Facebook and Twitter are not ‘neutral bulletin boards’

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FACEBOOK and Twitter are not the neutral bulletin boards they claim to be, but are instead carefully created hierarchies of intervention made by those who run these tech giants, said Senator Sherry Rehman during a panel discussion at the London edition of the Lahore Literature Festival (LLF) this weekend.

The session, which discussed the dark side of social platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, also featured as panelists the popular Turkish author Elif Shafak as well as the illustrious Alan Rusbridger, a former editor of the Guardian who is now the principal of Lady Margaret Hall at Oxford University.

The talk was moderated by BBC journalist Yalda Hakim. The theme, “Negotiating the imperative of liberty”, touched on an assessment of whether and how citizens and journalists can defend civil liberties in a new world order of fake news and information overload.

Mr. Rusbridger opened the session by saying that there is a major loss of control today than there was in the era of purely print journalism. “Today, four billion people are connected and each one of them is a publisher,” he said.

“It’s hard to understand if you are from the previous era.”

Senator Rehman said: “We are seduced by the idea that the net is neutral. But it is not. Are Facebook and Twitter neutral bulletin boards they’re supposed to be? They are not.

“They are a carefully created hierarchy of intervention that these tech giants make and they profit from what sells — hate speech trends.”

She asked: “Would #BoycottJews or #BoycottBlacks trend on Twitter the way #BoycottMuslims did?” adding that journalists and civil society must hold Twitter and Facebook accountable.

She also said troll farms launch an assault on liberties and that they disrupt news with a goal to spread chaos. “It leaves people doubting all information.”

Writer Elif Shafak said people may not be aware of it, but Turkish authorities are now investigating writers who speak about sexual harassment and gender.

“Now we have entered the age of pessimism and anxiety — and we must talk about the dark side of digital technology. We focus too much on its bright side, ” Ms Shafak said.

She added: “We live in an age where there is a lot of information, but very little knowledge and wisdom. How can we reduce information? We need to hold tech companies accountable.

They cannot just get away with saying we are just publishing. They are responsible. They must be engaged in this conversation. ”

Mr. Rusbridger wrapped up the debate with an observation about tech firms: “Tech companies are beginning to make moves and recognise that they cannot do nothing. But there is some responsibility on us to help them. We don’t want heavy state regulation.”

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