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A file photo of US President Donald Trump. (AP)
A file photo of US President Donald Trump. (AP)

Twitter blocks Trump but it’s a case of too little too late

The sooner social media platforms admit they cannot moderate posts by themselves, the better

What a week for tech watchers! Donald Trump, still president of the United States, is no longer allowed to post anything on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and yes, even his favourite Twitter. After originally placing him in a penalty box by suspending him for a few hours, Twitter said early Saturday that its ban was permanent. Trump, who by now is accustomed to Twitter, at first tried to use other Twitter accounts that he had access to, such as @POTUS and @TeamTrump, only to find those suspended as well.

In the brief interval between his temporary and permanent Twitter suspensions, Trump tweeted that he was “negotiating with various other sites" and suggested he might try to build his own social media platform. Many were expecting the right-wing ‘free speech’ app Parler to be his new blow horn, but it appears, for now at least, that this may not be the case. Parler was suspended by Google Play Store, and Apple is threatening to do the same on its App Store, unless the platform provides proof of its moderation policies. Also, Amazon has suspended its web-hosting service for the app.

In July last year, I wrote in this column that corporate America was adjusting its stance toward social media platforms, given the then reasonable odds that Joe Biden would win the presidential election. Mint reported on 27 June 2020 that Facebook’s shares had plunged 8.3% the previous day, erasing $56 billion of the firm’s market value. This was after a boycott of the firm by many well-known American corporations that thought the social media giant had not been policing itself well enough. Facebook had been a hold-out until several large corporations, in response to a movement of the US Anti-Defamation League called #stophateforprofit boycotted the social media platform and pulled out advertising.

Despite the symbolism of the #stophateforprofit movement, the truth is that social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have hardly been dented. They have been doing too little to moderate the content that is spread by using their platforms. They claim that the artificial intelligence (AI) they use is up to the task of winnowing out the truly despicable content that some people choose to post online. Despite these claims, sweat shops exist in the US for outsourced work that involves having a bunch of low-paid employees view gruesome videos posted online by the dark underbelly of humanity. I have written in this space before that these sweat shops have been documented to drive their workers to psychological breaking points while doing their traumatic jobs. The fact that such sweat shops exist is testament to the fact that the “AI can do everything" approach does not work.

The online silencing of a US president is itself a watershed event. It will serve as a fount for worldwide change in how these platforms are viewed and regulated.

But the events of last week showed us again that the role of social media in spreading anarchy runs deeper than simply providing a political leader a bully pulpit. The people who wreaked chaos upon the US Capitol on 6 January are not just a lunatic fringe, they included state-level legislators.

It was the equivalent of members of state legislative assemblies joining an armed and dangerous mob to storm Parliament House while in session. The very thought that this sort of mob attack could happen anywhere else in the world should make us shudder.

Social media platforms have long maintained that their efforts at setting content-moderation policies are neutral and objective. Some of them have even appointed worldwide ‘luminaries’ to sit on their equivalent of internal courts who have the final say on whether certain posts with controversial content can go online. In truth, these efforts have regularly proven to be amorphous and malleable in the face of changing circumstances and political, public or fiscal pressures.

But deciding what to allow online, and whom to allow putting up posts and whom not to, can never be objective. By its very nature, what constitutes ‘free speech’ is highly subjective when the larger public interest is taken into account. The sooner these platforms admit that they cannot do the job of moderation solely in-house, even with the use of AI tools, sweat shops and internal courts, the sooner will we have legislation to ensure that free speech is not mistaken for a licence to incite violence or other horrendous acts, such as what was witnessed last week at the US Capitol in Washington DC. At the very least, the world needs transparency on the internal decision-making processes at these platforms. It would be a good start for them to offer clarity on this.

The trouble is that people who live in digital bubble worlds also live in our physical world. Social media algorithms have changed how we think and conduct ourselves both online and in real life. They have nurtured extreme and fringe content by elevating it and allowing it to spread, thus creating echo chambers that grow ever larger and polarize opinions. If this is allowed to continue, and if ‘network effects’ are amplified, sudden and unruly mobilizations in our physical world could become the norm.

What many of us view as an insurrection or failed coup d’etat in the US was probably a successful publicity stunt for the outgoing president, who is likely to run for the White House again in 2024, unless legally barred somehow. And if he’s not back, there will be a facsimile standing in for him.

Siddharth Pai is founder of Siana Capital, a venture fund management company focused on deep science and tech in India

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