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The accountability of social media platforms, in the age of Trump

November 10, 2016

Pundits and commentators are just starting to pick through the rubble of this election and piece together what happens and what it means. In such cases, it is often easier to grab hold of one explanation — Twitter! racism! Brexit! James Comey! — and use it as a clothesline to hang the election on and shake it into some semblance of sense. But as scholars, we do a disservice to allow for simple or single explanations. “Perfect storm” has become a cliche, but I can see a set of elements that had to all be true, that came together, to produce the election we just witnessed: Globalization, economic precarity, and fundamentalist reactionary responses; the rise of the conservative right and its target tactics, especially against the Clintons; backlashes to multiculturalism, diversity, and the election of President Obama; the undoing of the workings and cultural authority of journalism; the alt-right and the undercurrents of social media; the residual fear and anxiety in America after 9/11. It is all of these things, and they were all already connected, before candidate Trump emerged.

Yet at the same time, my expertise does not stretch across all of these areas. I have to admit that I have trained myself right down to a fine point: social media, public discourse, technology, control, law. I have that hammer, and can only hit those nails. If I find myself being particular concerned about social media and harassment, or want to draw links between Trump’s dog whistle politics, Steve Bannon and Breitbart, the tactics of the alt-right, and the failings of Twitter to consider the space of discourse it has made possible, I risk making it seem like I think there’s one explanation, that technology produces social problems. I do not mean this. In the end, I have to have faith that, as I try to step up and say something useful about this one aspect, some other scholar is similarly stepping up an saying something about fundamentalist reactions to globalization, and someone else is stepping up to speak about the divisiveness of the conservative movement.

The book I’m working on now, nearing completion, is about social media platforms and the way they have (and have not) stepped into the role of arbiters of public discourse. The focus is on the platforms, their ambivalent combination of neutrality and intervention, the actual ways in which they go about policing offensive content and behavior, and the implications those tactics and arrangements have for how we think about the private curation of public discourse. But the book is framed in terms of the rise and now, for lack of a better word, adolescence of social media platforms, and how the initial optimism and enthusiasm that fueled the rise of the web, overshadowed the darker aspects already emergent there, and spurred the rise of the first social media platforms, seems to have given way to a set of concerns about how social media platforms work and how they are used — sometimes against people, and towards very different ends than were originally imagined. Those platforms did not at first imagine, and have not thoroughly thought through, how they now support (among many other things) a targeted project of racial animosity and a cold gamesmanship about public engagement. In the context of the election, my new goal is to boost that part of the argument, to highlight the opportunities that social media platforms offer to forms of public discourse that are not only harassing, racist, or criminal, but also that can take advantage of the dynamics of social media to create affirming circles of misinformation, to sip the poison of partisanship, to spur leaderless movements ripe for demagoguery — and how the social media platforms who now host this discourse have embraced a woefully insufficient sense of accountability, and must rethink how they have become mechanisms of social and political discourse, good and ill.

This specific project is too late in the game for a radical shift. But as I think beyond it, I feel an imperative to be sure that my choices of research topics are driven more by cultural and political imperative than merely my own curiosity. Or, ideally, the perfect meeting point of the two. It seems like the logical outcome of my interest in platforms and content moderation is to shift how we think of platforms, not as mere intermediaries between speakers (if they ever were, they are no longer) to understand them as constitutive of public discourse. If we understand them as constituting discourse — both by the choreography they install in their design, the moderation they conduct as a form of policy, and in the algorithmic selection of which raw material becomes “my feed,” then we expand their sense of responsibility. moreover, we might ask what it would mean to hold them accountable for making the political arena we want, we need. These questions will only grow in importance and complexity as these information systems depend more on more on algorithmic, machine learning, and other automated techniques;, more regularly include bots who are difficult to discern from the human participants; and that continue to extend their global reach for new consumers, also extending and entangling with the very shifts of globalization and tribalization we will continue to grapple with.

These comments were part of a longer post at Culture Digitally that I helped organize, in which a dozen scholars of media and information reflected on the election and the future directions of their own work, and our field, in light of the political realities we woke up to Wednesday morning. My specific scholarly community cannot address every issue that’s likely on the horizon, but our work does touch a surprising number of them. The kinds of questions that motivate our scholarship — from fairness and equity, to labor and precarity, to harassment and misogyny, to globalism and fear, to systems and control, to journalism and ignorance — all of these seem so much more pressing today then they even did yesterday.

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