Photo: University of Virginia Center for Media and Citizenship Director Siva Vaidhyanathan. Credits: Cristina Sánchez
“We are more connected than ever, communication is easier than ever, and information is more available than ever. So why aren't we smarter? Why aren't we safer? Why can't we even speak in a meaningful way in a democracy?” With those questions, the Director of the Center for Media and Citizenship at the University of Virginia, Siva Vaidhyanathan, invites us to question the role of social networks.
Author of The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry), a book where he outlined the problems of the growing power of the Mountain View giant a decade ago, this professor is now particularly concerned about Facebook. He describes the network created by Mark Zuckerberg as an “emotion machine” that hinders “democratic deliberation”: it favors the creation of circles of users who share the same opinions and reinforce them.
It is very difficult to break up the power of companies as large as Facebook [Meta] and Google because they are global companies. Facebook is highly regulated in Pakistan and Turkey, but that doesn't bring about changes in Brazil. Local regulations are very inefficient and ineffective.
However, the European Union may be the best place to regulate, because regulation is approved in many countries and there is a lot of money at stake. My great hope is that there will be more talks in Europe to break down Facebook and Google, to recognize that these companies do not help us and to increase competition. It is true that through Facebook and Google I can search for information or know where my friends are and that saves me time. But we must ask ourselves if this is the most important thing or if other things are more important, like saving the planet or democracy.
I think they are going to be forced to take some actions, like separating YouTube from Google or separating the advertising part of Google from the rest of the companies. There are different ways to address these issues, but I don't think internally any company is going to change anything.
The European Union has already taken some steps to keep a closer eye on these tech giants, such as the Digital Services Act to moderate illegal content and make their algorithms more transparent. Do you predict that more measures will be taken in the coming months and in more regions?
Most large countries are going to have to make similar efforts. If the European Union goes further to protect user data, I would like to see Canada, Australia and even Brazil take action. Japan and South Korea are also taking these issues seriously. It is also important to mention that these countries would like to see their own tech industry grow, so the more the power of the U.S. industry is limited, the more opportunities there will be for innovation to grow in Europe and other areas and create more diversity.
A few months ago, the European Union approved a code of best practices on disinformation, with objectives such as reducing the financial incentives for the spread of misinformation or preventing the dissemination of deepfakes, images and videos created by artificial intelligence. What do you think of these measures?
Efforts to combat disinformation and deepfakes are the most complicated of all for two reasons. On the one hand, it is very difficult to measure what effect they have. On the other hand, finding the balance between fighting disinformation and respecting free speech is complex. That's why I think it's much more important to control the general power of these companies rather than the specific information that circulates through them.
Photo: Professor Siva Vaidhyanathan during his recent presentation at the Digital Enterprise Show (DES) held in Malaga. Credits: Cristina Sánchez
Although it is difficult to tackle, combating disinformation is one of the great challenges for social networks. Why does fake news continue to spread despite the fact that we have access to so much information thanks to the network, and how does this affect democracy?
Because it no longer matters what is true and what is not, and I think that is very dangerous. Disinformation has been a problem for a long time, but now it seems to be a bigger problem. How are we going to have democracy if we don't agree that the Earth is warming, that the concentration of wealth is a problem or that people should be vaccinated?
We need political action: to work on convincing people that it is possible to have a better life if we trust science and agree on the truth. It will take years to do this, but it is the only solution.
Meta has threatened on several occasions to leave the European Union without its social networks. The last one due to the absence of a legal framework for transferring its users' data to the U.S., according to the company. Do you think it will ever leave?
When Mark Zuckerberg tries to scare the European Union, I think he is bluffing. I think he doesn't want to lose users in these rich countries. He might get to do something for a few weeks or months, but users would protest to their governments and the threats wouldn't last.
Meta's public image has worsened over time. A few months ago, it changed the name of its headquarters in the midst of a serious crisis: Frances Haugen, former Head of Product at the company, leaked documents showing how the social network prioritized profits over user safety. How will its damaged reputation affect its business?
Facebook is extremely powerful: it has 3 billion users. Even if its public image is bad, people still use it. And even if they leave Facebook, they use Instagram or WhatsApp. For the time being, I think it will remain a strong, rich and powerful company, even if its image is negative.
The company has made a strong bet on the metaverse, although investors have raised doubts. What are the risks of this immersive technology?
Taking us out of reality, making our interactions with people guided by Facebook and the information we learn about the world filtered only by Facebook. It is very dangerous for a company to totally control our consciousness.
If a hypothetical social network were to be created that would avoid the current problems, what requirements would it have to meet?
I am not optimistic about the idea of creating a better social network. What we can do is develop our ability as citizens to talk to each other outside of social networks. We could discover better ways to converse face-to-face and create healthier communities.
For the past few years, the group of tech giants has remained the same: Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Google. Do you think that others will emerge in the next few years or that some of them will lose their power?
I don't think it's going to change in the short term, I'm not optimistic here either. I just hope that democracy will remain at least as it is now. Elections like this year's in Brazil will determine how regulations evolve.