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2018 was the year Facebook and Twitter grew up

When a young person turns 18, in most countries they are considered adults, liable for their mistakes and mi...

Posted: Dec 28, 2018 8:59 PM
Updated: Dec 28, 2018 8:59 PM

When a young person turns 18, in most countries they are considered adults, liable for their mistakes and misdeeds.

2018 was the year social media and tech companies like Facebook and Twitter grew up.

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From the continued effects of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, to social media being used to help spur horrific violence in places like Myanmar, these tech firms are no longer considered startups run by dorky whiz kids.

They are now the favorite target of angry users and hungry politicians — wanting to make the companies pay both figuratively and literally after years of free rein.

Facebook's crisis year

Of all the platforms, Facebook (FB) and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg has become the poster child for all the ills of the internet.

Zuckerberg himself was dragged in front of lawmakers in Washington and Brussels, where he faced both anger and cluelessness.

He is still resisting several calls by UK lawmakers to answer questions in a similar format. He even failed to do so when the committee investigating the company set up shop in Washington in February for a special hearing. He did the same when it invited lawmakers from eight different countries to join them for a "grant international hearing" in November.

Instead Zuckerberg's deputies were dispatched to face the onslaught.

Beyond making Zuckerberg available for a hearing in the UK, Facebook is also currently fighting a fine from a regulator related to the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

And whereas once Zuckerberg scoffed at the idea that Facebook could have any effect on an election, Facebook in 2018 was full of apologies and admissions they could "do better" — all the while issuing several Friday night or holiday news dumps.

Hate speech

Where these platforms once saw themselves as neutral blank canvases for their users, they are now grappling with the reality that some of the lowest and worst of our societies are thriving on their platforms — and many believe it is up to companies like Facebook to control the spread.

In August, Facebook banned 20 organizations and individuals in Myanmar, including a senior military commander, acknowledging that it was "too slow" to prevent the spread of "hate and misinformation" in the country after the United Nations "found evidence that many of these individuals and organizations committed or enabled serious human rights abuses in the country."

Twitter (TWTR) also began to take more concrete steps to tackle hate speech and harassment on their platform, after years of becoming known as a platform where users sometimes faced sexist and racist attacks.

In September, Twitter announced a new policy prohibiting "dehumanizing speech," expanding on their hate speech conduct, banning direct attacks or threats of violence based on race, sexual orientation or gender.

Infamous conspiracy theorist Alex Jones was banned from most online platforms, including Twitter, after CNN pointed out that Jones' videos and posts flew directly in the face of tech companies' rules and statements about their battles against misinformation.

YouTube, which is owned by Google (GOOGL), came under fire for its suggested and trending video algorithms, after a video suggesting one of the high school students who survived the Parkland, Fl. shooting was a "crisis actor" appeared as the number one trending video for hours.

Further investigations showed how the site's algorithm often recommended conspiracy theory videos to users following major news events, even if the user had not searched for it.

After months of criticism, the site announced in July that it was making changes to put more "authoritative content" in front of users. A few months prior the site also announced it would begin labeling content that came from state-sponsored outlets, like Russia's RT network.

On the regulatory side, Germany began enforcing a hate speech law, requiring social media sites remove hate speech within 24 hours or face fines of up to tens of millions of dollars — but thus far no company has faced major fines from the law.

Bots

Both Facebook and Twitter faced intense criticism following the revelations that foreign actors had used fake accounts, sometimes computerized "bots" to try and influence elections around the world or just to sow divisions.

Under pressure from politicians in the United States and Europe, both platforms made some of their most serious efforts to date to ban and remove millions of accounts deemed to be inauthentic.

The leaders

A common thread for Facebook and Twitter this year came in their CEOs: men considered amalgamations of aloof yet at times ruthless tech geniuses.

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg was mocked on Saturday Night Live for appearing like a robot in interviews and in hearings — seemingly just repeating well-rehearsed talking points.

Twitter's Jack Dorsey was accused of being "tone deaf" after posting glowing messages about a trip to Myanmar without mentioning the violence and persecution being faced by the Rohingya minority.

Beyond being a source of jokes, Dorsey and Zuckerberg, along with their fellow executives' demeanor has become an issue before the people who can really control them: government regulators.

By appearing detached and repeating talking points, or in Zuckerberg's case, not showing up at all to some hearings, politicians are getting increasingly angry and frustrated as they weigh further laws and regulations.

As Sen. Mark Warner said during a September hearing in Washington with Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, "The era of the wild west in social media is coming to an end."

GDPR

In Europe, the EU's big General Data Protection Regulation was finally implemented in May. And beyond incessant pop-ups asking for consent, the law was one of the first major sweeping attempts at regulating companies that have run free with user data for years. If companies fail to prove they have been handling data correctly, don't report security breaches within 72 hours, or hold data for longer than is necessary, they face penalties of billions of dollars.

In the waning days of 2018, a European regulator announced Facebook could be facing a multi-billion dollar fine if an investigation revealed the company failed to protect user privacy.

The Irish Data Protection Commission, which oversees Facebook's compliance with European law, said it received multiple reports of data breaches affecting the company.

What's next

2019 will be the year of regulation and taxes.

A UK committee investigating fake news and user data privacy will likely release its final report and begin proposing further rules and regulations.

GDPR will turn one and will likely begin to impose more fines.

How to tax tech companies will also become a major issue. A "digital services tax" in the UK on the revenues of profitable tech companies was proposed to come into force in 2020.

The French government has said, starting January 1, it will impose a new tax on the likes of Google and Facebook as soon as January 2019 if a broader European tax on such companies fails to pan out.

Whatever 2019 brings one thing is clear: The whiz kids are now the whiz adults.

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