A publicly owned Facebook? Interesting idea, but fraught with difficulty

Is it time to nationalise Facebook? Recently, social media platforms have transformed from a space to socialise, share photos and stare at memes to a centre of digital political warfare and the murky harvesting of personal data. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to discern fact from fiction, online abuse is rampant across comment threads and users have lost control of how their data is used. How should governments respond? This week, in a speech at the Edinburgh Television Festival, Jeremy Corbyn suggested that a Labour government will take on the social media giants by creating a new publicly-owned social media platform. Is it the right answer?

As things stand, social media giants are relatively free from the kinds of regulation that exist in almost every other major industry. The user, citizen, and lawmaker here in the UK has little to no power in holding them to account, understanding how they operate, or impacting any of their policies. If public institutions want social media platforms to change their practices, provide more transparency, or clamp down on abuse, they have to ask nicely. Power doesn’t rest with the police, the Electoral Commission, the government, parliament, or the people, it rests solely in the boardrooms of Silicon Valley.

Would it be different under a democratically and publicly controlled social media network? Yes. A state-owned Facebook alternative could have its operations made transparent and its practices scrutinised. A public interest, open source, social media platform that could have its bosses hauled in front of parliamentary select committees. An end to dark political advertising, full control over your own data, and a zero-tolerance policy on hate speech. If it proved popular, the competition could even push existing market leaders towards more user-centric, as opposed to business-centric, offerings.

However, such a platform would be fraught with difficulty the likes of which Facebook, with their billions of dollars, are yet to solve. It is incredibly unlikely that a state-owned social media platform which would need to compete for funding against the NHS, schools, and the military would be gifted anywhere near the kinds of resources the likes of Facebook and Twitter enjoy. And if they were, would the public ever accept such a state of affairs? The proposed British Digital Corporation would realistically be given hundreds of millions of pounds at most and only a slice of that would go towards the creation and administration of a social media platform.

Whilst in theory, a democratically controlled social media platform, would be a gamechanger, it is unlikely to be given the resources to tackle issues of fake news (which pay-per-click advertising will continue to support), anonymous bots, extremist content, and online abuse. The investment in the kinds of artificial intelligence and human approvers that existing social media companies use to quickly take down child pornography and extremist content for example, would be significant. With the pressures that local services, the NHS, the education system and so on are facing it is unlikely that the public or the Labour Party themselves would follow through with such an expensive and risky project.

Despite this, there needs to be a serious national and global conversation about how we do tackle the negative externalities of large, monopolistic, and unaccountable social media platforms. The answer, however, needs to be in regulation, education, and policing. Through these means, transparency, accountability, and the other potential benefits of a publicly-owned Facebook alternative are achievable. Social media platforms are great feats of innovation, but parliamentarians should be wary of falling behind in regulating them. Should they continue to fail to do so, perhaps funding a new platform altogether will be the only option left.

Areeq Chowdhury is chief executive of think tank WebRoots Democracy.

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