Law in the Internet Society

Deplatforming: social responsibility or self-interest?

-- By CamiloValdivieso - 18 Jan 2022

Sharing information and opinions has been essential to human society for thousands of years. By the end of the XX century, the internet transformed how information is shared. This new sociological condition through which every human being is connected has brought about a radical democratization regarding the power to publish and to share opinions. Today, social media has become the largest forum through which humans interact. It has become one of the most transformative movements of our times, as virtually anyone can share anything online. However, this movement has faced some resistance, as certain actors have sought to limit and control what information can be shared.

In 2017, when Cloudflare banned the neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer, Cloudflare's CEO, Mathew Prince, reflected on his actions by stating that: "Having made that decision we now need to talk about why it is so dangerous. [...] Literally, I woke up in a bad mood and decided someone shouldn't be allowed on the Internet. No one should have that power."

Since then, kicking people off social media platforms and other websites -a technique known as deplatforming- has become a common practice. Perhaps the most notable case occurred in early 2021 when outgoing President Donald Trump's social media accounts were suspended across Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitch, and TikTok? . This happened in the aftermath of the January 6 Capitol Insurrection; and soon after, thousands of accounts primarily dedicated to spreading right-wing conspiracy theories were also banned. While some celebrated these bans, others questioned the social media giants' role as "gatekeepers" of information.

Advocates of deplatforming commonly defend the technique by highlighting its effectiveness. As the Trump case shows, this is true for political figures: more than a year after being suspended from several social media platforms, the former Republican President has now almost vanished from daily public debate. It is also true for extremist groups: as a 2018 study of the extremist group Britain First showed, after being banned from Facebook and Twitter, not only did the group's engagement decrease, but the amount of content it published online also fell. Thus, despite the fact that deplatforming can arguably bring some benefits, the real question is at what cost.

In addition to this, advocates of deplatforming also argue that this practice can lead us to have a better and well-informed public debate. In a sense, they seem to be searching for some kind of moderation in public debate, where social media platforms act as the arbitrators over what gets to be published and whatnot. But this search for moderation is at the least worrisome.

The discussion around moderation in public debate tends to revolve around what happens between platforms and users (that is to say: who gets banned and why). However, recent examples have shown us another side of the story. One in which social media platforms, like all companies, actually worry about the politics of the countries in which they operate. That is because if they end up on the wrong side of the political spectrum, companies could face unfavorable regulations and even get banned from the country entirely. A recent example of this happened in Nigeria, where the government banned Twitter after the platform deleted a tweet from the country's President and suspended his account.

But this is a rare exception. Increasingly, platforms are arranging their moderation systems to minimize any political fallout. In India, Facebook has been trying to tighten the relationship with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, despite the increasing violence against the country's Muslim minority. In Myanmar, a coup that took place in early 2021 forced the same platform to welcome groups it had previously flagged as terrorists and to ban other groups that opposed the new regime.

Perhaps the most revealing example took place in Vietnam, where the company faced pressure from the Communist Party to moderate against "anti-state" content, by adopting the repressive values of the regime into its moderation strategy. Here, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg personally directed the company to comply with the government's request, saying it was "more important to ensure that their services remain available for millions of people who rely on them every day." While in the United States Zuckerberg has been portrayed as somewhat of a "champion" of free speech who has been for the most part reluctant to remove misleading content, in Vietnam (a country in which the social network earns more than $1 billion in annual revenue), the CEO was quick to side-in with the government and modify its moderation system in favor of the regime. In that case, free speech and moderation were not as important as protecting the company's (and his own) self-interest by aligning with the government.

What we see with this practice is that social media platforms, just like the traditional press, seem to be playing an active role in politics. The time in which companies like Facebook and Twitter were pretending to be neutral gatekeepers of information has long passed. Moreover, their role as gatekeepers of information is now more questionable than ever.

Ultimately, this kind of realpolitik isn't what deplatformers had in mind. The goal was to push social media platforms to take responsibility for their impact on the world. But instead of making them more responsible, the power to decide on what information reaches the public has made them more unapologetic about social, economic, and political realities. Today, we are seeing companies that are simply protecting their own interest.

Despite this reality, we must embrace the fact that social media is here to stay. With all its flaws, it can also have many benefits. Through it, we can improve not only the quality of human intelligence but also the quantity. And this starts with more access to information. Therefore, deplatforming and censorship should be limited in favor of free access to information, that is, of sharing knowledge. Only then can social media start playing an active role in making the world a better place.

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r4 - 18 Jan 2022 - 21:31:35 - CamiloValdivieso
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