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Social media censorship continues to escalate

In recent days another round of restrictions has been imposed across YouTube and Facebook, with social media companies increasingly being used as proxies in a culture war.

Most recently YouTube announced several new measures related to the safety of minors on the platform. The main driver seems to be the comments people post on videos, which anyone who uses YouTube knows often range from unsavoury to downright deranged. The specific issue concerns comments on videos that feature minors, so YouTube has disabled all comments on tens of millions of such videos.

On top of that millions of existing comments have been deleted, and a bunch of channels judged to have produced content that could be harmful to minors have been banned, which indicates this is not a new issue. YouTube tends to take its most strident action when its advertising revenues are threatened and a recent exposé on this topic prompted major advertisers, including AT&T, to cancel their deals, hence this announcement.

While YouTube has always been quick to protect its ad revenues, it has historically been less keen to censor comments or ban creators outright, so this definitely marks an escalation. The same can’t be said for Facebook, which seems to be the major platform most inclined to censor at the first sign of trouble. An endless stream of scandals over the past year or two have taken their toll on the company, which is now in a constant state of fire-fighting.

Facebook’s most recent piece of censorship concerns Tommy Robinson, a controversial UK public figure who concerns himself largely with investigating the negative effects of mass immigration. He recently published an uncomfortable documentary criticising the BBC on YouTube, which you can see below (at time of writing) and presumably promoted it via Facebook and Facebook-owned Instagram, because the latter two platforms decided that was enough to earn him a permanent ban.

 

In a press release entitled ‘Removing Tommy Robinson’s Page and Profile for Violating Our Community Standards’, published the day after Robinson released his video, Facebook explained that he had repeatedly violated its Ts and Cs by indulging in ill-defined activities such as ‘organised hate’. This seems to be a neologism for some kind of rabble-rousing combined with perceived bigotry.

“This is not a decision we take lightly, but individuals and organizations that attack others on the basis of who they are have no place on Facebook or Instagram,” concludes the press release. This sets an interesting precedent for Facebook as a significant proportion of the content generally found on social media seems to match that description. As is so often the case with any censorship decision, one is left wondering why some people are punished and others aren’t, as YouTuber Sargon of Akkad, recently kicked off micro-payments platform Patreon, explores below.

 

There is a growing body of research that points to many of these decisions having a political or cultural bias. Quillette, an independent site that publishes analytical essays and research, recently ran with a series entitled ‘Who controls the platform’, which culminated in a piece headlined ‘It Isn’t Your Imagination: Twitter Treats Conservatives More Harshly Than Liberals’.

The piece detailed some statistical analysis undertaken by the author to see if there is any solid evidence of bias. Using stated preference for a candidate in the 2016 US presidential election, it was concluded that Trump supporters are four times more likely to be banned than Clinton ones. The piece also highlights some examples of apparently clear braking of Twitter’s rules that nonetheless went unpunished, once more calling into question the consistency of these censorship decisions.

Investigative group Project Veritas, which had previously claimed to have uncovered evidence of ‘shadowbanning’ – i.e. making content from certain accounts harder to find without banning them entirely – has now moved on to Facebook. From apparently the same inside source comes the allegation that Facebook indulges in ‘deboosting’, which seems to amount to much the same thing. You can watch an analysis of this latest report from independent journalist Tim Pool below.

 

Nick Monroe, another independent journalist whose preferred platform is Twitter, recently reported that “A UK group called Resisting Hate is trying to target my twitter account.” Resisting Hate apparently compiles lists of people it thinks should be banned from various platforms and then coordinates its members to send complaints to the platforms about them.

It seems likely that this mechanism is a major contributing factor to any imbalance in the censoring process. All social media platforms will have algorithms that identify certain stigmatised words and phrases and automatically censor content that contains them, but as even the UK police have shown, that is a very crude technique without the ability to understand context. They therefore rely heavily on their reporting mechanisms, a process that intrinsically open to abuse by groups with a clear agenda.

And it looks like calls for censorship are starting to spread beyond just single-issue activist groups into the mainstream media – the one set of people you would previously have imagined would be most opposed to censorship. Tim Pool, once more, flags up a piece published by tech site Wired that, quite rightly, flags up the inconsistency of the censorship process, but then takes the step of calling out some other ‘far right activists’ it thinks Facebook should ban while it’s at it.  

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey recently did the interview rounds, including with several independent podcasters. While he was generally viewed as being a bit too evasive, he did concede that a censorship process which relies heavily on third party reporting is flawed and open to abuse. The problem is there is now so much commercial, regulatory and political scrutiny on the big social media platforms that they have to be seen to act when ‘problematic’ content is flagged up.

You don’t need to spend much time on social media to realise that it’s the battle ground for a culture war between those in favour of (selective) censorship and those who want speech to be as free as possible. There is unlikely to ever be a clear winner, but there is little evidence that censorship ever achieves the outcomes it claims to desire: protecting people from harm.

Nobody is forced to consume any content they don’t like and censorship never changes anyone’s mind – it just drives speech and ideas underground and, if anything, entrenches the positions of those who hold them. To sign off we must give a nod to the hugely popular podcaster Joe Rogan, who recently conducted a 4-5 hour live stream with Alex Jones, a polarising figure that has been kicked off pretty much every platform. You can watch it below or not – it’s your choice.

 


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