We often say that social media is the democratic platform of our time. But should it be the platform of our politicians?
Our best attempts at baking are not the only thing that ends up on our profiles: we also express what we think of our leaders and the status quo.
“Platform” is a neutral image, where the responsibility for the content is passed down to its authors—us, the users.
Social media, even though it became a tool for democracy, was not designed to do that.
It’s old news by now, but Facebook and Twitter have permanently suspended Trump’s accounts. It’s not the first time the tech giants have banned public figures from their networks, but this is certainly a first for a US President, and commentators have both praised and condemned the decision.
But what are the ethics of social media as a platform for political discourse? We can’t provide answers (we are social media specialists, not ethics professors!), but we can unpack some of the main concepts.
First of all, let’s establish some common ground on what we mean when we say all social media are platforms. This is already contentious ground: the MIT Press has an entire book series on Platform Studies, but one study has tried to define what the term “platform” means in this context and why it’s so fitting. From a linguistic standpoint, “platform” is a metaphor for a structure that promises to support who stands upon it: it’s open to and level for everyone. Legally, on the other hand, the platform itself is a neutral image, where the responsibility for the content is passed down to its authors—us, the users.
At a first glance, this builds a dream scenario of shared democracy and individual accountability. But let’s not judge a book by its cover...
Our best attempts at baking are not the only thing that ends up on our profiles: we also express what we think of our leaders and the status quo. Remember #PutItToThePeople or #OscarsSoWhite? Social media enables news to reach a wider audience and these expressions of views are changing what it means to actively participate in social and political discourse: from the Me Too movement, to Black Lives Matter, recent years have given us a plethora of examples of this.
What often slips under the radar is that this is more than simply a behavioural change: being active on social media is not the same as being politically active in the traditional sense of the word. Traditionally, “participating” meant having a role in the institutions, a role that contributed to continually re-shape, re-design, re-architect them. When we participate in social media, on the other hand, we need to acknowledge that they are fixed architectures: we don’t have a say on how the algorithms of the platforms work. As a user, you can’t directly architect the network, you can only inhabit it. It’s like getting a green card for a country: you can do pretty much anything, but you don’t have a say in how the country is run.
Average Joe is not alone on social: the people who literally run countries also love to tweet and post and share. And it’s there for everyone to see: all the content that has been posted remains visible and accessible forever. In this perspective, it’s easier then, to assimilate social media platforms to archives of the res publica: they are the “memory” of our time. They can be powerful tools for democracy: think of when AOC called out Trump for his hairstyling bill…
This is an unprecedented access to what was said then and what is said now: we have an accurate record of everything that was tweeted, posted or shared by everyone on social media. For example, we know that on the 14th December 2018, Boris Johnson was loving the community spirit in South Ruislip. Cute!
As great as this all appears, social media platforms are not perfect archives. Even if we ignore the fact that not everything we post is 100% accurate (we see you, with your “homemade” lasagna…), content can still be deleted by its author—and accounts can be suspended. We have to remember that, as we’ve examined before, social media platforms are not for everyone to do as they please: they are products of private companies.
We have to make a distinction, in fact, between Facebook (just to name one) the platform and Facebook the company. As a platform, Facebook is governed by the omnipresent algorithm. It’s the automatic curator that displays personal posts alongside advertising, all in the same format, in order to keep the user on the platform: the more the user stays, the more advertisements can be shown to them, the more money the advertisers (and the platform) make. This already means that socials are not impartial archives.
Another level of complexity is that, at the end of the line, behind the algorithm, there are companies. And here we can finally give an answer to our initial question: who architects the platform? Companies with a more complicated set of values and interests than just “let people stay for as long as they can”. Companies that spend an enormous amount of time and effort to build their brand, one that they need to safeguard, even—and especially—on their own platforms. Brands don’t want to be associated with specific types of content and personalities that don’t fit their message, and recent events have only made that even clearer.
Trump has been banned from most social media, but the real food for thought lies somewhere else: should any political figure use these outlets as political platforms to begin with? How would you feel about a war triggered by a tweet?
Social media platforms were not designed to be tools for democracy though they have certainly facilitated it in many instances (so many young people are now engaged with politics because of it), but that’s not their primary goal. They are not press conference rooms where news is made, and they are not courtrooms where precedents are set and justice made. Social media are not tools for democracy because they are, in the end, private products.
We should acknowledge that there are some ethical considerations to be made about what we all post on social media: considerations about what a brand should and should not say online. As a digital agency, we can help with that.
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