a step in the right direction. Silvia strongly pushes for lowering the bar for civic engagement as a way of reaching better regulation of the field of AI and data ethics.
The complexity underlying the issues discussed left much for the audience to ponder. Indeed, as these issues continue to crystallise within the public’s attention we are likely to see growing engagement and questioning of social media’s place within society.