Twitter, Facebook and Google this week finally landed in exactly the position they have been resisting for ten years: front-row politics. In deciding to ban Donald Trump from their platforms, they have made a decision to decisively intervene in the US Presidency, denying one side its voice and making a judgement on the legitimacy or righteousness of that position. It’s really important to take a breath now, and understand just what this moment means.
From the beginning, the social media platforms have always assumed the position that they don’t provide the content, users do. Their case is that they’re just providing the tech – like Microsoft provide the operating system, and Mozilla provide the browsers. Their environment is simply the commons, and people can do as they wish. As they have assumed scale, however, and combined that scale with carefully designed algorithms, they extend an influence and effective control over the world that their users have access to. There are fewer alternatives, as network effects reward the largest social networks with ever more growth, and the terms and conditions become more opaque. As Cathy O’Neil put it in her Weapons of Math Destruction, ‘[w]hile Facebook may feel like a modern town square, the company determines, according to its own interests, what we see and learn on its social network.’
Over the past ten years, the social networks have been gradually moving away from the increasingly untenable position that they were not censors, that free speech was a first amendment right (though internationally it was admittedly more complicated), and that people could vote with their feet. Initially, the censorship began with criminal activity: posting videos of violence, making threats of violence, and so on. Overtly digital threats – such as those from the hactivist collective ‘Anonymous’ were snuffed out early. From around 2015, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube began to play an active role in disallowing anti-American forces, espcially those in warzones like Iraq and Afghanistan from access to their platform. Discussions on ‘radicalization’ in Europe led to various actions and ‘deplatforming’.
Other ’causes’ that have led to bans or suspensions in recent years include revenge porn, defamation (particularly outside the US), harassment of various kinds (particularly where it would be criminal IRL or on a conventional cellular network), and then the curious category of ‘machine’ bans – where nefarious trolls or bots are detected and removed. Racism and militant white nationalism in the US became popular cases for suspensions, particularly after the election of Donald Trump, and following the Charlottesville riots. The Hong Kong protests resulted in several bans, and Facebook in particular has worked with Governments around the world to effect censorship through suspensions and bans for anti-government and opposition forces.
The banning of Donald Trump represents what appears to be a unique moment in a number of respects. Trump is the first democratically elected leader to have been banned. In addition, he appears to be the first democrat leader who has won the premiership having built his political base substantially through social media; Beppe Grillo in Italy may also be a case. It does not appear that democratic political representatives or candidates have been subject to bans in the past, with the possible exception of Ilhan Omar’s GOP opponent Danielle Stella in 2019 who threatened her with hanging.
With each step, as they grew larger, more relevant and influential, the social media platforms have grudgingly assumed more and more responsibility for policing what is ‘acceptable’ and what is not. They are not regulated in any substantial way, and therefore have no fallback upon which they can rely: they are their own sole line of defence. As platforms, their position has always been that they accommodate both sides. This maximises their returns in a commercial sense: the entire audience has a place here. But they are no longer platforms in the sense that, say, the telecommunications voice network is a platform: there, each caller is a secular caller, anyone can call anyone, and there’s no attempt to direct or influence content. On social media networks, their algorithms create what some call filter bubbles, manufacturing and reinforcing common groups based on abstract pattern matching. Content is ranked, measured, assessed and matched. As Cathy O’Neil describes the process, were she to create a petition on her page:
As soon as I hit send, that petition belongs to Facebook, and the social network’s algorithm makes a judgment about how to best use it. It calculates the odds that it will appeal to each of my friends. Some of them, it knows, often sign petitions, and perhaps share them with their own networks. Others tend to scroll right past. At the same time, a number of my friends pay more attention to me and tend to click the articles I post. The Facebook algorithm takes all of this into account as it decides who will see my petition. For many of my friends, it will be buried so low on their news feed that they’ll never see it.Cathy O’Neil, Weapons of Math Destruction, p. 179-80
That process of ranking, measuring, assessment and matching is a political process. It is a process of judgement, based on criteria determined, ultimately, by the commercial interests of private companies. There is no objective morality, no theology underpinning the methodology. That’s why when Donald Trump retweeted the leaders of British far right group Britain First in 2017, those people were banned from Twitter, while Donald Trump was not. He was too big to ban, his value to Twitter being assessed at the time at approximately $2bn.
This does not end the problem for the social media giants. One privacy commissioner has gone so far as to label the bans on Trump as cynical and arbitrary. “We should not be abdicating responsibility for the tough policy decisions required, and delegating responsibility for our community standards to conflicted corporates,” the New Zealand Privacy Commissioner John Edwards said. He’s right, of course, but in one sense he’s not: buried in his outrage is a sense that the Social Media companies are trying to get away with it. They have however established for themselves a threshold, a precedent that they will not be able to escape from. They were hypocritical and cynical in the past, establishing ‘special rules’ for ‘special accounts’, but it does appear that this time something different has happened. It’s not just that in some way their actions were in some sense objectively right; it’s that they have decided to actively alienate a very significant portion of their base.
I may be wrong, but it appears that we are starting to see a new class of social media company, one that accepts and becomes more comfortable with its status as political technology. These remain platforms that tolerate dissent, but they will be increasingly inclined to intervene and label it as such. While the charge of ‘arbitrariness’ sticks (and stinks!), it’s possible now that the algorithms (rather than the human moderators) will begin to ingest standards for political speech to counter the charge. Perhaps it may be mistaken for the first stirrings of sentience in our technology!