By ellymelly – If you enjoy my work, consider shouting me a coffee over on Ko-Fi
Social media is a match we cannot un-burn. Even if we unplugged our forests of servers and filtered ourselves behind six feet of digital cement like our totalitarian neighbours, the memory of global connection would linger on with humanity.
A few years ago, everyone thought that the future would be constructed from within this new utopia – a sort of ‘camaraderie of cyberspace’ in a true border-less world. However, with the way politics is headed, the generation who were present at the birth of the internet may also be the ones to watch its collapse. The pieces of its corpse are already snapping off and scattering across the ground, laying there like some forgotten god’s temple with its features weathering smooth. Occasionally, glints of its past glory catch our eye, but mostly it’s decaying into bits of rock with weeds taking hold of the empty field.
We are social animals and the easy addicts of a system that offers assured contact. Talking is our primary form of bonding and, though the phenomenon might appear alien to those born before the technological revolution, online relationships hold the same intimate status as traditional friendship groups, even when based in anonymity.
Social media platforms act as little cities within the internet where a collection of people conduct their business and personal lives. They each have their own flavour and regional oddities. Some are growing, others are in the final stages of death with a few core users clinging to the ruins with eviction notices pinned up through their threads. Truly, these entities create another world that envelopes the ‘real world’ – a phrase I am not especially fond of because like it or not, social media is mostly comprised of real people having real interactions. This slur is a stigma from the internet dark ages when everyone was anonymous, but in 2020, social media is driving the ‘real world’ with politics birthing itself online before tumbling out into the streets. Only last week, resigning New York Times opinion editor Bari Weiss described Twitter as the publication’s ‘ultimate editor’. Social Media’s power is undocumented, poorly understood, and largely ignored by serious commentators who are led around by the nose without being able to see their reins.
Deplatforming is an idea co-opted from the political action of denying a speaker a stage (platform) to speak on. Usually, it led to feisty politicians shouting their speeches from the steps outside the hostile building, drawing crowds regardless of the attempted censorship. Or, if your name was Winston Churchill, clambering onto the roof of a car to shout your argument at the baying mob.
Withholding platforms from speakers happens today even though we claim to be a civilisation that values free speech. Universities and sometimes entire countries, deny speakers the opportunity to host talks in what should be public property for fear the ideas of the speaker will rub off on the host’s reputations or be seen as a passive endorsement by power-hungry activist groups looking for a bone.
Deplatforming in the online world is closer to an ex-communication order from the church or a decree of banishment. A speaker deplatformed from social media is not only denied the right to say something at a particular time in a particular place, they are being ejected from their entire social and business community. Worse, the reason for a platform to ban someone is usually political without clear or equal rules, creating an era of dangerous censorship the likes of which we’re more used to seeing from Communist dictators.
There is significant evidence that the oligarchy of social media platforms which control the bulk of social interactions online, collaborate to erase people they do not like from all of their platforms simultaneously, even if that person in question has not broken any of their community guidelines. Collusion of this sort is illegal but has resulted in people losing their livelihoods overnight along with all their friends. In severe cases, banks have joined in, denying service based upon ideology. The disparity of law is extraordinary. There are all kinds of regulations to stop employers from sacking staff without due process but online, social media barrens act with impunity like 18th century work-house bosses.
This is scary stuff.
The freedom to speak and do business underpins Western Civilisation and yet, without debate or democratic vote, we have allowed corporations to side-step civil law while bewildered, outdated politicians still believe that the internet is an obscure land where people sometimes go to read the news. These politicians, who were elected to protect us against the predatory behaviour of businesses wielding too much power, have very little understanding of social media’s expansion into real-world power. This is the fault of a generational gap where technology has grown so quickly that it is almost written in another language indecipherable to those in government. This is compounded when those same social media companies cuddle up to politicians and promise to help them win elections by expanding their advertising reach, therefore leaving no motivation at all (other than morality) for politicians to chastise in digital tyrannies.
Abandoned by both the platforms and the political process, citizens are left with a proposition. Do we, as their customers, deplatform the platforms?
We answer this with two further questions. Can we? And more importantly. Should we?
It is definitely possible to bring down a social media platform. We’ve done it before. Usually it is quite by accident through the evolutionary cycle of competition. Humans are fickle, flocking to the next shiny thing as it emerges and there is already a long line of tombstones erected in honour of lost platforms. More linger at the end of their lives, full of static data collecting dust. I find the process sad. I’ve grown up on many of these lost platforms and left a trail of memories in their disintegrating husks. When they die, so too do the connections with the people on them.
Platforms die because they are usurped by a better product, destroyed by poor management, banned by governments, or they simply fall out of fashion. Most of these deaths occurred before there was serious money tied up in the concept. It’s a little different now. Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, Instagram, and Twitch are have a combined wealth in the trillions. The prospect of experiencing a natural death and moving on to the next product is no longer a possibility for these powerful enterprises.
The problem of power works like this: social media platforms originally lured customers using the concept of the open forum with the ‘it’s free!’ sweetener. During the sign up process, they hid sinister data gathering intentions inside incomprehensible pages of fine print. Customer data is their product which they then sell to third party advertisers without the informed consent or knowledge of the customer. If you or I tried this, we’d spend the rest of our lives in jail. The amount of data collected is astonishing. Not even your government is able to stockpile this sort of treasure trove. These third party advertisers then engage corporations, who either purchase user data to evaluate it as market research or place targeted ads onto the original platform.
For many years, this arrangement worked. Everyone (except you) made a fortune off content stolen from blissfully ignorant users – often children. Then, the culture wars began. Revolutionary in spirit, they set about causing upheaval and chaos to no one’s advantage except the leaders of the political movement. Despite them being bad actors dressed up as terrorists, plenty of serious businesses have found themselves flailing around in the turbulence they create.
