We Need a Better Definition for Social Media To Solve Its Problems

The 'Data Protection Bill' may define ‘social media platforms’ and an impact threshold, but it’s a risky exercise.

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We Need a Better Definition for Social Media To Solve Its Problems
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Recent reports suggest that the latest iteration of the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019, is getting, among other things, a new name, ‘Data Protection Bill’, in an ambiguous overlap with the Information Technology Act. It also includes new definitions for 'social media platform’, as well as the thresholds of users or impact for social media companies to be classified as significant data fiduciaries.

The first is a technicality giving the Bill cover to include non-personal data in its ambit. The second is an important legal consideration that we’ll be better placed to debate once the wording of the Bill is available in the public domain. Even so, we can expect some sort of resolution, or at least a path to one, either through the drafting process in Parliament or a legal challenge.

The third encompasses at least three further questions with implications that go beyond just the wording of the ‘Data Protection Bill’ and into how we, as a society, approach the complex questions associated with regulating social media.

One, what is a social media platform? Two, how does one measure the impact of a particular social media platform? Three, what are the acceptable thresholds to define their ‘impact’?


A New Framework: 'Digital Communication Networks'

Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, WhatsApp, LinkedIn, and maybe Koo, are probably some names that come to mind when one thinks of social media platforms. Yet, not so long ago, the distinction between messaging applications like WhatsApp, Telegram, iMessage and feed/timeline-based social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter were much clearer in public discourse. Today, they are often grouped together. Even so, conceptual ambiguity persists. We consider WhatsApp and Telegram to be social media platforms but not Apple’s iMessage.

At the most fundamental level, such applications are characterised by low entry barriers for users, a reliance on user-generated content and the ability to form connections with/or interact with others within the application. However, these characteristics have applied to much of the Internet since the Web 2.0 era. For example, if a news publication’s website allows readers to create profiles and comment on articles, including upvoting/downvoting or replying to comments from others, will that constitute a social media platform? There are many such grey zones that any definition being written into law will need to address, and they cannot all be addressed by specifying a threshold such as ‘X’ number of users.


The Need For a New Term

Conversations around ‘social media platforms’ also tend to fixate on specific companies, the prevalence of certain types of information on their platforms (misleading information, hate speech, etc.) and their actions in response (content enforcement of community standards, applications of labels, compliance with government orders, etc.). While this is certainly relevant, it is out of step with the nascent yet growing understanding of the reality that most users, and especially motivated actors (whether good or bad), operate across a range of social media platforms. In the current information ecosystem, any effects — adverse or positive — are rarely limited to one particular network but ripple outwards across different networks, as well as off them.

There’s nothing wrong with an evolving term, but it must be consistent and account for future-use cases. Does ‘social media platforms’ translate well to the currently buzz-wordy ‘metaverse’ use-case, which, with communication at its core, shares some of the fundamental characteristics identified earlier? Paradoxically, the term ‘social media platform’ is simultaneously evolving and stagnant, expansive yet limiting.

This is one of the reasons my colleagues at The Takshashila Institution and I proposed the frame of 'Digital Communication Networks' (DCNs), which have three components — capability, operators and networks.

First, the capability to communicate at varying levels of visibility (public, private), scale (one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-many), timelines (live, asynchronous) instantaneously at low/no-cost across geographic, social, and cultural boundaries in multiple formats (text, audio, video). Second, operators, which can be firms or groups that design or operate the products and services that provide the capability to communicate. Third, networks of entities, groups and individuals that interact with each other for varying purposes across capabilities built by different operators. Current use-cases like social media platforms, messaging applications and future ones like ‘metaverses’ fit this categorisation.


The Impact of DCNs and Thresholds

Before we begin considering the potential impact of Digital Communication Networks, we first need to understand the breadth of effects of DCNs. These are spread across the spheres of competition in markets, data-gathering, and narratives in public discourse. To understand the scope of the problem, we classified the various harms attributed to DCNs as potential market failures, social problems and cognitive biases.

The existing vocabulary of market failures helped contextualise many of the market-related and a subset of data-related harms attributed to DCNs.

However, most of the data-related and narrative harms represented a wide range of social problems ranging from crime, addiction, sexual harassment, misaligned incentives to loss of individual and collective privacy, inequity and information integrity, civic integrity and social division.

Cognitive biases associated with in-group/out-group conflicts (anchoring, stereotyping, bandwagon) and the recency/availability of information stood out.

An important caveat here is that a significant portion of the underlying research about the effects of DCNs took place in North American and Western European contexts, meaning that their widespread psychosocial effects remain woefully under-explored in the Indian context. A trend we saw replicated in much of Facebook’s internal research made public by whistleblower Frances Haugen and the Wall Street Journal’s reportage on the ‘Facebook Files’. In India, even with tens or hundreds of millions of users across many DCNs, we have 59 Internet connections for every 100 people, implying that there is still significant headroom for adoption, and thus, more pronounced effects. Until significant progress is made in this regard, any attempt to define 'thresholds for impact' is fraught with risks of improper definition and subsequent misuse.


What's Required?

The answer to the question is not difficult — we need to encourage more research of these effects in the Indian context. This means creating more opportunities for funding — whether it is through funding by state-backed institutions or private philanthropy is secondary at this point (of course, adequate safeguards about conflicts of interest need to be considered). There should also be greater visibility for such research, and this should be through critical engagement with the research produced and not merely amplifying findings.

However, the challenges are two-fold. First, this will be a medium-long term process at a time when the effects of DCNs (both good and bad) are rampaging through society and public sentiment is demanding that the issues be addressed 'yesterday'. Second, there is little political dividend to be reaped from slowing down and encouraging more research when performative measures such as the imposition of sovereignty on foreign companies generate the required sentiment and headlines. To be clear, there should be no sense of Indian exceptionalism here as many countries are caught in the same cycle. What will be exceptional is that we manage to break it.

(Prateek Waghre researches the effects of Digital Communication Networks under Takshashila's High Tech Geopolitics Programme and writes MisDisMal-Information, a publication about the Information Ecosystem in India. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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