My Word: Social media’s ultimate cancel culture

Who has the last word in determining what can be said in public in the global village?

3D-PRINTED BALLOT BOXES are seen in front of Facebook and Twitter logos. (photo credit: DADO RUVIC/REUTERS)
3D-PRINTED BALLOT BOXES are seen in front of Facebook and Twitter logos.
(photo credit: DADO RUVIC/REUTERS)
It is a winter of social media “dis-content.”
The now-infamous events on Capitol Hill last week, which did not look good wherever you happened to be watching or whatever your political beliefs, will go down in history. It is not every day, after all, that a mob invades the seat of government in what is meant to be the world’s bastion of the democracy.
That the crowd was urged on by US President Donald Trump is inexcusable. But the violence led to another disturbing phenomenon: the social media silencing of the president and many of his supporters. That Twitter decided to permanently suspend Trump’s account, with its roughly 88 million followers, was problematic; the manner the social media giants like Google chose to remove access to Parler in its entirety – because it has become the preferred platform of those who don’t find a home on Facebook – is even more disconcerting.
In May 2011, when Palestinians from Syria charged into the Golan Heights village of Majdal Shams on “Nakba Day,” chanting about the “right of return,” I wrote about a wake-up moment. Just as international law has yet to catch up with an era of warfare in which “human shields” and “suicide bombers” are two of the more common terms, so, too has international law failed to keep up with the more antisocial side of the social network phenomenon, I noted.
“While there are definite advantages to Facebook and Twitter – spreading the idea of democracy and freedom of speech, among them – there are also drawbacks. Issuing a rallying cry to thousands of people to amass in one spot, particularly one bordered by a fence, could result in a potentially lethal stampede – be it at a political protest or a party,” I pointed out.
So is permanently silencing Trump progress – or is it symptom of double standards? I’m not the first to point to the strange bias at work when nameless arbiters of acceptable behavior on Twitter can decide to cancel Trump while allowing Iranian ayatollahs to call for the destruction of the Jewish state.
And how is it that Twitter allows Chinese leaders to still have their say? The disappearance of Alibaba founder, Chinese billionaire Jack Ma, after criticizing the Communist regime is troubling as is the plight of minorities in China. In June, Zoom – indispensable during the COVID pandemic – at the behest of the Chinese authorities briefly blocked the video meeting of American and Chinese activists commemorating the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Who gets to determine what content fosters discontent? As The Jerusalem Post’s Herb Keinon among others have noted, technically there is no First Amendment issue at stake because Facebook, Twitter and other platforms – however huge and mighty – are private businesses.
“Facebook and Twitter have managed to privatize the public square. In other words, content posted on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram may feel public, but it is not under First Amendment protection since these platforms are private. These platforms allow people to post their content out of ‘grace,’ rather than out of any sort of privilege or right,” Keinon wrote this week.
TikTok is nothing to sing and dance about; Instagram is not necessary a pretty picture and you can snap back at Snapchat. These companies want to keep your business – and want to know your business to sell you the ads that are their oxygen. However, as monopolies, they don’t really worry about where you’ll go. That’s one of the more troubling aspects of having so severely restricted access to Parler as an alternative to Facebook.
There’s no such thing as “free speech” in the economic sense: You pay for it by being targeted by advertisements. Who hasn’t found Facebook or Google second-guessing them with targeted ads? Raise your hand if you’ve ever suspected that a social media app has listened in on a conversation. No, of course, I can’t see you – but don’t you ever wonder whether there is someone who can see what you’re doing?
And what’s up with WhatsApp? I’ll tell you what: It is owned like Messenger – its ostensible rival – by Facebook. Hence its announcement that it would be sharing information with the parent company shouldn’t come as a shock. But what is your alternative as a user? Telegram in Israel is best known for its popularity with drug dealers using the cute moniker Telegrass. It’s not a viable option unless you can persuade everyone on your work group, family group, synagogue/church list, children’s schools/extra-curricular groups and neighbors et al to join you in making the move.
Incidentally, I heard of a businesswoman whose WhatsApp account was blocked with no warning and whose subsequent headache included being unable to keep in touch with clients – and also not knowing what her kid was meant to bring to kindergarten that week.
Big Tech is not trembling in fear at the accusations of arbitrary censorship. Liberties are being taken with civil liberties in the name of progress. It’s questionable whether deleting Trump’s Twitter account calmed the fears of his followers that some kind of “deep state” has been at work all along. Just three months ago, for example, both Facebook and Twitter were seen to silence a New York Post story about US President-elect Joe Biden’s son’s emails.
Who has the last word in determining what can be said in public in the global village? Sending someone down a “memory hole” is so Orwellian.
As my colleague Seth J. Frantzman wrote in October 2020: “We don’t know how the company algorithms work, so we don’t know the degree to which they may play a outsized role in elections. It would be a bit like handing over control of highway traffic to a company that can route the people wherever it wants, one day to IKEA, the next to the beach, moving them past advertising billboards along the way. In no other walk of life are the daily activities of so many controlled by so few.”
These companies influence the way billions of people receive – and view – their information and  news. But who checks the fact checkers? Or is this also left to artificial intelligence – with the emphasis on the “artificial”?
The best thing that could happen now would be for elected leaders and experts in international law to draw up clear guidelines – and even clearer redlines – that could steer social media and break up monopolistic strangleholds. But just who is going to be brave enough to tell the social tech giants what they think if expressing their opinion could result in having their presence deleted, canceled, gone forever? The threat of external censorship inevitably leads to self-censorship.
If you haven’t yet seen The Social Dilemma on Netflix now might be a good time – who knows how long it will be allowed to remain available given that it reveals social media’s darkest secrets: How they can manipulate political thought and encourage users to remain online far longer than people intended. Basically social media nurture a lucrative (for them) addiction. We all have a need to be liked, after all.
Silence might be golden; being silenced is another matter.
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