In the wake of the attack of the Pittsburgh synagogue in the US that left 11 people dead, you would expect to find shock, solidarity, maybe anger or fear as the ‘trending’ public reaction. But open Instagram and type in “Jews”, you find a full 11,696 posts with the hashtag “#jewsdid911″ – a hashtag used for conspiracy theories that blame Jews for the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
A single case of negligent platform moderation? A particular problem of anti-semitism? Unfortunately, cases of social media boosting hate-speech, racism and far-right conspiracies are so abundant that this seems indicative of a much more systematic failure.
“Abused by ultranational trolls”: A global crisis from Brazil to India
Some of the most recent examples: At the other side of the globe, in India, messaging service WhatsApp has just been accused for helping to spread false rumors leading to more than a dozen lynchings of angry mobs in the last year. And in Brazil, where far-right Jair Bolsonero, a candidate looming to bring Brazil back into a military dictatorship, just won the presidential elections, news have emerged of mass-WhatsApp campaigns to flood voters with anti-leftist propaganda.
Over to Twitter, accused of failing to remove a tweet of a death threat of Cesar Sayoc, the man suspected of sending to explosives to prominent US Democrats. That the tweet was reported to the platform gives the scandal an extra bitter taste.
“Twitter looks as disinterested as ever in the social disease wreaking havoc on its platform, even as users suffer its real-life consequences”, laments Taylor Hatmaker from TechCrunch the latest reproach: Unverified political propaganda and right-wing conspiracies propagating on the platform ahead of the US midterm election.
After one scandal after another is erupting, harsh criticism have been raised against Silicon Valley’s social media giants, including by the global tech community. However, frustration and resignation are slowly overtaking.
“All of this has become so normalized in the three years since it first began to manifest that we just assume now that platforms like Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, and Twitter will exacerbate political and social instability”, laments Ryan Broderick from BuzzFeed news. “We expect they will be abused by ultranationalist trolls. We know they will be exploited by data firms. We wait for them to help launch the careers of populist leaders.“
In the age where artificial intelligence, big data mining and real-time analytics seem to be able to predict every possible consumer choice of social media users, how is it possible that content that is so obviously offensive or a public threat is not removed?
Too little, too late: Why Social Media giants are failing to act
There are some technological obstacles. For example, use of images instead of text or simply linking to external content makes them harder to find for hate-identifying algorithms, says University researcher Jennifer Grygiel from Syracuse University. Instead, social media platforms claim to rely on their user base to report inappropriate content.
Furthermore, while the ‘Report as Inappropriate’ can be done in a single click, the act of actual content removal is overwhelmingly analag, aka human. It comes in the form of a cohort of ‘moderators’ who, as having to fish through racism, pornography and other forms of human depravity, have been rightly labelled as having the “world’s worst tech job” – and have started lawsuits against employers such as Facebook for the psychological trauma it causes them.
However, it may be that the underlying reason why Facebook, Twitter and Co. are letting this crisis of ethics spiral further is not technical – but purely financial.
“Every hour and every dollar spent policing content is a dollar and hour spent not investing in growing the company,” says PW Singer, author of LikeWar: the Weaponization of Social Media. When Facebook announced it would invest billions of dollars to improve safety and security, the company’s stock dropped nearly a third.
Similarly, removing fake profiles run by government propaganda units was, according to CEO Jack Dorsey, “the right thing to do” – not only for the company, but “for society as a whole.” Investors disagree: Stock prices have dropped a quarter over the past three months.
In 2010, when protests in Tunis erupted as what became to be known as the Arab spring, Social Media made a major debut in and as a political arena. Serving as the “GPS for the revolution”, Facebook (and in this decade ‘all things internet’) were helping spread accounts of state brutality and helped protests against dictatorship to organize.
Ironically, almost a decade later, the dynamic seems to be reversed: Far-right sentiments have long gone viral – and fulleing the catastrophic democratic recession we can witness on a global scale. It is time for Silicon Valley’s social media giants to stop giving a playing field for hatespeech, trolls and political propaganda . In short, it is time to restore the fine art of political debate – on our smartphones.