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What should be made of the civic power of social media platforms?

April 5, 2016 | By Research Team—DCN

King’s College, London, has released a new study about the growing phenomenon of global tech giants, their increasing civic power, and what this means for democracies entitled “Tech giants and civic power.” Written by Martin Moore, director of the Centre for the Study of Media Communication and Power in the Policy Institute at King’s College, with a foreword by Director of the Tow Centre for Digital Journalism at Columbia University Emily Bell, the 92-page report offers a series of observations and provocations in an effort to stimulate debate about the role of the tech giants – notably Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple and others – in democracy and civic life, as distinct from their impact on privacy and security, or their economic and financial status.

As Moore points out, “The growing civic status of these organisations would be less of an issue were it not for their size and reach. By 2015 more than half the online global population of three billion people were using one or more of these services (1.5 billion using Facebook alone). At the same time the growth in their use continued at a dizzying pace.”

While these tech giants argue that they are not the same as traditional media organizations and shouldn’t be viewed in the same way. Rather, they take the position that they are “pathways to enable people to reach content. And, as platforms, they argue, they should not be considered responsible in the same way that traditional media publisher would be.

And thus, he concludes that “The use of their power to command attention to promote their own views and services takes large information intermediaries beyond neutral platforms, and can give them a political power comparable to that of a broadcaster. The difference being that, in many democracies, broadcasters are constrained in what they can broadcast and in the political views they themselves can express.”

The aim of the study is:

  • To identify the civic powers that these organizations and their services are acquiring.
  • To encourage the corporations these organizations and their services are acquiring.
  • To encourage the corporations themselves to recognize the powers they now have and devise better ways to use them responsibly.

And, by identifying some of the potential dangers of digital dominance, the study is intended to help start to inform the inevitable government responses to these organizations – responses that will have repercussions far beyond the organizations themselves, and could be instrumental in the structure of future digital societies. The study then concludes with a plea for democratic publics and their governments to take the civic power of these giants more seriously, and to put more effort into considering how to respond to the questions they raise

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