A new front in the content moderation war; An expected outcome in the old one
Substack, Spotify, and Clubhouse should prepare for “the onslaught that absolutely will be coming in their direction.”
Twitter and Facebook once so resisted content moderation, they adopted slogans calling themselves “the free speech wing of the free-speech party” and made grand speeches about free expression. But that’s no longer the case. In recent weeks — largely due to the Capitol riot — both companies expelled QAnon, purged Stop The Steal, and suspended Donald Trump.
As we consider the implications, let’s not forget what got them there. Well organized activists taking pro and anti-moderation stances put tremendous pressure on these companies to act, or hold off. Their influence campaigns featured hearings in Congress (“Big Tech is out to get conservatives”), advertiser boycotts (see: Sleeping Giants), and pressure from employees, both internally and via the press.
When these companies suspended Trump, it wasn’t impulsive. It was the culmination of a years-long process of listening, deliberating, and deciding. The final calls came from the top (which some criticized as arbitrary), but at least they were made by leaders with built-out policy teams. Trained in political combat, these teams helped Facebook and Twitter understand what they were up against, putting pressure into context.
Now that Facebook and Twitter have warmed to moderation, the war over content online will not end. It will just move on. And it’s worth considering where it’s going. After Amazon effectively took Parler offline, the battle appears headed to smaller, mainstream networks like Substack, Spotify (podcasts), and Clubhouse.
Pro and anti-moderation advocates will arrive at these platforms trained in combat on Facebook and Twitter. They will bring advanced tactics to companies with limited experience in these battles. The question is whether the companies are prepared.
“We discovered a lot of the issues with the bigger platforms about five years after they became too large,” Siri Srinivas, an investor at Draper Associates, told me in a new feature story published today in OneZero. “We’re using the same vocabulary to talk about Clubhouse.”
Substack, a platform I use and really like, has no policy team, and its founders run the content moderation effort. I’m not advocating for more takedowns, but I wonder whether the right infrastructure is in place for these companies to effectively grapple with what’s coming next.
“They’re going to have to prepare now,” decorated journalist Glenn Greenwald told me, “to resist the onslaught that absolutely will be coming in their direction.”
Down goes Parler, up goes Telegram
Soon after I sent last week’s newsletter about the rise of alternate social networks, Apple and Amazon pulled down Parler, one of the ‘free speech’ networks I mentioned along with Gab. Then, Twitter permanently banned Donald Trump.
As I emphasized last week, there’s value in considering the second-order effects. When people are booted from Facebook and Twitter, they don’t disappear. Many migrate toward niche social networks that can become echo chambers and further shatter our shared sense of reality. Now that Parler’s gone, they’ll go somewhere else.
In Parler’s waning moments, its highest-profile users directed their followers to Telegram, a messaging app founded by Pavel Durov, who also built the Russian social network VKontakte. A poorly worded privacy update on Whatsapp also sent people fleeing to Telegram. In the process, Telegram added millions of users. Signal, an encrypted messaging app, also surged, landing in the top spot of Apple’s App Store (Jack Dorsey loved it).
I’m not second-guessing the platforms’ decisions, but I do worry about the second-order effects. Will more people go from shitposting on Facebook to unaccountable insular communities? Will they also turn to violence?
Social media is a rolling social experiment. Facebook and Twitter are not yet twenty years old. So I’m reticent to predict what will happen. But the story won’t end here. If there’s anything to learn, it’s that you can’t solve problems with bans. At least not completely. To create meaningful fixes, you must look at the way the products work: The machine, not the outputs. By the time you’re banning people and ideas, it’s usually too late.
In this context, the words Jack Dorsey used to contextualize his Trump ban struck me: “I feel a ban is a failure of ours ultimately to promote healthy conversation.”
Further Reading / Listening
Sheera Frenkel did a nice job laying out what’s happening with Telegram on The Daily this week. (NYT)
I liked John Herrmann’s What Was Donald Trump’s Twitter?. Especially this paragraph about Twitter:
Twitter is a pretty appealing place to run a certain kind of political campaign. You can say whatever you want, even if it’s not true. You can appear available and accessible while also refusing to engage with anyone, for any reason. It’s a place where you can perform false legitimacy well enough to reap many of its benefits. (NYT)
Some of those who stormed the Capitol used walkie talkie app Zello. The Guardian got ahold of the audio, and it indicates there was some level of planning. “Everything we fucking trained for.” (Guardian)
Angela Merkel spoke out against Twitter’s Ban of Donald Trump. “The chancellor considers it problematic,” her spokesperson said. (CNBC)
If you haven’t read it yet, I’d recommend checking out The American Abyss by Yale professor Timothy Snyder. (NYT)
I joined CNBC’s Worldwide Exchange this week to talk about the social media bans. (YouTube)
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This week on the Big Technology Podcast: Should Facebook and Twitter Have Banned Donald Trump? A Conversation With Ryan Mac of BuzzFeed News
Over the past week, both Facebook and Twitter suspended President Donald Trump’s account. These companies don’t take such aggressive action lightly, and it took Trump sending a mob toward the U.S. Capitol, which they eventually breached, to force the issue.
For years, BuzzFeed News senior reporter Ryan Mac and I have been watching these companies’ every move. Previously as colleagues at BuzzFeed. Mac joined me this week on the Big Technology Podcast to discuss whether the social platforms’ moves were merited, where they go from here, and how he thinks about all the internal Facebook communication he’s obtained in his reporting.