Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he would spend the next several years reorienting the company's apps toward encryption and privacy. MARCIO JOSE SANCHEZ/AP PHOTO FILES

By Adanna Shallowe | Published by The Vancouver Sun

Updated: May 08, 2019

Adanna Shallowe: Disinformation is Raising the Stakes

Each actor — tech companies, governments, civil society and individual citizens — has an active role to play to inoculate our democracies against disinformation and online falsehoods.

There is no doubt that we were all seduced by Silicon Valley — buzzing with innovation and creativity we all wanted to participate in its hypnotic hum. Platforms sought to gather people around a screen to share photos, recipes and causes. Tech companies branded themselves as a force for social good. We ignored the fact that human nature has a dark side too — tools that allow billions to connect can also be used to corrupt. We were naïve.

Here we are more than a decade after the launch of our standard cast of social-media platforms and we have seen the disturbing impact of our naivete. Online platforms designed to connect others are now used to distract, disrupt and divide. This is ever more apparent in the marketplace of ideas where disinformation cleverly distorts public opinion to create anxiety or is weaponized to disrupt democratic processes.

The stakes are now too high. After their initial hesitancy about intervening, governments that had opted to allow the tech giants to self-regulate are now motivated to respond.

Last year, Israel introduced the Facebook Bill; Germany has the Network Enforcement Act and the U.S. has the Honest Ads Act. The EU Commission also published its plan against disinformation in collaboration with tech giants. Last week, Singapore introduced in parliament its Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, which gives its government sweeping powers and proposes fines of up to $1 million or 10 years in jail for perpetrators.

Earlier this week, the U.K. government presented its online harms white paper for public comment. The U.K. white paper sets out the introduction of a new regulatory body and a statutory duty-of-care for companies to “take more responsibility for the safety of their users and tackle harm caused by content or activity on their services.” The regulatory body will also have the power to levy fines and “impose liability to individual members of senior management.”

By compelling companies to take proactive measures to minimize the spread of misleading and harmful disinformation, and holding them to account via the statutory duty-of-care, the above measures are consequential and may be the furthest any government has taken so far.

Governments must regulate the tech giants and other private-sector actors. There is no way around this. However, I believe the problem is now too big for one actor, such as government alone, to solve. We crossed this threshold years ago with the proliferation of hate speech, indoctrination by algorithm, foreign interference in the electoral process and, more recently, the live streaming of violent attacks. It’s time.

In lieu of being solely punitive and confrontational, the Royal Society of Arts U.K. tech and society program hopes to convene actors in pursuit of a new shared approach. Such as governments collaborating with online platforms to co-design a regulatory architecture that enables connection but protects our societies from nefarious actors intent on sowing seeds of division. It’s a tall order but one that is now necessary.

Imagine what would happen if governments approached the tech giants to ask how they can help to protect their users and consumers? The platforms themselves now admit to needing government to play a more active role alongside them.

However, for a robust, resilient framework to gain legitimacy there must be a more expansive role for civil-society actors to participate in its co-creation to protect our democracies from disinformation and still adhere to our civil liberties.

Since everyone must develop the skills to think critically as consumers of information to effectively participate in our societies, there is a great opportunity for both civil society and governments to educate and empower individuals to become critical thinkers and more media literate.

Each actor — tech companies, governments, civil society and individual citizens — has an active role to play to inoculate our democracies against disinformation and online falsehoods. It’s imperative that they all participate in this process through a collective approach.

Adanna Shallowe is senior global manager at the Royal Society of Arts U.K. This op-ed series is a supporting part of SFU Public Square’s 2019 Community Summit: Confronting the Disinformation Age, running April 10 -18.

This article was originally published by The Vancouver Sun on April 12, 2019.