Two films presented at this year’s One Word festival in Prague prompt us to think about what kind of social media we want in the future. Backlash: Misogyny in the Digital Age, focusing on the testimonies of four women from various parts of the world who have been victims of cyberbullying, reveals how in the new digital world, the injustices of the old world persist. TikTok, Boom investigates TikTok as the most widely used social network of our time and as a platform that can seriously undermine democratic principles. The two films use very different approaches. Backlash focuses on the victims of cyberbullying, while TikTok, Boom analyses the underlying structures of the platform, from social to political and technological. But despite the differences, both films point to a strikingly similar conclusion: it’s time to think about how to regulate social media platforms.
Freedom of Speech
The idea of regulation has been perceived as alien to the new digital media from the start. The promise of communication free from the control from above and not subject to the old elite tastes and values has been a driving force of the media evolution since alternative radio stations, video art, and independent television. The idea that for a truly democratic society, every member of society should be able to express themselves freely has been argued for in media theory and written down in UN declarations. With its decentralized structure, the Internet seemed to come the closest to the situation in which the right to communicate is no more the privilege of the journalists and owners of media but the right of all. When Wikileaks published the information that would otherwise remain hidden from the public, the hopes that this might benefit society as a whole seemed to be coming true. But think about the price Julian Assange is still paying for this today, and you will understand that this impression was – wrong.
it’s time to think about how to regulate social media platforms.
With the advent of the first social media, experts have already warned that these new platforms significantly limit the internet’s and digital media’s potential. They compared them to «walled gardens», warning that they offer just a limited set of predesigned possibilities. Still, these platforms enabled the digitally illiterate to use digital technologies. Given the proliferation of user-generated content, they eagerly embraced this opportunity. Backlash: Misogyny in the Digital Age collected plenty of evidence that this was, sadly, not for better but for worse. The father of Rehtaeh Parsons, a teenage girl who committed suicide because a victim of cyberbullying, summed this up perfectly: «It allowed the worst of our community to have a voice. That is the biggest downfall of it all. People who before kept it for themselves now can say everything they want to.” Misogyny, among the most conservative views, is thriving today as in the past. When in the 19th Century, women started making demands in public, they were insulted. Today, online harassment and violence are primarily directed against women, as if technology would enable misogyny to survive and even thrive again. The authors of Backlash rightfully decided «not to interview online abusers. Their goal is to silence women. Ours is to give them a voice.» A Canadian school teacher, French influencer, and Italian and USA politicians provide precious, courageous testimonies of how it feels to be a victim of cyberbullying, which is not even considered a crime. In TikTok, Boom, you will see that Generation Z is not exempt. And that technology is not at all neutral in enabling that.
Everybody wants to be somebody
Deja Foxx is a TikTok content creator who went viral for the first time when, as a teenager, she challenged a USA politician who wanted to block Planned Parenthood rights. In TikTok, Boom described her situation as «a war between what I want and what I fear the most.» On any platform, she explained, where you can get extreme reach, you open yourself up to more attention, and you also open yourself up to more hate. Perhaps not everyone will agree with her view that there is a «very interesting line to be empowered by your sexuality versus being exploited by it online.» But this double face of TikTok social network, since 2020 the most downloaded mobile phone app is strongly underlined in this documentary. TikTok became an intrinsic part of the life of Generation Z. It seems to offer everybody the opportunity to be somebody. They can express themselves and find a community to which they belong. They can launch their own brands, build multi-million dollar empires, financially support their parents, and advocate for human rights. But a closer look at the TikTok algorithm shows that this is not available for», but the investigation revealed that they are hiding posts of people with a handicap, those who are overweight, or «old people with rugs.» They censored videos of one content creator who demanded that China stops its genocide of the Uighur minority.
It seems to offer everybody the opportunity to be somebody.
A fingerprint of your taste
The secret gathering of the users’ data is not unique to this platform. It has been an intrinsic part of the social media business model from its early beginnings. With TikTok, it reached a simply frightening scale. When looking at each video on the For You page, the app looks at how you react to that video, stores the data, and learns. It is becoming ever smarter, adjusts what videos it shows you in the future, and over time «builds almost a fingerprint of your taste.» The users are worried. «It took me more than 20 years to figure out that I am bisexual, but it took my TikTok algorithm 37 seconds», says one of them.
The power of AI
TikTok, warns an expert, «is just the latest manifestation of the power that comes from connecting billions of people in the world with really powerful machine learning recommendation algorithms.» The film does not leave doubt – most of what TikTok does is a common practice of social media platforms. It has been put under the spotlight because it is the property of ByteDance, the Chinese company which «has dethroned the products of Silicon Valley’s biggest corporations.»
Both films – Backlash: Misogyny in the Digital Age and TikTok, Boom – thus present plenty of arguments for more strict and systematic regulation of social media. To preserve the already obtained rights, such as the right of women not to be abused in public. And to prevent completely new, unprecedented human rights abuses made possible by data gathering and content recommendation algorithms.