Censorship in the age of Twitter

I see that because Meghan is the most trolled person in the world, she and Harry have quit social media (Instagram etc.). So how will they achieve their aim, through Archewell, to “unleash the power of compassion to drive systemic cultural change” by non-profit work and “creative activations through the business verticals of audio and production”? … No, me neither. But in practical terms it seems that they have decided not to share with their devoted public their opinions and photographs of what they’ve been doing. They have engaged in self-censorship in order not to attract the sort of vicious comments and threats that I can well imagine they received.  Of course they could simply have turned off the comments section of their Instagram site instead. The Queen is on Instagram and has hundreds of thousands of likes, but I can find no means of commenting on what is displayed. There is of course no ‘dislike’ option. But then, not enabling comments on such a site means that it’s less attractive to visitors and so less attractive to the Companies and organisations wanting to make money out of their internet offerings.

And then there’s Twitter. Twitter consists wholly of comments. There is no attempt at providing in-depth consideration of a topic. It was from the outset impossible, granted the limit of 140 characters for a tweet, unless you went to the trouble of creating a thread of tweets. Apparently, Twitter’s decision a few years ago to double its character count from 140 to 280 characters hasn’t dramatically changed the length of Twitter posts. According to data released by the company, Twitter is still a place for briefer thoughts, with only 1% of tweets hitting the 280-character limit, and only 12% of tweets longer than 140 characters. So then, it necessarily consists of sound-bites, slogans and references to opinions, rather than fully argued views. Much of it seems to consist of retweets from people of similar opinions, which means that those opinions swirl around amongst those holding them, but probably not much amongst those of a different view. But then I suppose that as one who writes essays, I would say that wouldn’t I...

But we now have a shift of gear with the banning of President (at the time of writing) Trump from both Twitter and Facebook. Not only that, but Facebook, Apple and Amazon have refused to continue to provide platforms for Twitter substitutes such as parler because, in their view, inadequate steps have been taken by those sites to remove posts supporting violence and hate speech, things which the big tech companies now find unacceptable. His supporters are crying foul because he has been ‘censored’ by these modern giants of capitalism. They say that comments or tweets should only be moderated if they are in clear breach of the law. The justification put forward by Twitter is that he wrote two tweets on Friday, two days after the storming of Capitol Hill, one calling his supporters “great patriots” and another saying he would not go to Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration. These, they say violated its rules against glorifying violence. Although in themselves not glorifying violence, many people took them to be an encouragement to his supporters to go to the inauguration and cause trouble, secure in the knowledge that their hero would not be there. Of course Twitter could have pointed to any number of other tweets from @realdonaldtrump which were blatant breaches of its policy during the last 4 years, but they had allowed them to stay. Why? Because they brought extra traffic to Twitter and so extra revenue to Jack Dorsey.

Finally, though, the tech giants have decided that being party to violence is not a good look and have acted. The immediate effect is that The Don has lost his many millions of followers and will have to get them signed up instead to whatever new platform he manages to use. This of course was precisely what he didn’t want and why he didn’t use the POTUS handle, an account available to him only whilst president. He wanted to take all his followers with him – if he ever left. This would mean that he could continue to bombard them with his Big Lie about fraud and so drown out opposing voices trying to get their views across to his faithful, just as all despots around the world try to do. As far as Twitter etc. are concerned, the question is whether this policy will as a matter of fairness be extended throughout the myriad tweets and tweeters using its services.  And of course, what they have done and may do will affect their bottom line. Already Twitter’s share value has fallen by 7% (11.1.2021).

This brings us to the second question - why should the tech companies be entitled to censor anyone?   Donald Trump Jr. said - on Twitter -. “We are living Orwell’s 1984. Free-speech no longer exists in America.” Other right wing extremists have called it “a direct assault on the First Amendment”, although the last time I looked neither Facebook nor Twitter were part of the government and so subject to the first amendment. And we can of course turn the question around. What entitles any particular person to post anything on any platform? If I decide to use a particular platform, then I sign up to its terms. And if I accept them, I cannot then complain if I am banned for ignoring their rules. The difficulty is that the various social platforms are all pervasive in the lives of so many and so, ironically, are seen as an entitlement. Users see them in the same way that we would see access to the NHS - as an entitlement. But these are people who strongly oppose government intrusion into their lives or that anyone should have the right to anything from the State. So why do they think that they should have a right to use the services of any privately owned social media provider?

Now, clearly, vicious comment has existed since man first learned to speak, and I’ve no doubt there are some unfriendly allusions in amongst the cave paintings. Since newspapers first appeared, editors have exercised the right to decide what they reported and what they said about people (within legal limits). That remains the same today with virtually every news outlet clearly adopting the promotion of certain ideas and the disparagement of others. But the social media companies have taken this to a new level. Not because they have adopted a particular set of political policies, but because they have allowed each of us to have our own micro news feeds, feeding our preconceptions and prejudices. It is a form of passive censorship. Unless we actively seek out other opinions, then we shall be confined to our bubble, our own echo chamber, all brought to us by the most successful algorithms ever developed, algorithms which provide us with the comfort that we are right in what we think and from it make a fortune for the companies promoting them. And as a result we have the conspiracy theories and downright lies now rampant in the twitterverse.

Both in the UK and in America, journalism is subject to certain constraints regarding accuracy, but social media are expressly exempted. They are not regarded as publishers, but as platforms. This means that they are not responsible for actively seeking out and removing unlawful or misleading information on their sites. They only have responsibility when such a post is drawn to their attention. There is a move to change this in both countries so that they would become, legally, the publishers. If properly policed this could certainly reduce the amount of (real) fake news on theses sites. But it still leaves the main difficulty with social media: the echo chamber effect. The most effective remedy would be to ban the echo chamber algorithm itself so that, when you indicate by your search history or likes that you prefer a certain point of view, you would no longer automatically get more of it. It would also entail a greater probability of being exposed to stuff that challenged you. I’m not sure what that would do to the popularity of social media, but I don’t think I would shed many tears. So, ironically, the remedy might be not to stop you seeing others’ opinions, but to require that all the comments made should be given equal prominence. So, a sort of anti-censorship?

Paul Buckingham

11 January 2021

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