The digital revolution has been an amazing thing to witness. With it has come, not only an exponential advancement in technology, but also an upheaval in what it has meant to be “social”. Online social platforms have connected the globe, making the world a much smaller place thereby creating a global community.
Consequently, social interaction, mass communication and global commerce have now become the purview of a relative few social titans like Facebook and Google. These have become the gateway through which all must pass if they would have access to the global community. Countless users have benefited from this new ecosystem. Through YouTube, unknowns have rocketed into fame, and creative nobodies have become millionaires. On Twitter, traditionally small voices have found a global platform. On Facebook, niche content providers have managed to reach a perfectly tailored audience thus tapping into a steady stream of sustainable income.
The casual observer might see a win-win all around. However, there is a downside to this new reality. Consider that with every gateway comes also, gatekeepers.
The Socials all have content reviewers (read regulators) who determine what can and cannot be shared on their platforms. Through the guidelines which these private corporations adopt, they determine who does and does not have access to their services. This may seem like a benign practice – one which private corporations have all traditionally reserved for themselves. But, does such a privilege hold up under the new paradigm of a digital world and a global community? I don’t think so.
With the digital revolution has also come an upheaval in who has the real power to regulate speech and commerce. For centuries men have spoken of the potential tyranny of a too powerful ruling class. What they didn’t foresee is that this tyranny would not develop at a governmental level but at the level of private corporations who would be entrusted with far too much power over the lives of people. What was once the domain of elected governments has now become the domain of private corporations whose leaders rarely share, or seemingly understand, the beliefs of a near-majority of its users.
The guidelines which determine who does and does not have access to the public square are now determined by a select few “content reviewers” in Silicon Valley. These social media regulators have become the real power brokers. They mine the histories of users with suspect beliefs and unearth content which violates their own measure of acceptable thought. When an offender is found, these have the power to de-platform, defund and essentially revoke free speech from their users. They have the power to silence, bankrupt and otherwise banish men and women from the global community. An offender’s Facebook-dependent business is shuttered. Their revenue-generating YouTube channel is removed. Their popular voice on Twitter is banned. And for what offense? Not walking in lockstep with the (often narrow and extreme) ideologies of the gatekeepers.
As recent testimonies before Congress have shown, men like Zuckerberg and Dorsey understand the vast implications of the world they have created. They understand that the ways in which they operate their respective platforms have global implications. Zuckerberg has openly opined of the burden he and his company face in seeking to produce guidelines of what is and is not acceptable speech for his users. He has indicated repeatedly that his content reviewers wrestle with how to determine what qualifies as “hate speech”.
While CEO’s and content reviewers are wringing their hands over what is acceptable thought for the rest of us, I would suggest it is far past time for users to take a stand and let Zuckerberg and his counterparts know that the burden of determining what is and is not acceptable speech, is not theirs to bear.
Like it or not, with the digital revolution has come a new reality. Social media platforms have become the arena of communication and commerce. To be denied access to these is to be denied a freedom to assemble, freedom of speech and freedom of commerce. Whether it was ever the intention, these freedoms now rest tenuously in the hands of an unelected few. Worse than this, this new ruling class seems prone to adopt and defend the most extreme of ideologies while unceremoniously dispatching of those who disagree.
It has come time to relieve Facebook, Google, Twitter, et al. , of their burden. Access to the public square should not be theirs to grant. These freedoms do not belong in the hands of ideologically driven companies (or any private organization) but should be returned to the public. There must be accountability and repercussions for such companies when they move to revoke access to their platforms. We cannot continue forward into a future where such fundamental freedoms are begrudgingly meted out to those who are not in lockstep with the ideologies of an unelected elite in Silicon Valley.