Deplatforming: Big Tech’s gag order

Ever since the likes of Alex Jones and Milo Yiannopoulos were kicked out of their dominant platforms, debate has begun on whether tech companies should be armed with the power of deplatforming.

What is it?

Deplatforming isn’t a concept exclusive to technology. Some of the earliest forms of deplatforming were noticed on college campuses when controversial speakers would come. Afraid of the backlash from students, parents and even the general public, college management would preemptively ban certain speakers.

The crux of that argument still holds good. Especially more so today. The purpose of deplatforming is fundamentally to restrain speech of some individuals by removing the platform for which they use to express these opinions. Thereby withdrawing the medium that these people use to spread their message.

Typically these opinions tend to be polarizing which is why deplatforming is considered political activism.

With social media, the worry is greater. Opinions posted tend to be unfiltered. That coupled with social media’s massive reach provides a compelling platform. You don’t need to be an esteemed philosopher or scientist to air out your view. On such a platform, qualifications don’t attract views, personalities do. Anyone convincing individual can thrive on such a platform. Which is why the likelihood of large masses of people getting brainwashed is higher and sadly is ever-increasing. Big Tech has recognized this liability and have increasingly become vigilant watchdogs of what is posted on their platforms.

Deplatforming isn’t limited to just social media sites. Any platform that allows such individuals to benefit from it have become notoriously vigilant. Recently many GoFundMe pages and PayPal links have been taken down on such grounds.

The Case For Deplatforming

While the area hasn’t seen much research-funding, the sparse few that exist claim that deplatforming, at least in the long-run, significantly reduces the person’s user base. While this is debatable a research lead had this to say:

Generally the falloff is pretty significant and they don’t gain the same amplification power they had prior to the moment they were taken off these bigger platforms.

Joan Donovan, Data and Society’s platform accountability research lead

Essentially, the audience that these individuals draw from Facebook, Twitter or YouTube isn’t scalable to other platforms. Cutting that out usually means removing a vast set of eyes.

Another study by Georgia Tech examined the effects of deplatforming subreddits filled with hate speech. The crucial learning was that reducing hate, reduces hate elsewhere, throughout the platform.Other learnings regarding these hate speech spewing redditors were as follows:

  • Hate speech reduced by 80-90% by the same redditors post-ban.
  • Some of these redditors migrated to other similar hate speech subreddits and toyed around with the limits with their hate speech but in general, in these subreddits, hate speech didn’t quantitatively increase.
  • Some left Reddit altogether

The greatest power of social media is its options. The lack of monopoly allows individuals to switch as they wish and continue living their life. This undermines the power of deplatforming. However the greatest blow that deplatforming can give is when coordinated. Take Alex Jones for example. In just a day, Facebook, Spotify, Apple and YouTube banned him, cutting away millions of his listeners and viewers. Whether or not it was an ethical or democratic move is questionable but it undeniable dealt a crippling blow to his business.

The Case Against Deplatforming

In a free market there are countless players, there’s bound to be one which will accept you no matter how radical you are. While deplatformed individuals were pushed out of mainstream focus they managed to survive elsewhere on platforms like Gab, Voat and BitChute. There is an entire suite of extremist versions of the same sites that we daily scroll through. While these platforms don’t have nearly the same numbers that mainstream ones do, their users are insignificant. If these people are deplatformed by the mainstream media and still prosper without having to change what they put out, was the initial deplatforming really effective? Does this make deplatforming a tool of the past?

Additionally pushing these extremists to the corners of the internet doesn’t mean that they have vanished, just harder to find. Yet these people garner a loyal fanbase. Relegating these extremists to the depths of the internet doesn’t necessarily mean that ardent fans won’t follow.

These alternate platforms may not be as popular but filling it extremists is bound to create a concentration of hate speech. It becomes an echo chamber for radical thoughts that go unchecked but amplified. This alienation from mainstream media is dangerous for two reasons. Firstly, this alienation leads to a limited social circle, one that is limited by (usually) same political views. In an environment of only similar lines of thinking, the same radical thoughts get appreciated and these participants become unaware of the diametrically opposing views that are there. This leads to hyper-radicalization of both parties. Usually this isn’t conducive for any debate. Secondly, such a system removes the platform for conducive debates even if that was a possibility in the first place. If people are separated into different platforms based on their views, everyone just begins to live in their own bubble. Such a system curbs debate. Pushing people away fragments political discussions. While the media doesn’t often portray it as such, people do listen to reason during discourse. Deplatforming removes the opportunity to even do so.

This segregation has already shown its teeth. Many people noted, that if rogue-shooter, Robert Bowers had posted this message on a mainstream media site instead:

“HIAS [Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society] likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

It would have been flagged sooner and probably the casualties could have been minimized. However, since it was posted on Gab (alt-right Twitter), his followers didn’t seem to have any objections to his statements. Had there been no separation, this could have been preventable.

The Bottom Line

Deplatforming has always been sold as preventing violence and curbing the spread of socially destructive misinformation but in truth has always been a form of virtue signalling. In today’s age where everything is fueled by profits, this is yet another aspect of a product or service that can be monetized. If you can prove that you don’t even want to associate yourself with these radical views, your brand becomes more attractive. Whether this is the ulterior aim, it gives undue power to these tech companies.

Silicon Valley has been handed a very potent tool of censorship and if history is any indication, it is that they will misuse it if they already have not (allegedly have targeted only alt-right people).

The issue of censorship is age-old. The line between free speech and hate speech is blurred but we need a better solution to moderate hate speech. Deplatforming already seems like a solution of the past, a battle with increasingly short-lived victories. While it has served its purpose of limiting the spread of hate speech, we need one to identify and prevent the spread altogether. To be in such a situation is a luxury that we couldn’t afford in days where we banned college speakers but times have changed. We need a lasting solution and one based on societal consensus.

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