Who should control social media?

Big bucks mean big players can set the rules

In little more than twenty years, social media has completely changed the way we communicate and the way we live our lives. In 1997, Six Degrees was launched. Now largely forgotten, the site gained millions of registered users and combined features such as profiles, friends lists and school affiliations. But back then far fewer people were connected to the Internet, and it would be a few years before the infrastructure could fully handle the concept of social media. Other sites came and went, were sold on, or merged, but the first “biggies” still thriving now were LinkedIn in 2003, and then the biggest of the lot, Facebook, in 2004.

Controversial from the start, its founder Mark Zuckerberg was alleged to have stolen the idea for the site from twin brothers Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss and their business partner Divya Narendra. A lengthy and highly publicised legal battle followed, with Zuckerberg eventually making an out-of-court settlement of $65m to the three.

The story was given the Hollywood treatment in the 2010 film, The Social Network. That $65m may sound like big bucks, but when you learn that last year alone Facebook’s revenue amounted to around $117 billion then the settlement figure is literally social media world chicken feed. Facebook has nearly 2.5 billion monthly users, making it the largest social media site on the planet. It also owns Instagram which boasts a further billion monthly users.

Facebook does not own Twitter, although Zuckerberg did have a couple of unsuccessful attempts at buying the site. But where Zuckerberg failed, Elon Musk appears to have scored in a deal worth $44bn. Again, that sounds a lot. But when you’re the world’s richest person with a personal wealth of around $260bn, it’s not going to give the bank manager sleepless nights. But do we, or should we, care who owns these social media platforms? Twitter has around 300 million active monthly users, but unlike most of the other platforms, many users tweet multiple times every day. Take for instance Donald Trump, whose barrage of inflammatory Tweets after his Presidential election defeat not only provoked outrage but went a long way to inciting the Capitol Hill riots that followed.

The former president has since been permanently banned from Twitter, but Musk has already said he will reverse the ban. He wants a “single forum where everyone can debate.” The White House press secretary, Jen Psaki responded by saying that freedom of speech should be defended, but social media platforms should not be used as forums to spread disinformation. “We have seen a history of that,’ she added, “not just on Twitter but also on Facebook.” And that is the reality of social media. While for some it is simply social fun, and for others a place for genuine debate, others still have a dangerous agenda committed to influencing and changing opinion. Often in 280 characters or less.

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