Social Media and its Ultimate Conundrum
Social media technology is a curious phenomenon. It has a way of pushing the human race to new achievements. It helps connect those in need and can help foster stronger relationships. But social media can also be abused and used for all the wrong reasons.
Bad actor is a common phrase you hear in social media. Essentially, I take this to mean a racketeer, which, let’s be honest, is a much stronger word. In general, I’m referring to those people who want to stir it up and cause turmoil on a digital platform for some personal or business gain.
You probably ran into a similar type of behavior when you were younger. Someone who yelled out in class for attention or pure disruption. Or a bully looking to cause trouble because they were bored. Self-promotion to the fullest. These same crazies are out there today, stirring it up to shift power in the business and political worlds. The problem is, with social media they now have a platform to be heard worldwide. The real question is, does social media have any obligation to do anything about it? Take a look below at this infographic exploring social media impact on “news”. There is no question the power of social media and its influence. But there is the question of where they draw the line on content control. Let’s explore further.
Racketeering on Social Media
2016 had to be one of the more intriguing political years in American history. You had two completely different candidates running for office with the country on fire with opinion. Then there was Facebook. Quietly going about it’s business trying to connect the world one cyber like (👍) at a time. And then you had your racketeers.
The American intelligence committee determined that Russia (among others) interfered with the election. Accounts and pages on Facebook were geared towards propaganda and hateful posts, all with the intent to stir discord amongst the masses. They went so far as to incite rallies and protests which otherwise would not have been coordinated. In short, their goal was chaos and misinformation. The problem was, it was very challenging for Facebook to filter out the noise. All Facebook wanted to do was connect people. Ironically though, the platform had been turned on it’s head to promote fear and anger between people. And like those cockroaches in your wall — once you find one, you know there’s many more to follow.
Not just the Book
So how far does Facebook dig? You go too far, you risk alienating your prime base of customers, the 90% that mean well. You do too little, you risk becoming a hot bed for nefarious activities and your credibility suffers.
And so Facebook was not the only social media outlet dealing with interference. Twitter and Google struggled to filter content as well. False accounts were created and misleading election claims were tweeted frequently throughout the campaigns. Advertisements were paid for and false information spread using Google’s vaunted search engine. People found that exploitation of these platforms was not only easy to do, but incredibly powerful as well.
Social Media got sucker punched. In their infinite quest to connect the world and do good, they forgot about the bullies and racketeers. Multiple criminal investigations later proved the worst kept secret in America: our political system could be corrupted via social media! 😨
I’ll let you catch your breath. Now let’s continue.
This goes wayyyyyy back
Now that you’ve moved past that ground shattering statement consider for a moment that we are entering a new stage of corruption. A brief history lesson. At some point during the 1800s, organized crime is said to have originated. These were the original racketeers, using muscle, weapons or veiled threats to influence outcomes, whether in politics or business.
As time progressed, organized crime had to become craftier at imposing their will as law enforcement dug in. Guess what? They still found a way to succeed, albeit with some bumps in the road.
So flash forward to today. These organizations have become craftier yet. Except now the streets are not the prime path to disruption. It has instead become the information superhighway (I went there).
Even with law enforcement and social media hot on their tail, these modern day racketeers are still finding a way. So just how responsible is social media at taking these guys out? That, folks, is the hundred dollar question.
Social Media Involvement
Google’s motto famously once was, “Don’t be evil”. They’ve since divorced themselves from that motto as of April 2018. However, the motto indicated that at one point, they believed they had a responsibility to filter or police the content they were distributing if it was deemed evil.
Twitter, Google and Facebook have all been in the news recently on this topic. Questions about what they should or should not censor and how much control they really have over their platform. It really is a fine line though between freedom of speech, propaganda, and censorship. Let’s look at a few examples.
Social Media Giant: Facebook
After Facebook’s embarrassing Cambridge Analytica scandal, the company quickly had to prove to it’s users it was in control of it’s platform. They started by removing a litany of pages that were suspected of foul play. They then followed that with updates to their algorithms to filter for racketeering. Unfortunately, there are still holes. So what now?
Facebook attempts to connect people far and wide; it is their main charter. But after all the backlash, the platform is now being policed. Most people abhor Nazi rallies being organized on the platform. And certainly any fake news steering bias in our political campaigns screams of fraud. So on some level it fully makes sense to police the platform.
Simply playing devil’s advocate, you could argue fake news is being spewed every day by normal people who either don’t know any better or have their own agenda. The same goes for hate rallies or bullying. So how far does Facebook dig? You go too far, you risk alienating your prime base of customers, the 90% that mean well. You do too little, you risk becoming a hot bed for nefarious activities and your credibility suffers. Free speech vs fact. So many ways to look at this and there is no real easy answer in this debate.
