Weekend musing - everything's political and now we get to live it

Profile picture for user gonzodaddy By Den Howlett January 9, 2021
Multiple social media bans are stirring up the debate about the place that social media platforms play in public discourse. Heres' my two penn'orth.

you're fired
(via Jack Sturgess on YouTube)

It's a well-worn expression but this week has demonstrated in spades the extent to which 'everything is political.' The Trump bans on Twitter, Facebook, and the threats from Apple clearly demonstrate that not in terms of those actions but in terms of the outpouring of alarm and praise at those actions. On the Facebook ban, Stuart Lauchlan pointed to the commercial imperative at the heart of political posturing when he recalled the Facebook threats to Matt Hancock, then the UK Minister for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport who, according to Lauchlan:

threw himself in front of every TV camera crew who couldn't move fast enough,  to assure the British electorate that he wasn’t going to tolerate the way Facebook operated, declare that it was time for tough, really really tough, legislation and boast that fortunately he was the very fellow to hold their “feet to the fire”.

But in private, when told directly by Zuckerberg that the UK government was “anti-tech” and that he might withdraw expansion from the country - this at a time when Hancock was frantically trying to big up tech investment for post-Brexit Britain - the ‘feet to the fire’ Minister suddenly remembered what he’d been told about not playing with matches, stuffed the firelighters into his desk drawer alongside his spine and started talking about “collaborative working to ensure legislation is proportionate and innovation-friendly.” In other words, 'Tell me how tough you want me to be, Mr Zuckerberg, please and thank you very much.'

Following Facebook's decision to put President Trump and a bunch of his fanatical, some might say deranged supporters, in the penalty box, Twitter quickly followed suit but went a lot further, announcing that it has indefinitely suspended the President's account. That has stirred up a torrent of emotionally charged Tweets from those who think Twitter is impinging on Trump's 1st Amendment right to free speech, casting the action as censorship. While I see where people are coming from, that argument doesn't hold water for me. 

From what I can see, both Twitter and Facebook are acting like any other commercial enterprise that's faced with an existential commercial threat. From their point of view, the prospect of imposed regulation doesn't sit well with their business model, any more than failing to report or express outrage in the media generally would be commercially suicidal for those whose business models depend on advertising and which in turn depend on large volumes of eyeballs to justify their ad-rents. And, in any event, the President can always call upon his buddies at Fox News to provide a bully pulpit. 

The fact that a link has been made between what was said at rallies and on Twitter etc prior to the terrifying events on Capitol Hill was not, in my opinion, anything more than a way for Twitter and Facebook to make a commercially sound decision. After all, what have you really got? An outgoing President whose commercial value just got torpedoed and an incoming administration looking like it plans to crimp your business. What would you do? And in that context, then by golly if everything really is political.

Some people have made a connection between exhortations to 'kick ass' and the violence that erupted on Capitol Hill as representing an act of sedition. That supposition may be tested in the courts but then I wonder how many people have attended field kick-off meetings where the closing rallying cry is 'Get out there and kick ass!' to the uproaring cheers of the field? I have attended those sessions and I've said much the same myself on occasion. Do those times represent incitements to violence? Of course not. But then these things are always about context. 

But we still come back to the issue of censorship. There can be little doubt that the Trump presidency's use of social media has set up conditions that bring into question the role that social media plays in the public discourse. Are platforms like Twitter and Facebook media or are they simply platforms that happen to have pretty sloppy 'rules' around how they're supposed to be used? Should the algorithms that play a large part in how their business models work be overhauled, or open to scrutiny? I can make arguments with some degree of authority for any of those cases but at the end of the day, I come back to diginomica's rules of engagement as a guiding principle. 

We are a form of media with commercial interests. We offer our partners a platform on which they can publish. There are two things that we always say to partners:

  • You can buy our time but you can't buy our opinion.
  • You can publish on any topic of your choosing but we edit according to what we think people want to read. Along the way, we will show you how and why we make editorial decisions so that your content as hosted with us improves. 

When it comes to commenting on our content, you can say what you want as long as it remains respectful of the topic author, does not include an element of overt promotion, and does not denigrate people. 

In short, we are in control and it is down to us to help our partners shape content that readers want, not simply repurpose content they publish on their own marketing sites. It's a fine line we have to walk but it's doable and we succeed most of the time. In the same way, we don't hesitate to scrub comments we believe breach our rules. 

That set of positions opens the door to a discussion that asks the question: then what are you?

I've long held the view that any media is, ultimately, biased. I make no secret of that reality and it is one of many reasons why anything we publish which includes a significant degree of analysis has a 'My take' section. In providing that capability, we are transparent in our approach that says it's OK to express an opinion, in fact, it's necessary, provided you can make the case on which you're expressing that opinion. It's not enough to say I agree or disagree, like or dislike, praise or excoriate. Your reasons need to be explicit. And we know that readers like that in much the same way they like that different authors take different positions on the same topic. 

Perhaps one of our most obvious areas of bias lies in our unequivocal support of diversity in all its forms and those who actively promote diversity.  This search uncovers 227 examples. We do so because we believe it is the right thing to do and that platforms like ours represent an important way to reach the informed buyer.

Some will argue that social media is different because each person is their own author and editor, free of many of the constraints that the media faces. To that, I say this: just as it's our turf and our rules, the same goes for social media. The fact that platforms like Facebook and Twitter have yet to figure out what that means for public discourse is their problem to solve. But the clock's ticking. The sooner they not only deal with the thorny problem of what is acceptable and what's not but also how that's applied in a fair and equitable manner for all users, the sooner we can settle into whatever counts for normality. My guess is that there will be a degree of regulation. While these platforms earn some praise for the actions they've recently taken, it's far from enough. And that sets up the opportunity for healthy debate. 

None of this prevents those people who are intent on creating mayhem from finding other ways to do so. There will, I'm sure, be other media platforms that cater to their view of the world. There's always fringe TV and radio as well as print media looking to support specific agendas. Let them get on with it according to the rules they choose to follow within whatever legal framework applies.  

Equally, as individuals, we have to decide for ourselves whether we choose to be part of the problem or part of the solution. But in the meantime, let's not kid ourselves about the commercial realities underpinning decisions taken, nor the political climates in which those same decisions are taken.