In the late 1990s, consumers across the globe began using a resource in the comfort of their own homes that was destined to revolutionize information consumption – the internet. Twenty years later, computer advancement and faster connections have altered virtually every aspect of daily life and have, for better or worse, begun to enter the realm of politics.
Mayor Sadiq Khan, London’s first Muslim and ethnic minority mayor, gave a keynote speech Monday with a question-and-answer session at South by Southwest, an annual professional and entertainment event in Austin, Texas, about the intersection of technology, politics and the economy in the United States, the United Kingdom and across the world.
“Technology is disrupting and shifting the way we do everything,” Khan said. “How we deal with this transformation will be a defining challenge of the 21st century.”
Toward the beginning of his speech, Khan highlighted the crux of the political, technological and societal intersections: President Donald Trump.
Khan said that while the sun had already set in London by the time he took the podium Monday afternoon, “the sun hasn’t set in Washington, D.C., yet,” referencing Trump’s previous criticisms of London’s mayor. Khan hoped that the president would refrain from additional tweets toward him by the end of the evening.
The mayor then quoted a few vitriolic tweets aimed at him from various individual users since he had been elected, including xenophobia and calls for his execution, which Khan asserted was a byproduct of a nationalist wave that spread across the world in recent history.
Khan used the tweets as a demonstration of problems associated with social media influences on elections and referendums across the world, including the 2016 presidential election in the United States, Brexit and national elections in France and Italy, which saw nationalist candidates rise in popularity in their last election cycles.
Khan explained that so-called “fake news” and social media algorithms compartmentalized what people saw in their social feeds, which ultimately led to increased political and societal polarization.
“In some cases, these new platforms have been used to exacerbate, fuel and deepen the divisions within our communities,” Khan said. “The impact is, and continues to be, profound and should worry democracies around the world.”
Khan suggested that social media companies have a responsibility to quell problems that arose from their platforms.
“Social media platforms already have a legal obligation to remove content that breaks local laws, but this isn’t always happening or happening quickly enough. Facebook, Twitter and other platforms are finally starting to react to the criticisms and are developing technology to make sure the reporting process becomes quicker and more effective,” Khan said. “But with the skills and resources these companies have at their disposal, I believe it’s possible to go further and faster.”
However, Khan asserted that the problems associated with growing unrest and nationalism were not limited to social media, but technological advancement generally as well.
“We’re now in a new era where exponential change can happen and spread across the world faster than ever before”
Khan stressed the importance of ensuring that workers, especially those who work in industries that lend themselves to job losses, such as manufacturing, may also reap the benefits of exponential growth and advancement that technology can and has provided.
“We’re now in a new era where exponential change can happen and spread across the world faster than ever before,” Khan said. “Just as many have felt marginalized by shifts away from manufacturing and blue collar industries, for today’s workers, there’s a fear that new technology is bypassing the skills they’ve spent their lifetime developing.”
In reference to Brexit, Khan said that “many of those who voted to leave the [European Union] did so because of a deep sense of unease about globalization; about the modern world and pace of change, and about the inequality they experience.”
Khan indicated that technology companies share some of the blame for such unease.
“If managed poorly, and if tech sectors are tempted to reap the rewards of their innovations without a care for their wider impact, I fear [that] all this change risks an age of unprecedented inequality and division that could undermine the pillars and key institutions of our society,” Khan said.
However, Khan believed that politicians also shared the blame in failing to implement more sufficient policies regarding technology companies.
Politicians are “just sitting on their hands” while the technology industry continues advancing without government input, which Khan described as a “dereliction of duty.”
Khan highlighted Germany as a country on the forefront of technological regulations after they began imposing consequences on companies that fail to remove posts containing hate speech and other unprotected types of speech within the country, and he hoped that other countries would also make an effort to abate content that could be damaging to racial, ethnic and social minorities and women.
Additionally, Khan explained that London was harnessing technology for infrastructure, education and avenues for people, especially women and minorities, to embrace and utilize new technology and skills without fear of attacks from hate groups online.
“The onus for change should not just be on tech companies and innovators,”
Khan said. “It must ultimately fall to government working with tech businesses and leaders to ensure that this revolution is not detrimental to our long-term process and progress.”