By Sawa Kurotani / Special to The Japan NewsShould social media companies decide what people can say publicly online? If so, who should decide what can (and can’t) be said by whom? This question has been simmering in my mind for a while. Popular social media outlets, from Facebook to YouTube, have been tightening their control of subscriber postings to curtail indecent, violent and illegal content. I understand that there is a need for a mechanism to deter the abuse of this ubiquitous media, but for platforms that depend on content contributed by their subscribers, their content controls are beginning to seem wrong-headed and overbearing at times.
Take, for example, the recent decision by Twitter to freeze U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell’s campaign account. It was precipitated by a video of protesters in front of his house, one of whom mocked the Senate majority leader’s recent injury in a fall and threatened, in quite concrete ways, to afflict physical harm on him. The violent nature of that person’s utterance is the reason for Twitter’s action, as well as its refusal to unlock the account unless the video was withdrawn.
I did find it disconcerting that an able-bodied person would insult a 77-year-old man, who fell and hurt himself; but the content didn’t seem terribly “violent” to me. No actual violence is depicted in the video and there’s a plenty of violent language on social media anyway. I could see why some critics were calling out the political bias with which Twitter and other social media appear to apply their content policies.
But then, I began to wonder. What is social media, and why should it refrain from having a political view of its own? Traditional press and news media — the so-called Fourth Estate — have always used their own standards on what to report and how, and wielded considerable power to form public opinions and influence major political decisions. Thomas Carlyle, a 19th-century political philosopher, wrote (though his attribution of the idea to Edmund Burke is likely an erroneous one) that, while “Three Estates” of the nobility, the clergy and the commoners formerly made up the Parliament, “in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”
Don’t be impressed — I only vaguely remembered the term “Fourth Estate” from a high school civics class and had to Google the rest. What Carlyle had to say about the traditional press seems relevant to our concern at hand: What if we think of social networking sites as news media outlets — albeit of a networked and “social” kind? Does it not give Twitter the right to exercise its own views and standards and have, at least, a degree of control over the contents it carries?
One critical difference is this: While content creation and distribution in the traditional media are both functions of a single entity (such as a newspaper or broadcaster), in social media, the content and the platform belong to different entities. So, we must ask the question a little differently: Whose agency should be more privileged, that of the media platform (and by extension its corporate owner) or that of the content contributors? If we side with the content creators/contributors and their right to express themselves, then, McConnell’s campaign should have been free to post the video as relevant to its own purpose.
Not to worry, corporations that own social media platforms thought about it already. According to the agreement we sign to open the account (including McConnell’s campaign staff, I presume), Twitter and other social media platforms have control not only of the content we post, but also the profile information we provide, and pretty much anything on the mobile devices we use. In other words, we gave up our rights by pressing the “agree” button and signing up for their services. At that point Twitter can do whatever it pleases — technically speaking — with the content it receives.
Regarding Fourth Estate media, there is an implicit understanding that its rights and privileges stemmed from its responsibility as a government watchdog and its legitimacy from its advocacy for those without voice. By contrast, the very premise of social media — corporations that own a platform simply provide a mechanism for contributors to put up what they want — makes it a challenge to pin down who bears social responsibility. What really count are the rights of the stockholders, who ultimately own the media platform, and the corporate responsibility to protect their interest.
Whether the majority of users support — or at least tolerate — their actions do matter, because it ultimately affects their corporate bottom line. They can’t do anything too controversial (like shutting down U.S. President Donald Trump’s account) for fear of losing their audience. McConnell must not be popular or important enough for such deference — at least in Twitter’s big-data driven estimation.
Oscar Wilde’s satiric commentary on the Fourth Estate (also courtesy of Google) describes our current predicament perfectly: “But at the present moment it is the only estate. It has eaten up the other three.”
Today, it might be said that social media is a Fifth Estate that has eaten up the other four. There’s virtually no escaping social media, which has become an integral part of our collective daily life. The best we can do is to think carefully about how much we give up for it and how much we gain from it.
As for McConnell, maybe it wasn’t such a bad trade-off after all. His frozen Twitter account generated a good deal of publicity (and there’s no such thing as bad publicity, they say) and earned him sympathy, even from some of us who don’t usually care for his political views.
Kurotani is a professor of anthropology at the University of Redlands.