In the digital age, technology has given a voice to anyone who desires to be heard. A countless number of social media platforms have equipped us with a stage to exchange ideas, declare our views and share our knowledge. The world has truly become a smaller place, bridging the gap between cultures, communities, and its people.
With these platforms and forums, comes the ability for a single person to influence the masses and drive social discourse, than at any other time in our history. These countless platforms have become a powerful tool in the fields of politics, business, and commerce.
These platforms themselves carry an obligation of their own, in making sure a healthy use of there platforms exist for all their users. How can we, as a civil society, constantly in motion, be responsible with the social platforms that we use?
Censorship vs decency and truth
In the past few weeks, Infowars and its lead voice Alex Jone’s offensive content were removed from several social media and content platforms.
Apple, Google, Facebook and Spotify severely restricted the reach of Mr. Jones and Infowars, his right-wing site that has been a leading peddler of false information online. Mr. Jones and Infowars have used social media for years to spread dark and bizarre theories, such as that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax and that Democrats run a global child-sex ring. Apple made its move on Sunday and the others followed on Monday.
This wasn’t an autocratic decision made by these platforms, but a decision made after sighting policy violations which were used to justify these actions. Now to any independent observer you can’t deny that Alex Jones himself is paddling a business that utilizes conspiracy theories and misinformation. It’s also noteworthy that these steps by the platforms were not due to a change in any of the policies of the platforms. Alex Jones and Infowars have been actively engaging in these behaviors for some time. It seemed more to be motivated by public outcry and pressure.
The counter-argument has been that he is being silenced and his first amendment rights are being violated.
This is where it gets complicated. While he has the right to speak his mind, what responsibility lies with the platform he uses? This is where the values, mission, and policies of the platform dictate what is appropriate. Alex Jones and Infowars already have their own websites that allow them to reach their audience. They just lose the bullhorn given to them by these platforms.
How is this delicate balance handled by the platforms when they are being used to spread hate and misinformation? This brings us to the second issue faced by free and open platforms.
How and who would be the arbitrator of information? Where can the line be drawn? Will every single shareable article, blog post, need to be fact checked? Would it be based on complaints? How would a social media platform go about controlling misinformation while not being an arbitrator of censorship? Or is it simply the lack of intelligence or awareness of the public to recognize truth.
So far the tech companies answer has been primarily based on if the users and their statements engage in hate speech, and incite violence.
One of the primary attractions of the social media platforms was the anonymity afforded to its users. An email address and a username are all that are required in many of these platforms. What is the cost of this anonymity? In the wake of the Russian cyber attack and influence campaign during 2016 elections, this anonymity has become a vulnerability to the freedoms, civility, and truth in civil discourse.
How Airbnb addressed this concern when complete strangers were renting out and renting rooms online, was by having their users, whether it was a person hoping to rent out a room, or a person who is wanting to rent a room validate who they were by scanning /uploading their driver’s license and a profile picture that matches the profile on their site.
The new “Verified ID” service will use offline and online services to verify the user’s identity. For the offline portion, users can upload a photo of their driver’s license or passport. (Airbnb is using a company called Jumio to verify these offline ID’s.) Or users can confirm personal historical data about themselves.
If this same method was used to verify oneself on public forums, social media sites, dating app/site, there would exist a certain level of accountability to how you conduct yourself and act on these platforms.
While I understand the allure of anonymity online, the platforms can use this system to verify identities. This does not necessarily mean that personal information is held or viewable to the public, but that it is used to verify your self and be held accountable. Appropriate regulations and guidelines can be enacted to keep the process transparent and private while still safeguarding and making the web safer and better.
This accountability would eradicate another threat to civility and meaningful discourse on social platforms in the form of the “Internet Troll.”
The Internet Troll
The internet troll is an apparition of the 21st century. According to Collins dictionary and Indiana University: University Information Technology Services, a troll is a person who starts quarrels or upsets people on the Internet to distract and sow discord by posting inflammatory and digressive, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a newsgroup, forum, chat room, or blog) with the intent of provoking readers into displaying emotional responses and normalizing tangential discussion, whether for the troll’s amusement or a specific gain.
This behavior is wholly possible because of the anonymity that is afforded to those who partake in the forums. This type of behaviors in recent times, with the discourse among our leaders getting ugly, has become the new norm in most social platforms.
Self Regulation Vs Govt Regulation
There’s always the question of how much technology is empowering a small group of people to cause damage.
The companies need to be careful that they’re not … advocating things that would prevent government from being able to, under appropriate review, perform the type of functions that we’ve come to count on. – Bill Gates.
The digital world is having more of an impact on our society and discourse now than at any other time in history. With a Twitter president, the Russian attack on the democratic system, it is evident that the new cyber threat is of misinformation, missdirection and promoting chaos.
The tech companies need to start to have a rational transparent system, that regulates itself from the misuse of their platforms. This will be no easy task. Society will have to look at how we engage technology, social media, and forums in informing us and driving our discourse. We the public will need to be smarter and aware of what we see and read on these platforms.