The 2020s may well be the defining decade of disinformation. Ten years from now, we may look back and reminisce about the good old days of fake news sites, social media bots, and doctored videos. As we enter the 2020s, we enter a world where AI-generated deepfakes will proliferate, where bots become indiscernible from real users, and where call centres are repurposed for content moderators. Meanwhile, the battle will continue between small government and big tech as both shift the burden of responsibility onto each other. “Do more,” cries small government. “Tell us what to do,” big tech shouts back. Can governments, and by extension, the people win in this war?
The online disinformation tactics we’ve seen so far have been concerning, but crude. Bots on Twitter have very distinct tells, from strings of numbers in their usernames to an obviously disingenuous profile image. Fake news websites purporting to be genuine news outlets are often patently falseand simple to fact-check. Generic lies and deception have existed throughout history and such tactics in politics predate the internet. Even the techniques behind so-called ‘shallow fakes’ – where video clips are chopped and cropped together – are at least a decade old. One of the first viral videos I can remember was a clipped-together video of Tony Blair singing “Should I stay or should I go?” – and that was uploaded back in 2006. Regulating against these fairly crude tactics, however, has proven to be challenging so far.
Given the vast majority of big tech companies are based overseas, with billions of pieces of content uploaded onto their sites every day, is it reasonable or realistic to expect UK authorities to regulate them? Imagine the thousands of abusive tweets, fake news Facebook posts, and racist Reddit threads that are posted and shared daily. Is it likely that the police in the UK will be able or willing to investigate each and every incident? The truth is, they do not have the resources or public backing to do so. It’s therefore unsurprising that the answer from politicians has often been to call on the tech companies themselves to take action.
Whilst tech companies certainly do have a responsibility to ensure their platforms are safe and legal spaces, I would heavily question the notion that the responsibility for protecting our democracy online rests solely with executives in Silicon Valley and not with the institutions of Westminster.
So how do we square this circle? Imposing fines on tech giants is one option, but unless the fine is significant it would be akin to giving a parking ticket to a premiership footballer. A nuclear option could be to block websites from operating in the UK should they fail to clean up their act. We could also focus directly on the individual users who create and spread fake news, but this is problematic on a number of levels. What if we are unable to track these users down? What if the user is a prominent politician? All of these options deserve consideration, even if they are fraught with challenges. However, they all share one key characteristic, and that is the fact that they are all retrospective actions. By the time these sanctions have been imposed, the lie will have spread across the world.
The only proactive solution isn’t a flashy algorithm, it’s boring old tax and spending. For a while now, I have been advocating the introduction of a new ‘civil internet tax’, designed specifically to address the negative externalities which exist on social media platforms. The tax would have the effect of encouraging verification and transparency over the number of users each platform actually has, and the funds would help tackle the offline root causes of disinformation which social media platforms, alone, can never hope to address. This is because the revenues will be ring-fenced for investment into offline digital literacy initiatives, anti-discrimination campaigns, and the creation of a new independent internet regulator. This tax will not be predicated on profits or revenue, but as a simple tariff based on the number of users each platform has. If a platform had 30 million UK users, and the annual tariff was set at £3 per user, that platform would send £90m a year to the treasury. Such a tax would be difficult for big tech firms to avoid paying, as unlike revenues and profits which can be shifted globally, a platform either does or does not have a certain number of users in a given country.
Only by investing in offline solutions and equipping citizens with the necessary tools to sift through fact and fiction online can we best protect ourselves in the coming decade of deepfakes and disinformation. Like climate change, online disinformation is a global problem. The aspiration should, of course, be global cooperation but until then the UK can play a role domestically through the introduction of a civil internet tax.
Photo credit: Filiberto Santillán