Editorial : Controversies over social media

【明報專訊】From Hong Kong to Europe to the United States, there have been a lot of controversies concerning social media recently. While the focus differs, all the discussions have involved the expansion of the power of social media giants and the lack of regulation.

WhatsApp, an instant messaging app, has recently updated its terms of use. For its users to continue using the app after February 8, they must agree to share their phone numbers, location records and other information with WhatsApp's parent company Facebook. Although Facebook has emphasised that the relevant requirements will only be targeted at the retail consumer business, and only information related to this will be shared with Facebook, users have reason to be concerned about under what consumption scenarios will their personal data be handed over to Facebook once they agree to share it. There are billions of WhatsApp and Facebook users worldwide, and many of them are in Hong Kong. The Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data urges users to pay attention to the changes. At the same time, WhatsApp is urged to explain clearly to users how the information will be used and to allow users more time to consider. This illustrates the sensitiveness and importance of the situation.

Facebook came into existence in 2004. It has expanded rapidly within 10 years or so and has become a global networking platform involved in interpersonal communication, information dissemination, business activities and even political mobilisation. Just like Google, Facebook continues to expand its kingdom through mergers and acquisitions. WhatsApp and Instagram have been brought under Facebook's control. In recent years, it has even strived to build cross-platform ecosystem with its three major apps. Compared with other social media competitors, Facebook has an overwhelming advantage, and has a monopoly in many aspects.

Facebook advertises itself to be a provider of permanent free accounts. But at the same time, it has been collecting user data and information. Through complex algorithms, it sells tailor-made "targeted advertisements" and makes huge profits. To put it simply, users' personal data and big data are a way for the company to generate profits. The advertising systems of Facebook and Instagram have long been linked to each other. For many, the issue of user data sharing between the three major apps in the kingdom is concerning, though they know nothing about them. If looked at positively, Facebook's approach can "improve transparency". However, from another perspective, Facebook can indeed be accused of taking advantage of the market to bring its users to its heels. This highlights how easy it is for personal information to be concentrated in the hands of oligarchs in the Internet age. It is necessary to stop abuse and combat anti-competitive behaviour.

Thanks to the sudden controversy over WhatsApp, people in many places have called for a switch to other communication software, such as Signal and Telegram, saying no to Facebook. In Turkey, the authorities have even launched an investigation into Facebook's practices to find out whether there is any violation of competition law. Anti-competitive and anti-monopoly disputes in the Internet industry are common. From Microsoft more than 20 years ago to Facebook and Google in recent years, they have been involved in these controversies. To be fair, the Facebook problem did not become known today. The turmoil this time is extremely fierce and there is a call for a switch to other apps not only because private information is involved, but also because there are political factors.

The social media ecology has become more and more politicised over the past 10 years. Some people use it to promote political ideas, engage in political mobilisation, and even spread propaganda and lies. Social media has gradually become a political weapon, and who controls or leads it has become a sensitive issue.

明報社評2021.01.13:社交媒體亂象交纏 認清寡頭權力真貌









scenario : a possible development of events

concerning : worrying

switch : a change from one thing to another, especially when this is sudden and complete

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