They are certainly responsible for controlling their platform. But it seems it is difficult to define where their responsibility stops. The debate rages on.
Social Media Giant: Google
Google has faced similar scrutiny as its colleagues. Notorious for its search algorithm and perceived bias over the years, Google is a lightning rod for debate over its responsibilities. Racketeers have attempted to beat the algorithm and skyrocket to the top of search results. Or some have very simply taken out Ads – many of which found a way through the content filtering set up by Google. Again, where do they draw the line. How tedious and painful does the ad process have to be before you lose honest customers?
Google has a massive amount of power and influence. There are 3.5 billion searches a day on the platform. Some would then argue that their influence is so vast that they have an obligation to protect its users from false propaganda. At the same token, a search is a search. Technically speaking, Google is merely interpreting what you are looking for and producing a result. The problem is, it is not clear whether Google is agnostic to the results. While the algorithm may strive for neutral results, it is still developed by humans. And guess what? Humans are flawed. Even you.
Maybe this boils down to the company and its charter. So what is Google? According to Wikipedia, “Google LLC is an American multinational technology company that specializes in Internet-related services and products, which include online advertising technologies, search engine, cloud computing, software, and hardware. ” No where in there does it state that it is a news outlet. So one could make the case that they literally have no other obligation than to deliver these products, i.e. search results and ads. If the consumer doesn’t like the product, they find an alternative.
Again, playing devil’s advocate, you could also say they have an obligation to the public simply because of the impact its services render. Google’s motto famously once was, “Don’t be evil”. They’ve since divorced themselves from that motto as of April 2018. However, the motto indicated that at one point, they believed they had a responsibility to filter or police the content they were distributing if it was deemed evil. So one could argue they don’t go far enough in protecting free speech or factual content.
Again, there is no clear cut answer. It does seem obvious that with the power they wield, they should feel compelled on some level to deliver factual content to its users. The problem is, it’s not always clear what is fact. So yet again, our debate rages on.
Social Media Giant: Twitter
Twitter might be my favorite of the social media darlings for this discussion. The social media giant is literally a platform for free speech. Sorta. Like it’s colleagues above, Twitter has seen its share of negative press as it relates to bots, election interference, etc. Though, their responses have been slightly more measured compare to the others.
Infowars is a known right wing site that offers up some interesting, albeit at times uncorroborated, news stories. The temperament of the site can range from conspiring to downright angry. Some would argue though, that these stories do point out some inconsistencies for some high profile cases.
Apple started the party by banning Infowars on its platform. Facebook and YouTube (Google) followed suit. Then there was Twitter. At the time, CEO Jack Dorsey made some comments to suggest that Infowars hadn’t violated any of their policies. Shortly thereafter, they too banned them, curiously enough. The reasoning cited “abusive behavior”, which was against Twitter’s policies. Right or wrong, it put Twitter squarely in the information war spotlight. They reacted and showed some sense of responsibility for its content and users. Though this one originally felt like a shift to the free speech arena. So who truly knows what’s going on in this example, just worth noting.
Free speech is a tricky thing. Even on a platform whose sole charter seems to celebrate free speech is defining just what “free” means. Clearly, Twitter has every right to define behavior acceptable for its site and what will be tolerated. However, is Twitter socially obligated to go further?
Again, as big as Twitter is and the influence they have, most would argue they have a responsibility to filter on some level. However, like the other social media giants, how far should they go? At what point is it up to the users to make their own decisions regarding what content they consume? When does social media trust the public to not be evil? Of course that’s a loaded question because there will always be the racketeers. The question really becomes, how much can social media trust the common consumer to filter its data?
Social Media Charter
So it is quite difficult to say where social media should draw the line. Most people would reason that hate speech, conspiracies, or political tampering have no place in their daily consumption of media and news. Thus, it is the duty of the social media giants to filter out the noise.
It quickly becomes an ethical issue though of “who is telling the truth”? Is there bias in these social media outlets in which content they suppress. Granted, some political tampering is likely quite obvious and make sense to ban. But what about the average citizen who is trying to create a grass roots movement? Clearly, social media is the fastest way to gather support. Sometimes that gray line is hard to define. And sadly, it’s only getting harder.
Social Media has a tough job ahead. Trying to facilitate a neutral environment where free speech is welcomed while filtering out abusers. This will be an ongoing battle to be sure. And maybe competition wins the day with new social media that doesn’t police or filter at all. Then people can have their options. In the meantime, be careful what you post. Suffice to say, your content is being filtered!
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