Russian influence on social media was being dug into throughout most of last year, and the debate about hate speech versus free speech was also on the table – with social media companies being strongly urged to police their content better. Intellectual safe spaces have been de rigeur for a while now, and the lines are being drawn between those who see them as a necessary thing for people’s good mental health, and those who see it as more kowtowing to the thought-police proponents of political correctness.
Gamergate and the #metoo campaign have done a lot to affect the way that people are interacting with media, and tolerance for trolls and those espousing hatred towards anyone. There are rules in the States and the UK governing hate speech or speech designed to incite violence, but it seems like the growth of social media has caught both countries somewhat flat-footed. A system that can be gamed so easily was always going to be vulnerable to this kind of usage, and that easiness was in many cases one of the winning things about it. Social media has facilitated a lot of good things, and there is a sense that the bad things may just be part and parcel of that whole thing.
For a lot of people it seems counter-intuitive to give people that denigrate others a platform, but to not do so impacts on the claim that free speech is a right for all. Does being unpalatable and hateful constitute enough of a reason for you to be silenced? Is it true that exposing everyone to these viewpoints makes it easier to confront and handle them, and to educate those people who are against certain elements of society? Is muzzling necessary? It isn’t without precedent. In England through the seventies and eighties you weren’t allowed to hear the voices of Sinn Fein politicians because of their ties to the IRA, and certain right wing parties weren’t broadcast.
What does it mean for your business if you appear to be aligned with a group that preaches intolerance? Some groups have experienced backlashes for being championed by certain groups and have found themselves having to distance the brand from the politics. Depending on who the person you disagree with is, this can be more of a minefield. Sometimes targeting a company that someone you disagree with likes is easier than handling the person themselves.
Twitter sought to show that it did not endorse certain viewpoints or seek to legitimize certain figures by removing their blue check marks, but both Twitter and Facebook have come under scrutiny for their failure to go far enough. An algorithm doesn’t really cut it, and the leaked classifications for judging how to treat a Facebook post were seen to have loopholes that allowed problematic people to slip through.
How do you navigate those tricky waters as a business that wants to be inclusive of everyone, but runs the risk of becoming a censor the moment they shut down one group’s voice and allows another’s to continue being heard? It’s a headache that had the volume turned up on it with Russiagate, with Gamergate, with the general backlash against the seemingly pervasive negativity infecting the different acreages of cyberspace. Europe has been less friendly to Google and Facebook of late, and some of the President’s ire has turned in the direction of social media providers as well.
There is no denying that Facebook, Twitter, and Google, are all powerful tools that increase the reach of those who use them. Any government is going to take an interest in this kind of thing – it would be negligent not to – especially after it has been demonstrated of late that these media can be used to drive the direction of an election.
People were banned from using parts of social media in the UK, after being involved in organizing certain protest actions that resulted in violence. The latest measure that the Government wants to bring to bear on the problem is a so-called Extremism Tax levied against social media companies that penalizes them for content that is distributed using their platforms. If this were done on the scale of something like Russiagate it could be crippling, and that is where the leverage to do something comes in … fix the issues or face the music.
The shift away from net neutrality is already promising to have an effect on the way social media operates, and these measures, if they prove successful in curbing problem behavior, may be taken up elsewhere in some form or other, and then we are going to see the landscape start to change. Will it be for the better, or will it just push those creating the problem elsewhere?
A lot of the flavor of social media in the last year has been fed by fringe cultures that were hot-housed away from the mainstream anyway. Newsletters that have an opt-in audience as a way to adjust the signal to noise ratio have experienced a resurgence and don’t need a lot of bandwidth and are unlikely to be affected by slow lane internet. People will find ways to circumvent the obstacles, and this may result in a further atomization of the online society, and a decentralization of the physical structure itself. The tech to operate independent networks is there, and we may see an internet version of the cable cutting that happened when streaming services reconfigured the game of televisual content.
The chips haven’t fallen yet, and it could all end up being a storm in a teacup. For anyone that lives outside of a major city internet can already be patchy, and they already get their speeds throttled when they hit a certain amount of data being downloaded. You can already filter certain content yourself quite easily. One has to take a step back from some of the hyperbole and histrionics that plague online discourse, and wait for the significance of certain decision to unpack over time. That we mistake fan theories for more than they are, and get heated about them, is something that has become increasingly true of our socio-political lives as much as any hobby we like to talk about.
At the end of the day, fining a company for extremism distributed through it is something, but the real problem is, and remains, the extremism itself, and the problem will only really handle when we handle the extremism as the cause, and not the social media presence, which is a symptom.