Beware the power of digital platforms

Digital technologies can readily be used to fuel hate, to surveil, or even to muffle dissent

With the growing penetration of smartphones across the developing world, we may console ourselves that we are overcoming a digital divide which potentially compounds the marginalisation of already neglected people. The profusion of accompanying digital technologies and the availability of varied digital spaces is, however, not necessarily as empowering a process as it initially seems.

To some extent, digital platforms are providing ordinary citizens greater opportunities for accessing information and making their voices heard. The use of social media to highlight socio-cultural problems, or even to catalyse political change, is well documented all the way from Arab Spring protests to the impressive social media campaigns launched by beleaguered communities and motivated activists around the world. Digital tools and platforms are also being harnessed to increase access to financial services, education, and even medical advice. However, digital platforms are not benign technologies which only enable connectivity and empowerment.

Digital technologies can readily be used to fuel hate, to surveil, or even to muffle dissent. Consider, for instance, exposures of Israeli spyware being used by states like India to spy on alleged dissidents, or the use of trolls by the security apparatus in numerous states to hound critics, or the digital surveillance used by Chinese authorities to keep a tab on its citizenry. The profusion of disinformation and hate speech via social media platforms, such as Facebook or Twitter, has also become an issue of growing concern within western countries like the US.

Another related issue which receives less attention beyond academic circles is the problem of “digital colonialism”, a term used to describe how tech corporations are making trillions of dollars by penetrating business, social media, and entertainment sectors in many different countries around the world. Today, the combined Facebook and Google’s advertisement revenue in India, for example, exceeds the revenues of India’s top 10 media firms. However, the real problem is not that tech giants are enticing people in poorer countries into buying things, instead it is the insidious mechanism which capacitates tech giants to yield such persuasive influence. By prioritising profits and advertisement revenue, tech giants fail to maintain adequate safeguards to avert circulation of harmful content, primarily because such negative content receives a lot of public attention.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media platforms may claim that they are providing essential digital platforms which enable their users a platform to connect and to exchange ideas, no matter where they live around the world. Note, however, how colonial apologists use similar arguments when they praise the British or the French for providing their colonial subjects with modern infrastructure, rules of governance, and even a common language which is now used by citizens of different countries to communicate with each other. Yet, colonialism-created infrastructure, governance or education systems were not meant to benefit the local populace but to maximise resource extraction. Similarly, tech giants are not motivated by the compulsion of enabling people to freely share their ideas and make the world a more equitable place. Instead, these tech giants are primarily concerned with dominating the digital ecosystem to further perpetuate their own influence and in turn leverage this influence to generate increased revenues.

Prominent tech giants are now facing increasing scrutiny at home for their failure to monitor hate speech, cyberbullying, and other forms of harassment which take an evident mental health toll on their users. Such scrutiny will probably compel tech giants to turn more attention towards so-called emerging markets. Like tobacco or baby formula companies before them, we can expect to see a greater profusion of varied digital products in countries where data protection laws and digital oversight is much laxer, and where resource constrained governments are still falling over each other trying to entice tech giants.

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