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The US election will test social media censorship to breaking point

Electoral losers are increasingly blaming social media for their failure, but this year will demonstrate that censorship is not the answer.

Democracy only works if the losers of elections accept defeat, but sadly few are inclined to do so these days. Now we have five stages of electoral grief that are directly analogous to the original Kübler-Ross model. We still have denial, anger and depression, but instead of bargaining we have litigation and acceptance seems to have been replaced with conspiracy theories in which social media plays a central role.

The central concern is that when people vote for the other team it must be because they were mislead in some way, because no rational, fully informed person could fail to recognise the superiority of my team. In the past some blame could be attached to the mainstream media, something the UK Labour party still persists with. In the US, however, Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 despite having the support of no major media, would appear to render that theory obsolete.

Trump was able to prevail because politicians are no longer dependent on the old media to communicate directly with the electorate, thanks to social media. But this significantly lowered barrier to entry into the public sphere also provides fertile ground for electoral losers searching for mitigation and another bite at the cherry.

A favourite on both sides of the pond is to blame ‘the Russians’. While the focus of cold war paranoia has largely shifted to China, Russia remains a strong source of bogeymen. Now it should be noted that there is plenty of evidence of social media bot farms originating from a number of countries, including Russia, that apparently seek to meddle in elections. What is much harder to prove is whether they had any effect whatsoever on the outcome.

The small matter of evidence is never going to stand in the way of those refusing to concede defeat, however, and it has now become conventional wisdom that social media censorship is vital if we are to ever have untainted elections again. Since the US is in the middle of another of its interminable general election campaigns this year, the heat is being turned up on social media and they are being forced to respond.

Last week Twitter announced it was ‘turning on a tool for key moments of the 2020 US election that enables people to report misleading information about how to participate in an election or other civic event.’ The tweet below implies the tool has a broader purpose than that, though, as it also includes intimidation and misrepresenting of political affiliation. Already you can see how a simple censorship objective becomes immediately and massively complicated under the weight of interpretation, semantics and generally chasing its tail.

Then you have Google and its subsidiary YouTube blogging about how much they ‘support’ elections, whatever that’s supposed to mean. Again a lot of this focuses on content that is intended to mislead voters, but since electioneering is biased by definition, surely all of it is intended to mislead to some extent. YouTube also reiterates its aim to promote ‘authoritative’ voices, which is code for the establishment media and commentariat.

In contrast, Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is increasingly pushing back on censorship, having tried and failed to walk that tightrope since the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Perhaps motivated by the prospect of an extra four years of Trump, who has made his feelings known on censorship, Zuckerberg is now turning all free speech absolutist on us. Whether that position will survive even the first engagement of the US electoral process, however, remains highly debatable.

Early signs of the immense pressure these platform owners will come under are already appearing, with the Democrats mobilising supposed experts to ‘protect’ the electoral process. “Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucus will mark the DNC’s greatest challenge so far in efforts to guard its presidential contenders from the same fate that befell Hillary Clinton in 2016 when her campaign was upended by a Russian-backed hacking and disinformation effort,” reports the Washington Post in depressingly partisan fashion.

If that WaPo piece is anything to go by everyone is going to be trying to manipulate not only the US Presidential election, but the Democratic primaries too, where non-establishment candidate Bernie Sanders is currently the front-runner. Presumably YouTube doesn’t intend to punish the country’s mainstream media for misleading the electorate, so it seems it will support democracy by censoring everyone else.

As ever, restricting speech in free societies is a game of whack-a-mole, in which countermeasures can never hope to keep up with the desire of its people to say what they want. Even if the social media companies are successful in their stated censorship objectives, which they won’t be, the team that loses will still blame them. So they might as well not bother and trust their users to sort the wheat from the chaff. After all, they’ve been doing that with mainstream media for years.


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