It's time to rein in social media services

For the good of our culture and our political process, social media has to be banned from interfering with what should be free speech

caged tweet
Credit: mkhmarketing

If you run a social networking service then the one thing you don’t want to be considered to be is a publisher. As a publisher, you become responsible for whatever your users care to post which means when they post something that’s illegal in any way, you are as liable as the poster to be prosecuted. On the other hand, as a “platform”, where no editorial control is exercised, a social media service is only obliged to act on content when they received a court order or a DMCA takedown notice.

twitter 292988 1280 Pixabay

This distinction between being a publisher and a platform is crucial to the major social media services because the cost of vetting and policing user-generated content would be prohibitively expensive even if it were possible (every minute, Twitter generates 350,000 tweets while in the same window 510 comments are posted, 293,000 statuses are updated, and 136,000 photos are uploaded to Facebook).

Now, for what reason do social networks exist? The obvious answer is to sell stuff through advertising and thereby make money for their investors (or perhaps that should be “try to make money”). But looking at the bigger picture, we all know the impact of social networks is far greater than just their role as a sales channel. Today, according to Statista:

In 2016, 78 percent of U.S. Americans had a social media profile, representing a five percent growth compared to the previous year … The region with the highest penetration of social media use is currently North America … In the United States, an estimated 185 million people use social media in 2016, a number forecast to exceed 200 million by 2020 … In the United States, 29 percent of inhabitants claim to log into their social accounts several times per day.

statistic id273476 share of us population with a social media profile 2008 2016 Statista

With so many people communicating so regularly through social media, opinion on just about everything is being exchanged and shaped much as it is at, say, a cocktail party or in any other social venue, but on a much larger scale. Are the opinions well-informed, fair, and balanced? Are they even relevant? It doesn’t matter, free speech is what we expect. And whatever you think the objective value of social media might be, we’ve seen the impact it can have on culture. Just consider how successfully the Obama campaign used social media for fund raising in the ’08 election (way back when elections were reasonably sane) and how Twitter is now mandatory for every and any political campaign .

So, the social networks claim they don’t have editorial responsibility because they are only serving ads and their content-awareness is driven by algorithms, and further argue they are a neutral conduit for user content, a “platform”. Alas, for this to be true, the social networks, except where legally compelled to act, would have to be completely and utterly hands-off and we know that they absolutely aren’t! 

What many social networks do to many users who they consider to be posting inappropriate and or troll-like but not illegal content is something called “shadowbanning” in which, rather than suspending or cancelling a user account, they throttle back the reach of an account’s posting, often to the point where only the poster can see it. This has the effect of effectively muting the poster most often without the poster being aware that they are shadowbanned. 

Consider the recent fracas Twitter got into over shadowbanning references to an alternative micro-blogging service, according to Heatstreet, back in July:

The microblogging site, sealion.club, a small Twitter clone popular with Gamergate types, seems to have been added to Twitter’s spam filter. Twitter does not let you tweet the URL or add it to your bio. Those with the URL already in their bio appear to have been shadowbanned from Twitter.

Twitter backed off with the rather weak statement:

The URL [sealion.club] was mistakenly flagged as spam, by an outside organization that tracks spam sources. We have restored access and apologize for the error.

While that kind of behavior by Twitter is obnoxious and childish, the company has also been accused of shadowbanning other content including political speech and recent allegations include Twitter shadowbanning Donald Trump and other pro-Trump accounts. Even the cartoonist of Dilbert fame, Scott Adams, who became notorious over the last year or so for his posts about Trump’s persuasion skills and who recently went over to the “dark side” by endorsing Trump, has blogged about being shadowbanned on Twitter. In fact, Adams also has what looks like proof of Twitter shadowbanning him on Periscope.

scott adams Scott Adams (@ScottAdamsSays)

Adams claimed that if, indeed, Twitter was shadowbanning him, it was treason (definition: treason … the betrayal of a trust or confidence; breach of faith; treachery). If, in fact, Trump and his supporters were also shadowbanned by Twitter actively and willfully manipulating public opinion to effect a specific political outcome, this has to be seen as something much bigger.

But first you might ask if this wrong? It is, without doubt, a betrayal of trust as Adams argues but Twitter is a private company and therefore it can, within the law, do as it pleases. Here’s the catch: If Twitter is actually manipulating the distribution of content then they are. Q.E.D., a publisher, not a platform, and have to take responsibility for what users post. They shouldn't have it both ways, a publisher without responsibility for content, yet, at present, they do.

There's only one solution: The social media networks have become so fundamentally different from other forms of media that it’s time we reined them in. They should not be allowed to shape our culture and our politics  by manipulating who sees what and who gets to speak.

While the various traditional media outlets (the newspapers, radio stations, and TV stations) each have their own political biases, their ability to influence politics is nothing like that of the social media. The traditional media are a one way channel from the publisher to the citizenry with extremely limited feedback, whereas social media are many-to-many with new and old media along with the citizenry in interactive, near realtime dialog. To be above that with god-like powers to manipulate public opinion by filtering, blocking, and shadowbanning gives social media services way too much power for a democratic society to allow. 

We’ve broken up and regulated many industries to prevent undue economic and media power falling into the hands of too few people or groups and quashing competition. Now is the time to start reining in the social networks to stop them from having undue influence on our culture and politics. 

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