Social Media And The De-Platforming Dilemma
If anyone thought the transition from 2020 to 2021 would mean a sudden disappearance of chaos, the first three weeks of the new year suggested otherwise. While the world witnessed the United States going through unprecedented turmoil egged on by an unhinged (now former) President, everywhere the Covid-19 virus raged on with mutations. It looked like 2021 was going to be more of the same, at least, to begin with.
One defining moment in the first couple of weeks of the year was the de-platforming of a sitting head of state. Simply defined, this is preventing someone from disseminating views seen as unacceptable or offensive on social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc. Donald Trump encouraged his supporters to protest at Capitol Hill, the equivalent of our parliament, to overturn an election he lost. The large crowd that gathered and marched there, in turn, stormed one of the most important seats of power in the U.S. putting the country’s top lawmakers at risk. That this crossed the line – one that has been redrawn several times by Trump - was apparent from all the reactions from several sides. This was shocking in its extremity and violence but also in the President’s complete disregard for the law and the peaceful transfer of power that the U.S. had taken for granted.
Several social media platforms quickly banned Trump including Twitter, his favourite outlet for disseminating his rage and disinformation. Twitter also suspended 70,000 other accounts. Misinformation about election fraud that Trump railed about plunged 73%, according to analytics firm Zignal Labs, revealing the power of these platforms.
Both the Right and Left are questioning social media giants' role as gatekeepers of information and the precedence it sets. You can rest assured (or not) that more chaos in the media world is bound to follow.
Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t
News and views on Trump’s social media ban rippled across the world. Misinformation and fake news are not just an American phenomenon. They are arguably part of a much better-oiled machine in other parts of the world and are tacitly supported by authoritarian governments. So, you can imagine the uproar from various quarters.
Outrage here in India about Trump being banned also fell more or less among partisan lines. Ironically, those who were most offended over the U.S President’s ban and his inability to express himself freely were likely to be least offended by the recent jailing of a young stand-up comedian back home for a joke he did not crack.
In fact, after I wrote the first draft of this piece, came the news that in India, Twitter had just blocked several accounts and tweets on long-running farmer protests, following a legal notice from the Indian government. Even a well-known publication, Caravan, had its Twitter handle blocked in India – as I sit in Hong Kong, I can actually see the publication’s handle. Unlike in the case of Trump, here, those who support the ruling party will back the blocking of accounts while those opposed will accuse Twitter of censorship.
Most of the tech companies and social media giants have themselves to blame for not putting rigorous rules in place much earlier, fearing a loss of users. It has always been a thin line on which they walked. In the partisan world we live in, only fueled and magnified by social media, someone will always be upset and feel wronged. There is no world where everyone will be pleased. So, while one group of people—me included—think it’s a good decision to ban Trump and any other figure who openly calls for violence or division, there will be others who will view this ban as censoring and the death of democratic debate.
This becomes a dilemma for the platforms themselves. While it is safer to de-platform an outgoing President of the U.S. and curry some favour with the new administration, it has opened up several questions:
Do they decide who should be on their platforms and who should be kept out?
Are they really in a position to judge what is acceptable and what’s not?
Is it giving them more power than they already have?
And then, the big ‘R’ word no big tech company wants to hear - should they all be regulated to an extent like news media companies often are in most parts of the world?
The problem the social media giants have is that they have let misinformation thrive for years in the name of free speech till it crossed the line. They became tools to amplify any view—however fringe—and to gain an audience. It can also be argued this ecosystem of misinformation also fueled their growth and if Trump had won a second term, these platforms may have continued to run things the way they have been. They are now finding that putting all that back into a box is tricky, to say the least. Their actions also come at a time when Big Tech is under increasing scrutiny in the U.S. by parties on both sides of the aisle. The Republicans think that Right-leaning voices are being muzzled, while the Democrats hold social media responsible for fueling misinformation and sowing division. And, of course, both of them think Big Tech is way too powerful.
The Division Bell
Jack Dorsey, the chief executive officer of Twitter while announcing the ban on Trump tweeted: “While there are clear and obvious exceptions, I feel a ban is a failure of ours ultimately to promote healthy conversation.” He continued by saying “Having to take these actions fragment the public conversation. They divide us. They limit the potential for clarification, redemption, and learning. And sets a precedent I feel is dangerous: the power of an individual or corporation has over part of the global public conversation.”
He’s got a point. While this de-platforming and crackdown on misinformation (mind you, at the moment, this has happened only in the U.S. while it runs rampant elsewhere), is welcome even if late, it could have long-term consequences. One result is that this could be the loud sounding of a division bell for people to navigate to new platforms. Hardliners could move to Parler – a right-wing competitor to Twitter, which has been temporarily banned by Apple, Google, and Amazon among others for fueling hate speech - or any new iteration of it that will be less stringent and are created for people to coalesce around partisan lines. (Read this Wall Street Journal editorial about how Parler could benefit from these changes.)
This could lead to further erosion of common ground, creating chasms that will be impossible to bridge, impacting everything from policy to governance to social cohesion.
The yawning gap between facts and information on one side and beliefs and disinformation on another will grow wider.
This has an impact not only on politics but on everything. We saw this during this pandemic where, without the backing of science or facts, there were doubts sowed about the severity of the spread, precautions needed to be taken, and the vaccine itself.
For social media giants, it’s a turning point. They will have to figure out a way to bring enough guidelines and rules around the content. It’s as much a technological problem as it is a content policing one. A piece on Wired from 2018 described how we came to this and, in some ways, these companies lost control of the algorithms and search recommendation tools they created, which don’t differentiate between facts and fake news.
Many of them have begun attempts to clean up and hoover out some of the misinformation out there. Just a few days ago, Twitter announced Birdwatch, a crowd-sourced feature to combat misinformation. An effort to get select active users to participate and fact check and make corrections. Facebook has been trying to use AI tools to weed out hate speech and on an earnings call with analysts, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that the social media giant plans to reduce political content in its newsfeed to “turn down the temperature.” Facebook has announced record Q4 earnings clocking over 50% growth in profit to $11.4 billion.
This needs to be done at a global scale. Everywhere they operate, the rules have to be consistent. While the images of the storming of Capitol Hill were shocking, anyone following Trump and his followers’ tweets prior to the incident shouldn’t have been surprised. Misinformation on social media has added fuel to the fire in several instances all over the world and these mediums have often been misused by authoritarian regimes who can control the narrative. In India, false reports on messenger apps have been known to incite violence.
All of the social media companies will need to stop walking on eggshells and stop waiting for a calamity before they clean up here.
Social media is not all evil. It is easy to forget that not long ago the world was cheering it for aiding the Arab Spring. While they have flaws, they are also great connectors, can amplify the voices of those who may never be heard otherwise, and have many ways to contribute to society. They are here to stay and they will continue to evolve, some of them even in exciting ways. They have made the world a smaller place but they also need to make it a better place. It’s a highly profitable business model built on monetizing millions, maybe billions, of interactions. But they also need to have algorithms that can differentiate between constructive and destructive ones.
To use a quote from Sacha Baron Cohen at a speech he gave at the Anti-Defamation League (it seems appropriate to end this piece with a piece of wisdom from Borat) – “Freedom of Speech is not Freedom of Reach.”
Parry Ravindranathan is a global media executive and has worked for Bloomberg, Al Jazeera English, Network18, and CNN.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.