26 January, Davos
Calling Internet “monopolies” such as Google and Facebook an obstacle to innovation, billionaire investor George Soros has warned that social media companies can have adverse consequences on the functioning of democracy.
Delivering his remarks at the annual World Economic Forum here on Thursday, the Hungarian-born American billionaire declared that the days of the US-based IT giants are numbered.
“Social media companies influence how people think and behave without them even being aware of it. This has far-reaching adverse consequences on the functioning of democracy, particularly on the integrity of elections,” Soros said.
His remarks come at a time when many social network sites, including Facebook and Twitter, are facing scrutiny due to alleged Russian influence in the 2016 US presidential election through these platforms.
Soros, who created the Open Society Foundations to support democracy and human rights in countries around the world, said that social media companies deliberately engineer addiction to the services they provide.
“This can be very harmful, particularly for adolescents,” he said.
But the real threat of these companies lie in their efforts aimed at inducing people to give up their autonomy, Holocaust survivor Soros said.
“The power to shape people’s attention is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few companies. It takes a real effort to assert and defend what John Stuart Mill called ‘the freedom of mind’,” he said.
“There is a possibility that once lost, people who grow up in the digital age will have difficulty in regaining it. This may have far-reaching political consequences. People without the freedom of mind can be easily manipulated,” Soros said.
But he believes that the dominance of the US-based Internet giants would end soon and “regulation and taxation will be their undoing”.
“It is only a matter of time before the global dominance of the US IT monopolies is broken. Davos is a good place to announce that their days are numbered,” he said.
In the same speech, Soros lamented that he finds the current moment in history rather painful.
“Open societies are in crisis, and various forms of dictatorships and mafia states, exemplified by Putin’s Russia, are on the rise. In the US, President Trump would like to establish a mafia state but he can’t because the Constitution, other institutions, and a vibrant civil society won’t allow it,” he said.
“Not only the survival of open society, but the survival of our entire civilisation is at stake. The rise of leaders such as Kim Jong-Un in North Korea and Donald Trump in the US have much to do with this. Both seem willing to risk a nuclear war in order to keep themselves in power,” he said.
Soros stressed that he considers the Trump administration a danger to the world.
“But I regard it as a purely temporary phenomenon that will disappear in 2020, or even sooner,” he said.