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For the sake of health and democracy, there are growing calls to regulate digital platforms

Introduction by Croakey: Almost every day brings more news about the harmful impacts of the monopolistic power of digital platforms like Google and Facebook.

In the past week, we’ve had an Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) inquiry calling for more effective regulation of the digital economy to counter the market dominance of Google in advertising technology services, which it found disadvantaged advertisers, publishers and consumers (for a summary, read the ACCC media release).

More recently and somewhat more dramatically, a whistleblower formerly employed by Facebook, Frances Haugen, generated global headlines with her testimony to a United States Senate committee hearing asserting that the corporation’s products harm children, stoke division and weaken democracy.

“The company’s leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer, but won’t make the necessary changes because they have put their astronomical profits before people. Congressional action is needed. They won’t solve this crisis without your help,” said a Politico report of her testimony.

Haugen and a series of lawmakers from both US parties likened Facebook’s behavior to that of the tobacco industry, reported Politico.

Meanwhile, the recent global outage of Facebook and related platforms, which led to a worldwide slowdown of the internet, is a reminder of the dangers of relying on centralised services run by monopolistic corporate platforms, academics told The New Daily.

In a reminder of his power and reach, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg responded to both news events with a post that quickly gained more than half a million emoji reactions. He said the company cared deeply “about issues like safety, well-being and mental health” and had been misrepresented.

In Australia, public health academic Associate Professor Kathryn Backholer told Croakey that Haugen’s revelations underscore “the unaccountable power that social media platforms have over public health”.

Backholer urged the public health sector to be more proactive in advocating for effective regulation of the tech giants.

“The algorithmic control of our online content is just one way that these platforms exert their unprecedented power over us, and the longer we engage, the more they profit,” she said.

“We need tougher regulations to rein in the power and influence of social media platforms so that health is prioritised over profit. This includes stronger data protection and privacy laws, increased transparency and scrutiny of their operations with regard to data, source codes and algorithms and anti-competition laws. A Digital Authority that regularly reviews and advises on digital regulations, specifically in relation to public health, could be useful.”

Meanwhile, a recent international Ministerial Summit on Information and Democracy, held on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly on 24 September, investigated how to address infodemics and to sustain journalism in the digital age.

Journalist Maria Ressa, CEO and President of the Philippines media company Rappler, who has been the victim of Facebook-fuelled disinformation as part of a campaign of persecution, was among the presenters at the summit.

Below is her speech calling for more effective regulation of the world’s information ecosystem, for the sake of democracy.


Maria Ressa writes:

I’ve repeatedly said that an atom bomb exploded in our information ecosystem, and that the world must come together like it did after Hiroshima in World War II.

Like that time, we need to create new institutions, like the UN, and new codes stating our values, like the universal declaration of human rights, to prevent humanity from doing its worst.

It’s an arms race in the information ecosystem. To stop that requires a multilateral approach – and it begins by restoring facts, that make sure we have a shared reality, where democracy happens.

In today’s world, a lie told a million times becomes a fact. Without facts, you can’t have truth. Without truth, you can’t have trust. Without any of these three, democracy as we know it – and beyond that, all meaningful human endeavor – becomes impossible.

Without facts, we have no shared reality, and it is impossible to tackle the existential problems we face: climate change, coronavirus – the battle for truth.

Biologist E.O. Wilson said it best, that the crisis we face today is because of our paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and God-like technology.

Pavlov’s dogs

Social media, with its highly profitable micro targeting, has become a behavior modification system, and we are Pavlov’s dogs experimented on in real time. Facebook is the world’s largest distributor of news, and yet studies have shown that lies laced with anger and hate spread faster and further than boring facts.

The social media platforms that deliver the facts to you are biased against facts and biased against journalists. They are – by design – dividing us and radicalising us.

This is not a free speech issue. It is not the fault of its users. These platforms are not merely mirroring humanity. They are making all of us our worst selves … creating emergent behavior that is destroying our world. It’s not a coincidence that divisive leaders perform best on social media.

All around the world, populist digital authoritarians use this scorched-earth policy to get elected, then they use the formal powers of their posts – the tools of democracy – to cave institutions in from within. It’s time to end the whack-a-mole approach of the technology platforms to fix what they have broken.

This is why the infodemics report of the Forum on Information & Democracy we published last November is personally satisfying: we found experts obsessed with finding structural solutions to fix our information dystopia. We gave a dozen potential structural solutions and more than 250 tactical ones.

We need you to act now. Because on May 9, 2022, we will have presidential election, ending the six years of President Duterte’s rule, but we will not have integrity of elections if nothing is done now.

It’s an existential moment for Philippine democracy, but it’s also very personal for me.

In less than two years, the Philippines Government filed 10 arrest warrants against me. In order to stay free and keep working, I’ve had to post bail 10 times. I’m now prevented from traveling so I’m fighting for my basic rights.

Two years ago on Christmas eve, my lawyer, Amal Clooney, sent me an email. Until then, no one really had the time to go through all ludicrous charges I’m facing and their penalties.

Turns out I could go to jail for the rest of my life. By her last count – on paper – it was more than 100 years in prison. So I live in an upside down world and the advice I can give you to deal with this is: don’t open an email from Amal on Christmas eve!

I can’t do much but laugh right now and keep working because I know that what I do today will determine whether I go to jail in the future – and whether our democracy survives.

On power and lies

As we face the coronavirus, there’s an equally dangerous and insidious virus of lies unleashed in our information ecosystem. It’s seeded by power wanting to stay in power, spread by algorithms motivated by profit, a business model Shoshana Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism.

The reward is your attention, and it is linked to the fight for geopolitical power.

On April 29, the EU slammed Russia and China for their intensified vaccine disinformation campaigns.

Last September, Facebook took down information operations from China that were campaigning for the daughter of Duterte for president, creating fake accounts for US elections, and attacking … me.

I’m really short. I’m one citizen, one journalist, and I don’t have an army.

The virus of lies is highly contagious, and they infect real people, who become impervious to facts. It changes the way they look at the world. They become angrier, more isolated. They distrust everything.

In this environment, the dictator wins, crumbling our democracies from within. What will give us a fighting chance is regulation: put the guard rails in place for social media.

Maria Ressa is co-chair of the Forum of Information & Democracy steering committee of the working group on infodemics

Follow on Twitter: @mariaressa

Further reading

Reporters without Borders statement calling for “safeguards for the digital space so that online platforms and social media stop taking decisions that should be made by democratic institutions”

Statement by Norway’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ine Eriksen Søreide, at the Summit for Information and Democracy, on the importance of media diversity

Rappler investigation, New war: How the propaganda network shifted from targeting ‘addicts’ to activists

Rappler report: Maria Ressa urges world leaders: ‘Act now’ vs infodemic threatening democracies

Forum on Information & Democracy report, A new deal for journalism

Forum on Information & Democracy report on Infodemics.


See Croakey’s archive of stories about the digital platforms and public health.

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