Essentially, trolling activist groups started to target corporations over the proximity of their ads to user-generated content. If that content did not adhere to the dictatorial demands of these basement-dwelling communists, they launched noisy campaigns to boycott that company. Instead of telling these idiot kids to bugger off (which would have stopped the whole problem then and there) companies began to bow to the perceived pressure and demand platforms censor content to protect their brands. This doesn’t work for a variety of reasons, but regardless, it triggered the era of mass online censorship and deplatforming. Part of the problem is that the hyper-sensitive activists were installed in both corporate marketing departments and on the staff of the platforms.
Instead of adults recognising this as a mindless political coup, inexperienced employees began empowering online lunatics to turn marketing departments into the grave diggers of their own companies.
This vicious Stalin-cycle intensified when platforms started to sell their product to political parties. Although their natural inclination is to make as much money from both sides of the arena as possible, political hostility between the platform’s staff has intensified to the point where they are actively manipulating their platforms as political weapons, trying to swing elections with digital might. In retaliation, and quite rightly, this has led to the status of social media companies being challenged in court.
Social Media companies survive on a precarious balance defined in their infancy when they held next to no power. These experimental entities were permitted to walk the line between publisher and platform with a small ‘Good Samaritan’ clause in the middle to moderate unsavoury content. Essentially they are platforms, facilitating the publishing of user content but crucially, without the legal status (and responsibility) of a publisher. They may maintain community standards of decency but they are not allowed to act as publishers or they risk having their status changed.
Platforms cannot survive as publishers – period. If a ruling ever comes down to say that they are, the dream is finished. We may see a day come soon where a company like Twitter is prevented by a court from deplatforming and censoring users. This means advertising companies with their corporate clients will have to suck it up or forfeit the tasty user market. Right now, it is more likely that we’ll get this court case than see the deplatforming of any major social media company.
That said, if everyone walks off a platform, technically any of these companies, no matter how large and powerful, will be ruined. This is happening to Facebook organically. They are a victim of their own success where they became so popular that it wasn’t only kids signing up, all their parents and grandparents signed up too. As soon as this happened, the kids were less keen on sharing photos and stories knowing their relatives were watching, and abandoned the platform leaving ghost accounts with low interactions. The average age of the platform went right up outside what advertising companies wanted and ever since, Facebook have been trying to adapt their way into survival – mostly by transforming themselves into a platform for businesses rather than individuals. It’s kind-of working. We’ll see…
Twitter is not learning anything. They are the industry leaders in toddler-censorship with employees in senior levels of management unhinged by delusions of power, rolling out banned words every day. Every time they ban a prominent figure, a walkout is staged, with droves heading over to devout free speech platform ‘Parler’. If Parler manages to iron out its bugs and improve their user interface, it could be a legitimate threat to Twitter. Right now, it’s not quite user-friendly enough to storm the market. The biggest challenge is getting users to move. People will stay with the herd so you have to get all of them moving at the same time. I’m not convinced that even a boulder like Trump would be enough to manage it. More likely, Twitter will do something stupid such as ditching the ‘like’ button (which they’ve long threatened) and without the endorphin hit, users will flee.
Yeah, we could do it. That brings us to, should we?
This question is more interesting. There is no problem with platforms changing shells like hermit crabs if it happens by the mob moving from one social media entity to the next. This migration does not change the dynamics of society any more than switching from stone tablets to ink. Deliberate destruction has unintended consequences – the most likely of which is the retribution of powerful people. If we, the users, win the debate by standing our ground and forcing platforms into an ideological cage, we have a chance at restoring peace.
Bad things happen when wealthy, powerful people are deplatformed from their own platform. We have allowed these individuals to accumulate the wealth and influence of nations through the currency of talking shit and stalking exes. Now, it is up to the laws of our democracy to soberly and sensibly assess how to maximise the benefits of this technological leap without creating an axis of all-powerful lunatics. It is possible that through our desire to share cat videos, we have created a tyranny of un-elected dictators free of a political system to dethrone them. Not even Mao could have dreamed of such a thing. They already have the power to delete people – how long before they delete democracy for profit?
The truth is, the internet was once the soul of creativity. It was successful because it allowed a flourishing world of human thought. Fixing its current problems is easy, but requires extraordinary political fortitude. If we enshrine online freedom into law and return the internet to its roots, our world would change for the better, but greedy platforms bribe politicians into protecting their monetary interests which leads to them passing ever more oppressive protections for the most disingenuous players cheered on by Marxist trolls who want to see liberty burn.
These new users don’t have any appreciation for the creative culture that built the systems they are now using so they are perfectly happy for the god-like companies to erase and hide content that offends them. What we end up with is a bland, static, censorial giant run by trigger happy marketing executives whose goal is to protect their profit at any cost while their bosses sculpt civilisation as if we were clay toys.
This is why Facebook and Google were happy to work with the authoritarian Communist government of China to create technology to cyber-stalk their citizens, assign moral rankings to their behaviour, and use that to deny them fundamental human rights. Normal laws would prevent a Western company from engaging in this sort of behaviour with foreign military super powers, but digital companies imagine themselves to be operating above our elected leaders.
You do not have to regulate their power but rather empower everybody else. If the government enforces the public forum on these platforms and removes their ability to erase people and content, then their ability to manufacture politics is greatly reduced. If you allow people to once again produce content, rival products will emerge, forcing market economics back onto our digital platforms.
The threat of competition is the only way to keep these bastards honest and our platforms above the mob.
By ellymelly – If you enjoy my work, consider shouting me a coffee over on Ko-Fi