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It was only a matter of time before the rage would spill out of the digital echo chambers of politics, into real life. The storming of the U.S. Capitol by incited Trump supporters marked the historic moment, as it happened with frightening radicalism. Consequently, just a few days ahead of Joe Biden's presidential inauguration, social media platforms blocked the accounts of the outgoing U.S. President, resulting in the eruption of a debate that will affect the future of the editorial society: Should digital platforms make their own decisions about who participates in social communication, and how? Is this even their duty - or censorship? How do we break through extremist filter bubbles? And how do we reinforce the power of facts? U.S. journalist Whitney Wei - Senior Editor at LOOPING GROUP and Editor-in-Chief of "Telekom Electronic Beats" – delivers answers.
Over the last few weeks, debates over America’s First Amendment rights have been fiercely contested all over the world. After the violent “stop the steal” insurrection at the Capitol, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, TikTok, among several others banned Donald Trump from their social media platforms in what many declare as long-overdue reaction to his fervent spread of disinformation. Joe Biden’s inauguration has not arrived fast enough, and his entry into office is marked by two unprecedented events: the second impeachment of his predecessor Donald Trump and Big Tech’s self-appointed role in interpreting and enforcing the U.S. Constitution. The latter event holds grave implications within the media landscape that extend to jurisdictions even beyond the Land of the Free.
Social media has evolved over the years from a glorified bulletin board and laissez-faire forum for its users into a go-to news source for trending global events. What’s more, online audiences, such as those on Twitter, are proven to reward vitriolic language by retweeting these comments up to a 15% to 20% higher frequency. So it is no surprise that the President of outrage himself, Donald Trump, was able to stoke the fire of discontent until his supporters could no longer see outside of their own echo chambers.
One of the biggest pitfalls of social media is that its users are under the influence of a potent brain circuitry that actively seeks peer approval through emotionally charged rhetoric at the cost of reliable facts. The intrinsic problem here is that these monopolies such as Facebook and Twitter are engineering to promote engagement by any means necessary as a part of their business model. Social media has hijacked and monetized user attention to a point where many people are not incentivized to leave the platform to read a full-length news article and instead take in incendiary false information at face value. By nature of such an unethical design, one that enables rallying cries over critical thinking, of course there are disastrous consequences. It was only a matter of time until radicalized anger convened and spilled out into real life.
The censorship of Trump, as well as his cohorts on the alt-tech platform Parler, is a mere band-aid solution. His accounts have been suspended, not permanently deleted, and it seems his supporters have flocked to new hubs for unmoderated engagement, such as CloutHub or encrypted messaging services like Telegram. As these far-right movements descend further underground, there will be even less visibility for outsiders to monitor their potentially devastating actions. These fringe groups, sequestered away from the mainstream, will have even less exposure to credible facts. In the long term, it is up to the Biden administration and Congress to introduce legislation and work with Big Tech to mitigate many of the disinformation issues that have risen throughout Trump’s tenure – namely breaking through the right-wing echo chambers and prioritizing the posts of reputable news sources.
Noah Feldman, a Harvard law professor, described the differences between American and European understandings of free speech in his March 2017 column for Bloomberg, suggesting a new, viable interpretation of the First Amendment rights.
“U.S. constitutional tradition treats hate speech as the advocacy of racist or sexist ideas. They may be repellent, but because they count as ideas, they get full First Amendment protection. Hate speech can only be banned in the U.S. if it is intended to incite imminent violence and is actually likely to do so. This permissive U.S. attitude is highly unusual. Europeans don’t consider hate speech to be valuable public discourse and reserve the right to ban it. They consider hate speech to degrade from equal citizenship and participation. Racism isn’t an idea; it’s a form of discrimination.”
In an era of hyperconnectivity and its potentials for the editorial society, it’s now necessary for lawmakers to question whether there are ways to reframe traditional free speech interpretations to adapt to the digital age that do not enable the destabilization of democratic processes. Right now, social platforms banning the president is a strong signal of power. Considering the impact of the Cambridge Analytica data breach on the previous election, these actions by Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and others indicates their willingness to protect American democracy by their in-house means, but one that, moving forward, must be carefully implemented in close observance to the country’s evolving laws.
Mainstream social platforms are not the only ones to blame for populist ignorance. Yes, they were the ones who disrupted the traditional advertising models that funded many media outlets, among them The New York Times, Washington Post, and The Economist, causing them to erect pay walls; however, publications like the Times to hawk their weekly subscription models under the slogan of “The truth is essential,” and “Independent journalism can help us understand what’s happening and how to navigate it all,” making me question for whom is the truth most essential? Social media conspiracies are incentivized over unbiased reporting not only due to algorithmic disruptions in user attention, but because these platforms are free.
The first step is breaking through extremist filter bubbles; the second step is to consider broadening access to the facts, if that’s what these outlets proclaim they value so much. American Democracy is dependent on it. Truth itself has become a commodified product that now only the privileged with expendable income can afford. Meanwhile, right-wing sources like Breitbart, Fox News, the Daily Wire, the Federalist, the Washington Examiner remain free. Life-long Republican Elizabeth Neumann, a Department of Homeland Security official who oversaw domestic terrorism, resigned in April after seeing the ways in which the White House willfully enabled mass radicalization. "I am wrestling with: How do I help people that have, unbeknownst to them, they've become radicalized in their thought? They hold views they didn't hold 10 years ago because all they listen to is that conservative infotainment," Neumann told NPR in December. "Unless we help them break the deception, we cannot operate with 30% of the country holding the extreme views that they do."
Freedom of speech is only one portion within a larger nexus of problems that demand reforms in the United States. As the rest of us wait for Biden and Congress to intervene on the future actions of Big Tech, those in media need to reflect on the ways in which their glass tower business models have also contributed to widespread ignorance. If truth is so important, quality journalism outlets should be subsidized or offer the option for readers to contribute pay-it-forward subscriptions for the financially marginalized. The war against disinformation doesn’t only live on monopoly platforms; the access to truth implicates all of us.
About the Author
As a journalist, Whitney Wei writes about club culture and electronic music. She studied economics and social history at Barnard College, Columbia University. Her texts have appeared in "The Guardian," "Vogue US," "Pitchfork," "Mixmag" and "Highsnobiety," among others. As Senior Editor at LOOPING GROUP, she is responsible for the chief editorial office of "Telekom Electronic Beats".