Hello! Some folks have been asking me for my opinion on the recent decision to deplatform Donald Trump from major social media platforms, so here’s a special bonus edition of Yellow Canary Land 🐤 . I think it’s largely a good action and much overdue, but as this is a newsletter about the future, let’s take a look at some potential long-term implications.
My thoughts are still forming, but here are three reasons for pessimism and three for optimism that guide my thinking.
Three Reasons for Pessimism
The process by which this happened only highlights the enormous power of private platforms in governing what have effectively become private online spaces where public, civic discourse happens. Think about shopping malls and college campuses — urbanists call these quasi-public spaces, and the internet is very much a digital quasi-public space that is global, rather than municipal. These content moderation decisions haven’t been applied consistently, and they are complex and confusing. Countless people suffer around the world outside of the public eye, beyond the language and cultural abilities of Silicon Valley decision-makers, as a result.
The timing of this decision can’t be disconnected from the fact that the Democrats will soon be in control of the White House and Congress, and that new regulations are on the horizon. It is rational to assume that publicly-traded companies will work to preserve their bottom line, and the bottom line is always affected by where the political winds are blowing. The evidence for harm has been there for a long time. What took so long?
While it’s tempting to assume that authoritarians around the world on social media will start to realize their actions online may have consequences, Silicon Valley is not the only tech game in town. Government leaders around the world will not readily yield their power to platforms in California. The Chinese and Russian models of internet governance and control are going to look awfully tempting right now.
Three Reasons for Optimism
Major platforms are finally taking their role as platforms for expression seriously, and they are learning that harmful speech can and does have corrosive effects on society. As David Kaye, the UN’s former special rapporteur on freedom of speech and expression, has noted, “The prevalence of online hate poses challenges to everyone, first and foremost the marginalised individuals who are its principal targets. Unfortunately, States and companies are failing to prevent ‘hate speech’ from becoming the next ‘fake news’, an ambiguous and politicised term subject to governmental abuse and company discretion.”
A close analysis of Trump’s content in the past week doesn’t necessarily have obvious incitement in the language. It’s only through knowing the context — the Capitol has been breached after a Trump rally — that the violence/potential violence of his words makes sense. This is an important case study for the inclusion of context as part of content moderation decisions. Ultimately, the thorniest content moderation problems require a close understanding of context in relation to content.
Just as public pressure has compelled action on climate change, public pressure can compel action on internet governance decisions. Yes, these are private companies, but right now, they answer first to their shareholders, and then to the public interest. The movement on content moderation accountability is helping bump up the public interest in priority. We’re seeing the playbook come together, thanks to tech workers, outside activists, media narratives and key politicians.
One Optimism/Pessimism Bonus Round
If US media history is any lesson, we should fully expect a partisan internet, not now, not even next year, but one day. The much-feared Splinternet may soon describe the US’s internet. On the other hand, this moment in history might give rise to an evolution of the internet that’s aligned with international human rights standards, with transparency, good governance and civic responsibility taken into account. Think about how many investors think about ESG — environment, social and governance — goals as part of a more robust bottom line by which to evaluate companies. The next few years will be telling.
A Meditation for Times of Heartbreak 🧘
And before I go, here’s something new from me on Medium, inspired by words of wisdom that have guided me through difficult times. I hope they can be helpful for you, too:
We live in times of great heartbreak, times of great suffering. The fallacy we brought to 2021 was that it might be better, might get easier, but what we’re learning is that the legacy of 2020 remains. If each year feels more difficult, each day still brings opportunities for joy, and each day teaches us that the only way past these times is through them.
Yellow Canary Land 🐤 is a monthly look at the future of global media and technology. It’s ostensibly about some distant tomorrow, but really, it’s about how the forces of our yesterdays and todays are likely to shape the times to come. Don’t expect a lot of emails, but do expect a lot of thought put into each one.
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