What’s More Worrying About Tech Are Their Secret Algorithms

Not the fact that they can deplatform anyone they want.

What a week! While the focus of all of our political effort has been and still should be on the events that took place at the Capitol building last Wednesday, Republicans have ostensibly put all their efforts into shifting the narrative towards the wave of deplatformings that have occurred by a slew of tech companies. Donald Trump, a range of popular conservative talk show hosts, and many culpable Republican politicians have all fallen victim to various bannings from a variety of services. Perhaps most surprisingly Parler, a competitor to Twitter and Facebook that has billed itself as a completely free public town square of sorts, was one of the most targeted victims.

As it turns out, Parler’s hard nosed stance against moderating free speech may have cost CEO John Matze his business as first Apple and Google pulled Parler from its app stores and then Amazon stopped hosting Parler on its web services essentially offlining the app for the near future. It seems what started as a trickle has turned into an avalanche as vendor after vendor dropped Parler, leaving it all alone in the wilderness with no clear indication when or if it will be back. Predictably, conservatives have bemoaned all of this, claiming everything from this being tantamount to a free speech violation (it’s definitely not!) to repealing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) to calling for government to essentially nationalize tech companies thereby forcing them to adhere to First Amendment principles.

All of this is nonsense of course. Conservatives have long used weaponized projection to deflect from odious tactics they employ themselves. They complain about censorship using some of the biggest microphones available, often regularly dwarfing any liberal counterpoint in size and reach. They take expansive views of free speech that either get people killed or harassed indefinitely, and they treat all opinions as equal and facts up for debate. All of this is intentional of course, because they thrive on disorder and chaos. Their arguments fare better in the face of chaos. Their merch sells better in the midst of disorder, and their stock goes up as the world burns around them. Conservatives aren’t being persecuted. All of this is just brand building for them.

Photo by Merakist on Unsplash

To be honest, I’m quite gleeful witnessing Twitter’s recent bout of “courage” in deplatforming bad-faith conservatives in all their many shapes and sizes from their platform. I say bad-faith because their are plenty of conservatives still on Twitter and elsewhere who have managed just fine, built massive audiences, and managed to not be gigantic assholes about it. It’s always a specific type of conservative, the ones that decry victimhood and yet cower under a shield of victimhood every chance they get that constantly complain. These are the idiots, grifters, and con artists with the only distinction being the leaders who know better but couldn’t care less(i.e. Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham, etc.) and the marks who are too dumb to realize they’ve been lied to repeatedly.

Tech companies finally, after years of pleading, grappling with these fools in a somewhat serious way is an unequivocally good thing. It’s been documented that people across the world, not just at the Capitol, have died due to misinformation that has been supercharged on these platforms. Seeing them muster even the smallest amount of courage is monumental and should be applauded. That being said, I’m not naive. I know these companies aren’t doing this from the bottom of their hearts. I know in many respects these business moves by tech companies come far too late in the day that it’s almost comical. I know it’s all about the PR and the fact that Democratic control of committees looms large on the horizon. Nevertheless, celebrating the small wins is important.

Photo by Ludovic Toinel on Unsplash

Tech companies need guardrails.

Phew! Now that I’ve gotten all of that out, I will admit conservatives do have a point. It’s a small one, but it’s there. Regulation of tech companies is necessary and long overdue. The catch is that who a platform decides to remove and who it doesn’t is only a small piece of that puzzle. More specifically, the act of deplatforming conservative trolls is only a small drop in the bucket of the problems that need to be addressed when it comes to the Internet. Practically speaking, the CDA is the most robust regulation we have when it comes to speech on the Internet, and that was enacted back in 1996, long before Facebook was even a twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye. A lot has changed since then, and it is long past time we updated the rules of the road when it comes to tech companies and speech. In particular, while it’s absolutely within all of these company’s rights to use their discretion when it comes to enforcing their Terms and Conditions (T&C) as they see fit, some clear regulation from the government would go a long way in ensuring that what should be a predictable outcome for violating a given set of T&Cs is in fact predictable. This would go a long way in cooling much of the criticism these companies receive and reducing some of the bad-PR swirl that constantly surrounds them too. Essentially, the goal would be forcing companies to enact a given set of rules with consequences for breaking them, that should be applied across the board.

Additionally, all of these companies’ T&Cs need to be rethought. I wonder if the government should develop a general T&C for these companies that sets standards for regular users, influencers, and politicians. In my ideal world, the rules would get stricter the more influence an account wields, influence being defined on a variety of metrics. Basically, the louder your megaphone, the more rules you have to follow or risk getting kicked out. This should apply across the board and across the world. This should also especially apply to government officials of all types from the Ayatollah to Donald Trump and everyone in between.

Finally, there needs to be much more transparency required around the algorithms these companies have created to control what content is delivered to you and around what data they keep and how they utilize that data. I always find it funny when conservatives whine about how suspending people from these platforms is somehow proof that these companies are controlling what we see and think. The truth is that they have it backwards. I want to reply every time that these companies are absolutely in the business of controlling what see and think. You are right, but it’s definitely not by suspending certain people. These companies thrive the more people use their platform, not less. They control us by keeping are eyeballs locked in for as long as possible, while siphoning data from our brains so they know exactly what the next piece of content in are personal feed should be.

Photo by Clint Patterson on Unsplash

They’ve hacked are brains. That’s a fact, but the only way this hack works is if we continue to use their platforms. Their business models rely on this. Suspending people, especially rage artists, from their platforms run counter to their business model. These people they suspend are cash cows for them. It’s why it took four years and an impending Democratic trifecta to get any real movement on this issue. Donald Trump and all these conservative grievance-mongers are great for social media sites.

Ultimately, all these questions and potential regulations that might come about in the next two to four years center around one question: what, if any, are the limits of speech on the internet? How you answer that question will probably tell you a lot more about where you stand on all these issues than anything else. The trouble being is that the worst choice in all of this is doing nothing. The longer we do nothing, the more reality continues to bend and the quicker truth becomes only a relative concept.

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