Arbiters of Truth in the Digital Age

By: Creating Future Us

June 23, 2020

There has been much ado recently about whether social media platforms are, or should be gatekeepers of information, thereby acting as arbiters of truth. Currently, platforms like Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, WeChat, Weibo and Tiktok perform several functions that arguably do install them squarely in the gatekeeper seat:

  1. Content moderation – requires judgment by these platforms, to determine what should be kept or banned from their users
  2. Feed algorithms – that determine what a user sees. Each user has a unique feed that reflects what the algorithm decides that individual should see
  3. Government filters – in parts of the world such as China, the government has a significant level of control, with the agreement of these ostensibly private platforms, regarding what should and should not be allowed and/or shared

Altogether, that would seem to give platforms a material amount of control over ‘truth,’ as its shared on their platform.

If we accept this argument, then the next issue of concern is who and how those powerful platformsare governed. For the largest such entities, the founders have outsized singular control through dual share structures, there are government controls, or independent board members that aren’t viably independent.

As an example, the board of Tencent, one of the most influential such platforms globally (they own c.12+% of Snapchat, amongst others), four out of their five ‘independents’ have either served for 15 years or longer, or are government party officials. As for Snap itself, 95 percent of the company’s voting power rests with its co-founders Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy.

Yet all these platforms are publicly listed companies, which implies that other shareholders and investors are along for the economic ride, but not the decision making – let alone rule making- one.

So who are the arbiters of truth for billions of users around the world? It seems that the answer is: a couple of handfuls of private individuals and authoritarian governments.

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