It’s no hidden fact that social media has an astounding impact on our lives. Back in the days of BEBO or MSM, none of us could have predicted quite how important platforms such as Twitter, Instagram or Facebook have currently become in day-to-day life, but they have, and they are not going away. In fact, as of 2021, the UK alone has 53million active social media users (Statista, DataReportal) with Meta leading the way with Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp of course, all owned by one corporation and in turn, one person (and his wife). Currently, Jack Dorsey and Elon Musk are battling out over the ownership of the platform Twitter, with Musk having grand visions about his so called “X.com” platform, stating that purchasing the website would be “an accelerant to fulfilling the original X.com vision.”
So, whilst social media is not inherently a bad thing, with the ability to build community and connections around brands and individuals breaking down barriers that existed many years ago, the current news has had many turn to the inevitable and hotly debated question: should social media be owned?
Many on Twitter proclaim that Elon Musk’s intention of giving users on Twitter “free speech” is damaging, whilst others believe that, actually, it’s the reason social media is what it is. Many of those who work for Twitter say they will leave if Musk takes over…so then, who should own it?
The answer is incredibly complicated.
Public and Private
The first thing a person needs to know is the difference between “publicly” and “privately” owned companies. The obvious examples in the UK are utilities and services. For example, the NHS is a publicly funded and “government owned” institution. It runs without profit and all money goes back into the service, it is funded by us, the public, so it needn’t worry about finding money, allegedly. On the other hand, utilities such as British Gas, Royal Mail and many internet providers are private organisations. They are for-profit companies and must take shareholders and profit into account when making financial decisions. In fact, most businesses are privately owned, social media being of no exception.
However, there are services that fall under slightly different definitions and, I feel, are important regarding media and how they arguably function differently to general utilities. For example, the BBC is neither owned privately or “by the government”, it has what is called in the UK, a “Royal Charter awarded by the Privy Council under Royal Prerogative” – it means the government cannot control the BBC, but that it must work within the public interest. This means that they must be unbiased in their broadcasting, and being publicly funded, are able to do so without worrying regarding making money – in some ways, quite similarly to the NHS.
However, most other media in the form of news and newspapers in the UK are privately owned, which is often the case made for social media being privately owned also, but in many ways, the case made against.
The Case For “Public Ownership”
Many argue that individuals should not hold power over as much information as the major social media platforms hold, not only in terms of traditional news, but the information held regarding their users. Information and data are currency in the social media realm, especially when a person’s platform relies on advertisement for income so that they remain free to use and, it’s unlikely that in the future, this will change. Some argue that this information can be misused. As the Electronic Privacy Information Centre pointed out, in its comments to the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy:
The use of predictive analytics by the public and private sector (…) can now be used by the government and companies to make determinations about our ability to fly, to obtain a job, a clearance or a credit card. The use of our associations in predictive analytics to make decisions that have a negative impact on individuals directly inhibits freedom of association.
In fact, only a few years ago did Mark Zuckerberg face allegations that he developed a “malicious and fraudulent scheme” to exploit vast amounts of private data to earn Facebook billions and force rivals out of business. This was after he faced allegations of overall data misuse, after data belonging to thousands of users went mysteriously missing. Some argue that were social media not owned by a singular person, such misuse would not happen. Say, were social media to run in a similar way to the BBC, they would have to work in the public interest, although, as a result, they would likely not be free to use, which arguably is one of social media’s many highlights.
Others claim that privatised social media is undemocratic and that users have no say in how the companies run or what features should be implemented. The only way to advocate for change is to, essentially, unionise as users against the owner and, a lot of the time, this may not work. What may happen to Twitter when Elon Musk purchases it, is a good example. Users will, in essence, have no say over the radical changes he wishes to implement, down to his belief of “free speech” and unbanning many users that have been out of “public interest.” It is run on the beliefs of the owner, and not democratically through a voted body as a government might.
This also means that, whilst still allegations, many believe that social media outlets can choose what we see due to their beliefs too (or perhaps who funds them the most). Many in the US during the election believed that Facebook favoured right-wing posts over the opposite, and that its spread of misinformation during the pandemic about the vaccine and COVID itself were incredibly damaging – but is this a regulation issue as opposed to belief of the owner? And it is also important to note that social media is algorithm driven, and so will have picked up on the habits of its users which, in turn, affects what they see. If more individuals on a platform like cats for example, the platform will want to show more cat content as that is what makes them money.
All the same, social media is going to control how we see the world for years to come and, the question is, should a single person have that much control over it, or even be trusted with it?
The Case For “Private Ownership”
Many argue that the issue with private ownership of media is not in the private ownership itself, but in concentrated ownership. With the BBC being an exception, most news outlets are biased and will have their own agendas relating to their audiences – some argue that this is a good thing, and that allowing everyone the freedom to express their opinion and be exposed to different opinions is fundamental to living within a democracy. This is of course the “freedom of speech” argument, one that we’ve become quite familiar of late with the Twitter VS. Musk debacle. Musk argues that no one should be able to be banned from a social media outlet, though the true question is, where does so called “freedom of speech” end? Do hateful comments and posts that may bring harm to the public fall under such categories? Or should the definitions perhaps be given a more concrete meaning for the sake of the “public interest?”
The primary issue is that social media is inherently concentrated, and perhaps limiting what we see on these platforms, would limit what opinions we are exposed to. Perhaps preventing monopoly is the answer, and not private ownership.
Others also state that government run social media would not be much better – as we have seen in very recent history regarding Russia. Russia have been able to fully control how their populace form opinions about the war on Ukraine, limiting what they see of the war and how they see it. Being able to ban social media and internet usage to prevent their citizens from seeing what they don’t want them to see, or the opposite. Iran has suffered much the same fate of late, in order to prevent citizens from showing the world what is happening within in their country. It allows opportunity for propaganda over fact, and to allegedly affect how people vote in elections. So, who then would own media if not a singular person?
The other case would be the public – but it is unlikely then that the service would be free, and who would volunteer to monitor it, if it is monitored at all? How safe really would a publicly run social media outlet be? Not just in terms of monitoring, but also potential virus protection, age related issues and an array of others. A lot of work goes into running a social media network, and it would likely still need a core group of people to curate and run the service – having worked as a curator and moderator on a similar outlet in the past, I can speak from experience – it isn’t easy, and you are not paid to do it. It is done out of love of the platform, and not monetary gain. Although the core group were elected democratically upon the app, which in many ways was rather positive. (Even if it was perhaps, a popularity vote as opposed to who was most suitable for the job).
The argument here is that a privately owned company would likely hire the most capable individuals to run the website and, due to wanting to keep shareholders happy, would be on top of monitoring and ensuring that they are as inoffensive as possible to avoid pull-outs. They also remain free to use due to being run by advertisements and data, which means that anyone can use and take advantage of what social media can give you. If trading away data and search habits is a fair payoff for you, then that is an individual choice you can make.
In the end, whether you believe social media should be owned at all is an incredibly debated subject, and either all has its highs and lows. As it stands though, and how it seems in the future, is that social media will likely remain owned privately. Perhaps it may come to a head that it is run similarly to entities such as the BBC – where it is not government owned so much as it is funded by the public and run in the public’s best interests, but perhaps removing bias from social media would rob it of its communal factor and what makes it what it is. Community is the base of all social media, whether it’s Twitter or TikTok, and perhaps ensuring it is better monitored and regulated is the answer and drawing up concrete definitions for phrases such as “freedom of speech” in what accounts for opinion, or just harming the public.