Uriel Araujo, researcher with a focus on international and ethnic conflicts
Social networks are a kind of new frontier in the realm of the internet. Multinational private companies (such as Twitter, Facebook, and others) nowadays have a tremendous influence on elections in terms of providing platforms for political speech and advertising and also in terms of their power to deplatform some actors. The case of former US President Donald Trump and social network Parler is very interesting. On Monday, Twitter filed a lawsuit against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. The company claims Mr. Paxton used his official capacity to retaliate against Twitter for political purposes.
Days after the US Capitol riot (in January, during the election protests, when a group of Trump supporters occupied the US Congress), Twitter permanently banned Donald Trump's account. This made many Trump supporters turn to Parler, a smaller social network with a significant conservative user base. Then, Google, Amazon, and Apple all blocked Parler in what appeared to be a co-ordinated effort to deplatform the former president. So, Paxton announced an investigation into these four big-tech companies regarding their content moderation policies. He requested several internal records pertaining to this to be made public. It is perhaps a little bit ironic that Paxton tweeted about this, announcing he had launched such investigation into Twitter and other companies.
Social networks are more and more becoming a kind of new Agora – even more so today when so much is being done remotely, in times of pandemics and social distancing. Common people announce their recent marriages to their followers and presidents, prime ministers and attorney generals announce their next moves to the masses. However, if such announcements are not taking place at Twitter, Youtube or other such platforms, they are likely to remain invisible. Being banned from the big platforms is indeed another kind of "canceling".
There have been several calls for “canceling” a number of individuals, which amounts to a new kind of social ostracism. One may incur the wrath of the cancellers by offending some contemporary progressive Western sensitivities, such as by saying that biological sex is real too and not just social gender (as was the case with writer J. K. Rowling).
Much has been written on this new Cancel Culture. What needs to be discussed also is that such condemnations, to be effective, depend largely on the magic of logarithms, and on the fortuitousness of a certain post going viral. It depends on platforms and social networks and on the response of other companies and sponsors seeking to avoid bad press. It is a court of public opinion without the right of a prior hearing and whose dynamics is governed by the heat of the moment. And such processes can have an impact on elections, on diplomacy and much more.
In the case of the cancel culture, some new cultural and political trends largely intersect and interplay with the policies of private companies that have become themselves a large part of the social tissue in the West. Promoting tolerance for trans people is part of the agenda, but Russophobia, Sinophobia and the promotion of “humanitarian interventions” is often also part of the package. For example, Facebook has blocked several articles by Russian news agencies regarding the arrest of Ukrainian nationalists of MKU (a Ukrainian youth organization). Apparently there was some controversy regarding whether they belonged to such organization or not. So, the articles have quickly been labeled as “Russian propaganda”.
Furthermore, social networks play a major role in the ongoing information warfare as we could see during the Arab Springs, in Ukraine in 2014 or more recently in Belarus. A 2016 NATO Strategic Comunications (STRATCOM) paper called “Social Media as a Tool of Hybrid Warfare” already called attention to the weaponisation of these platforms.
The online environment has become a battlefield for competing narratives and the state and non-state actors behind them. The very branding of some narratives as “fake news” or “conspiracy theories” (by different actors) is often part of the information warfare in the pursuit of soft power. However, such dispute takes place mostly in privatized environments – this means a handful of companies can set the limits and create the rules. It is a complex process, with a lot of grey areas.
Another issue is that the internet is a largely unregulated environment and it is unlikely it should remain so for too long – considering that terrorist groups such as Daesh also employ social networks to spread their message and considering that cybersecurity might get intertwined with national security (this was the controversy around TikTok app).
Content moderation and sanctions that are currently enforced by the policies of private companies might therefore become the subject of regulatory agencies – even transnational agencies within blocs such as the European Union and other blocs that might further develop such organs. This legislation process too will become a kind of arena. Facebook itself presented a proposal (in a white paper in July 2020) to “help” lawmakers around the world drafting privacy rules, thereby co-creating them with parliaments.
We should in any case expect governments and state actors to become increasingly more involved. Counter-hegemonic countries will increasingly promote their own social networks and similar alternatives (by means of public–private partnerships or other arrangements) in order to counter a kind of monopoly in the age of information warfare.
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