As the operations of social media giants are restricted, risks lurk in the fragmentation of social media and in alternative networks. For the sake of cybersecurity, authorities must now act wisely when making new regulations, writes Professor of Practice Martti Lehto, Faculty of Information Technology.

The rapid and wide-ranging development of digital services has been at the core of digital changes affecting our lives. The Internet has offered many new ways for communicating, shopping or finding information. Social media has developed into a new channel for spreading news, and for many, especially for young people, social media is now the primary news channel. The Internet has brought a global dimension to media and allowed citizens to act as news anchors and content providers.

However, this development also has its dark side. Social media has become both a mirror and an amplifier.

At any given time, social media reflects ideas, views, values and attitudes that are local, national as well as global. What people can now publish online reflects what they find important – their expectations, fears, and ideals. Traditional media channels no longer serve as gatekeepers.

Social media also amplifies various issues by creating bubbles. According to research findings, young people consciously choose news items that are consistent with their own values. Within a social media bubble, a user ends up – either by choice or as directed by particular algorithms – in discussions with like-minded people. The algorithms often bring to the bubble-specific news stream information that the user is supposed to be interested in. As a result, information in the bubble tends to become more one-sided.

In the United States, the bubble effect assumed a concrete form when a crowd violently stormed the Capitol building on 6 January. The ideology and action model constructed in a bubble became manifested in the physical world.

Risks lurk in the fragmentation of social media and in alternative networks

Social media platforms are expected to control content more strongly and prevent the publishing of fake news, hate speech and inappropriate content. It was on these grounds that Twitter suspended Donald Trump’s user account.

However, there are alternative platforms where people can share information to their liking. The current trend is likely to lead to the fragmentation of the Internet and social media. The dark web of the Tor network has already become a place for activities that people want to remain hidden. This development offers a place for bubbles to operate and build their own agendas out of sight, which can ultimately threaten a state’s public order and security.

In order to keep the situation under control, we need media responsibility for publishing objective and reliable content. Similarly, authorities need to have adequate capacity to secure the vital functions of society. Moreover, citizens need media literacy so that they can read and understand various media material, see where its actual meanings arise from, and critically evaluate the information received.

Authorities must also take responsibility

In the digital world, the main instruments of authorities include regulation and control while accounting for civil rights, privacy protection and prevention of illegal action.

The digital service legislation being prepared in the EU aims at creating a safer digital space where the fundamental rights of all users of digital services are protected. This regulation would concern all platforms and require that they maintain a channel for notifications about illegal content along with the obligation to react promptly to such notifications.

In addition to setting regulations, it is necessary to ensure that the regulations are followed, and authorities need to take effective measures against breeches. Furthermore, authorities need sufficient resources to extend control mechanisms to the deep and dark webs, so they can bring illegal activities under control.

Professor of Practice Martti Lehto, Faculty of Information Technology

Get latest articles from The University of Jyväskylä’s stakeholder magazine into your email. You can cancel your subscription at any time.