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A shift in social media landscape

Opinion Piece

The Christchurch Call to Action adopted overnight in Paris seems to mark the start of a significant shift in the social media landscape that dominates how billions of people interact with each other and the world around them.

Most users won’t see any changes, although at times they might be fed different news and content links than they would have before the March 15 terror attack in New Zealand that was livestreamed on Facebook and viewed by millions.

Commitments made by major technology companies — including Facebook (also owner of WhatsApp and Instagram), Twitter, Google, Amazon and Microsoft — to address the abuse of technology to spread terrorist content, and change their algorithms to direct users away from dark, single narratives rather than towards them, end the notion that they are just tech platforms and search engines.

They are certainly not traditional media companies or publishers, but the social media companies are publishers — just with an often unruly mass of contributors posting comments frenetically; and extremists inserting their vile narratives into the mix.

While it is significant that the United States has not signed up because of concerns over free speech implications, the key companies involved are American.

The provision in the US Communications Decency Act that has exempted them from the responsibilities of traditional publishers — and granted them the space to create trillions of dollars worth of value, while decimating the business models of other publishers — could also be changed. President Donald Trump’s technology adviser suggested in January that Congress should consider changes to the law.

The “call to action” does seek to preserve freedom of expression while abiding by international human rights law and respecting a free, open and secure internet, and has a clear focus on identifiable terrorist content.

However, the commitments from major tech companies to share the effects of their commercially-sensitive algorithms, as they move to adjust them, should have a major beneficial side-effect of reducing public support for a host of dangerous conspiracy theories.