How fair are Twitter/FB? PDF Print E-mail
Friday, 16 November 2018 00:45
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Content moderation implies the rules are being set by them


Traditionally, when governments, such as in India, ask a Twitter or a Facebook to keep a check on fake news, the stock reply is that they are “platforms” and, so, are unable to censor posts or down-rank them on their own; in the case of WhatsApp, where this demand has also been made by the Indian government, the additional argument is that it has no means to even see the messages being shared. In a fundamental sense, then, the discussion is about freedom of expression. And yet, when Twitter blocks users or Facebook down-ranks posts, based on an algorithm or user-complaints, that implies a form of censorship that doesn’t quite jell with the argument about them being just platforms. Of late, many users in India have complained about a drop in the number of their followers—this is due to Twitter removing accounts that it thinks are suspicious—and, in one case, a user said his account had arbitrarily been suspended and then un-suspended, in each case without any explanation. This duality has been commented upon in The Guardian that says Google, for instance, has successfully argued its decisions on what to rank, and how to do this, what ads to run, etc., are akin to a newspaper editor’s decision on what op-eds to run and yet, the newspaper says, “Google, Facebook, Twitter and others often make the contrary claim to users and government that they are neutral platforms, mere conduits for information”.

Though Indian politicians, and courts, have not, as yet, really grappled with the issue of whether the power of social media needs some form of oversight, after Cambridge Analytica, the US Congress did grapple with the issue; the issue of fake news and Facebook’s perceived anti-conservative bias has, in fact, resulted in the network looking for acceptable solutions and ways to avoid this. And while a US court ruling on president Trump blocking users applied to just his account and not all of Twitter, the fact that the court said the account was a public forum—since it said “45th President of the United States of America”—suggests it is just a matter of time before that definition could apply to all of Twitter and other social media. Indeed, in an earlier case, Packingham v North Carolina, the US Supreme Court argued that preventing sex offenders from accessing social media websites violated their first amendment, or freedom of speech, rights. Viewed this way, social media’s content moderation goes against the view that they are platforms or some form of the public square. This apart, as social media becomes an even bigger influencer, there will invariably be discussion on whether, and how, this is to be moderated. The many, and often contradictory, aspects of this debate—if they are platforms, how can they decide what to police, for instance—are likely to engage society and lawmakers in the future; social media, in the meanwhile, will have to come up with some credible answers/solutions to show that it is being fair and that it has a credible process to avoid bias of one form or another.



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