Miles Stephenson: Social media’s oversized issues

Monday, April 1, 2019 - 4:11pm

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Christine Montalbano

Social media has evolved incredibly during my lifetime. Since originating with the social networking platform Six Degrees in 1997, a primitive Myspace, it has grown in both influence and dynamism. After solidifying its roots with the recognizable Facebook in 2004, the following iterations of Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat pushed boundaries in social media’s format and style. In middle school, I experienced the popularization of influencers: teams of disciplined curators whose accounts wield the attention of millions and inform their concepts of language, dress, memes, social behaviors, politics and more. These influencers brought about an age of editing and analyzing on the photo-sharing service Instagram, and further linked the platform to commercial agendas through advertising. In 2016, we witnessed social media play an influential role in presidential elections with Twitter, the microblogging service practically monopolizing the global political discourse between pundits, commenters, candidates and everyday Americans.

Social media is often criticized for its edited and filtered representations of people’s lives. These “highlight reels” are designed to technologically monetize users' egos with a currency of validation. The Guardian’s article “Logged off: meet the teens who refuse to use social media” explores a Gen-Z backlash to the social pressures of Instagram and Facebook, while Psychology Today’s article “Does Using Social Media Make You Lonely?” and The New York Times’ piece “In Search of Lost Screen Time” examine the symptomatic issues.

What social media platforms are criticized for less frequently is the control they exercise over our interactions in worldwide discourse and their misuse of our personal information. These platforms have a responsibility to try to connect to people from all around the world. The owners and moderators of these platforms must be held accountable for censorship and the control and backdoor trading of our personal data – if social media is to remain a force for good .

It is estimated that today nearly one-third of the planet uses social media platforms to connect beyond languages to dissimilar parts of the world. Social media, in this sense, serves as a spyglass that illuminates different ways of doing things. This technology is impacting lives more than previously imagined possible, and some have begun to investigate what these social media platforms are doing with this new responsibility.

Twitter has recently come under fire for the process with which it arbitrates the banning of tweets. Some say it is an issue of political bias. Others find fault with the fact that these decisions to censor the free expressions of others in a global arena are made not by elected officials in our government, but by a corporation, and more specifically, by an unelected, often politically biased individual employee. In an interview with CNN’s Brian Stelter, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey stated, “I think we need to constantly show that we are not adding our own bias, which I fully admit is left, is more left-leaning.” That said, Dorsey also admitted Twitter is so liberal that conservative employees “don’t feel safe to express their opinions.” Recently, on the podcast “The Joe Rogan Experience,” independent journalist Tim Pool squared off against Dorsey and Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s global lead for legal, policy and trust and safety, on issues of alleged censorship and lack of transparency. One of Pool’s recurring questions was why the platform was treating users differently for their political leanings. When Dorsey and Gadde assured they only manage behaviors on their platform and not opinions, Pool gave evidence of the contrary.

Pool offered as evidence the overwhelming number of Twitter suspensions for right-leaning users combined with the lack of punishments for users on the political left. Pool listed numerous renowned commenters on the right spectrum like Milo Yiannopoulos, Gavin McInnes and Alex Jones who have been banned completely from the platform for their tweet content that was either deemed “hate speech” or “didn’t conform to Twitter standards.” Pool then contrasted this with several shocking posts by left-leaning participants that went unpunished. Antifa, a militant opposition to fascism and other forms of extreme right-wing ideology, published tweets with a “list of 1,600 ICE employees alongside photos, locations, and job titles,” some of which have still yet to be deleted at the time of this podcast despite their qualification as doxxing.

Comedian and actress Kathy Griffin first posed in a photograph holding a mockup of President Donald Trump’s severed head and more recently called for the doxxing of the Covington High School students, saying, “Name these kids. I want NAMES. Shame them.” Griffin suffered no punishment or suspension because of her actions. Pool also cited a Twitter user that tweeted three times calling for the killing of the Covington High School students and again faced no suspension or ban. Users proposing the beheading of the president or the burning alive of children suffered no sanctions, while those who promoted certain right-leaning positions, such as refusing to refer to transgender users by their correct pronouns, were routinely suspended. Pool asked Dorsey, “Why does it always feel like your policies are going one direction politically? Twitter is slowly gaining… too much control from your personal ideology based on what you’ve researched, what you think is right, over American discourse.”

Pool argues that Twitter’s rule controlling how users refer to transgender people with risk of suspension is evidence of Twitter using ideologically driven policies. Even if you agree with the rule, you might be able to see that it necessarily takes a stance on the issue of free speech, a stance that many conservative users of the platform disagree with. But where are the roots of this control? Pool argues that, because Twitter doesn’t follow the United States’ legal behaviors toward free speech and instead opts for a Constitutionally unrecognized hate speech regulation to curb harassment, it often comes down to an individual Twitter employee sitting at a screen and deciding if a post is allowed or not. This seems arbitrary, considering the conscious and unconscious bias from Twitter staff and other Silicon Valley personnel that might unfairly tilt the dialogue in one direction. U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., recently sued Twitter for $250 million for their alleged “shadow banning” of conservative users, as well as an alleged personal smear campaign. Again, politics aside, it’s important to note the control these platforms have over the expressions of free-thinking users.

Similar to Twitter’s issue of political censorship, Facebook has recently faced criticism for the inappropriate handling of its users’ personal information, with Zuckerberg testifying before Congress on the subject of data privacy. In December of last year, The New York Times reported that Facebook has been giving users’ personal data to tech giants like Amazon, Netflix, Spotify and Microsoft. Netflix and Spotify, video-on-demand and music giants respectively, were given access to read Facebook users’ private messages, while tech giants Microsoft and Amazon were given lists of Facebook users’ friends and contact information. While Zuckerberg was quick to argue that all Facebook users agree to a “Terms of Use” allowing such sale of personal and private information, these agreements imply compensation and verge on the Orwellian.

Netflix and Spotify now have the ability to strip-mine all kinds of personal information from Facebook users’ private conversations, such as your plans to move to a new neighborhood, your salary, the status of your relationship with your spouse and even your best-kept secrets. It’s then up to the individual to trust a global corporation with the proper application of his or her highly sensitive information. The Wall Street Journal’s article “Can a Facebook Post Make Your Insurance Cost More?” examines a potential future where posting pictures of a rock-climbing jaunt or alcoholic indulgence could impact your life-insurance premiums. These stories perfectly articulate the risk and burden that these platforms place on its users by collecting their personal information.

Privacy and free expression on the internet are on the line because of the actions of Facebook and Twitter. They don’t need to go much further to blur the freedoms of everyday Americans. Next time you log on to Twitter or Facebook, ask yourself, “What information about myself am I giving up by participating here and what will they allow me to say?”

Miles Stephenson can be reached at mvsteph@umich.edu.