Such is our readiness to believe lies, the Government feels a public consultation on disinformation is necessary. There has been a retreat of authority on such a scale that the State feels compelled to fight back, particularly online. The importance of the con artist, however, is not in the lie being told but in our readiness to believe him or her.
Some are guilty of a wistful nostalgia for a recent past where highly controlled channels of communication from the State itself, from RTÉ and from newspapers provided for a comprehensive and innately civilised public square. There were occasional flashes of brilliance for sure, and a general regard for the facts. Bias at least followed the contours of identifiable pillars of public opinion. Fianna Fáil versus Fine Gael or liberal versus conservative provided clear pools of thought, where the like-minded found reassurance. There was also a clubbiness that accentuated, and sometimes challenged, a culture of insiders in which knowledge was power, and knowing titbits of gossip was petty power.
People who published had power and, like most traditional forms of authority, that power is now diminished.
Ireland is at the crossroads of a cultural change in the dissemination of information that is as significant as the invention of printing. Of the 19 largest online platforms identified by the EU as being subject to its Digital Services Act (DSA), 13 have their European headquarters in Ireland. Already EU-wide arbiters of data regulation through our Data Protection Commission (DPC), we are about to assume a significant role on content because of the location of those companies here. Notably on content, however, the EU has taken the lead role for itself. This is an issue of the first order.
The Coimisiún na Meán, established under the Online Safety and Media Regulation Act 2022, working in tandem with the EU Commission’s Directorate-General responsible for communications, content and technology, will be the regulatory coalface for content. It is an extraordinary confluence of power with ramifications across the EU27 and major cultural consequences. Bagging a big European institution for Ireland was an occasional pursuit of past governments. By default, we now have EU-wide responsibilities that are enormous in scale and consequence.
One narrative is that we are the captives of the corporations we are supposed to regulate, in hock to the largesse of their corporation tax. Our puny regulatory bodies are no match for global companies, this narrative goes. Us trying to put manners on them is like the mayor of Las Vegas campaigning against casinos.
Coimisiún na Meán is still in the process of getting up off the drawing board, but the DPC is well established. It has a good claim now to be more consequential. Two weeks ago, it handed down a €345 million fine to TikTok. It is hard to say whether this fine is truly consequential or paltry for the platform’s Chinese owned parent company ByteDance, which made profits of US $25 billion in 2022. Enforced changes to its processes online may be more important. TikTok can no longer have the profile settings of children set to public by default. There are other important technical changes to be made, and it has three months to make them.
But the matter has not ended there because the company is challenging the ruling in the courts, as is its right.
Meanwhile, as reported in this newspaper, under a voluntary code of conduct operated by the EU Commission, TikTok disclosed that it dismantled a “covert influence operation” network dedicated to targeting users in Ireland with “divisive” content to “intensify social conflict”.
In January the DPC fined Meta €210 million for breaches of the GDPR relating to its Facebook service, and €180 million for breaches on its Instagram service. Separately, WhatsApp was fined €5.5 million for GDPR breaches.
It is too soon to say whether regulatory oversight will have meaningful influence. It is a modern myth that everything will be known eventually. What we can say is that we are in the early stages of an attempt by democratic State actors to systematically push back against the power of social media platforms and enforce transparency.
The DPC deals with data, which is a more defined issue than content. Ultimately the problem is not illegal content: child abuse images and terrorism can be prosecuted.
It is the tidal estuary between what is illegal and what should be acceptable that is most troubling – hence the concern of governments about disinformation. But at its heart is not an evil machine; it is gullible people like us who give our time to platforms that monetise the voluntary donation of our presence into advertising revenue or, increasingly, the sale of goods and services.
That’s exactly how newspapers, radio and television operate too. But even if prone to a smug concentration of influence, there are limits. Most things can be attributed to a named author; an editor can be held to account; and legal processes or voluntary press council codes used to seek a remedy.
The velocity and opacity of social media bends the curve of public conversation in profoundly troubling ways. It is its impenetrability particularly that allows the politics of the deepest pocket to sometimes triumph, as it did with Brexit. This is among the great issues of our time, and it will in significant measure be fought here in Ireland.