Jeremy Felt

Some loose thoughts on free speech, platforms, Big Tech, and okay a little sedition

One problem Social Media Companies created for themselves is the use of proprietary algorithms to surface content and suggest accounts to follow rather than allow people to find others organically.

A new user signs up for Twitter and they’re presented with a list of recommend accounts to follow. If Twitter doesn’t do this, then that person may not have a good experience trying to figure out how Twitter works. If there’s no engagement, there’s no advertising. If there’s no advertising, there’s no Twitter.

This is how the President of the United States came to have 88.7 million followers on Twitter. This is how it happens for most accounts with an outsized number of followers.

People with outsized followings start to believe they deserve them. They have outsized reactions to any change in follower count or any change in their ability to publicize their message.

Almost everyone has been force fed and force fed into something that nobody actually understands.

When a sitting President—one who can reach over 88 million people on a single medium within seconds of a fleeting thought, no matter how acerbic or hateful or just plain false—starts using that platform to incite violence, what do you do? Wait weeks or months for the law to run its course or take action and kick them off?

Two opinions of mine thus far:

  • No single person should be able to share something so quickly with that many people.
  • Big Tech—here defined as Twitter, Facebook, Apple, Google, and Amazon—should not be the arbiter of free speech. Unfortunately, for now, they are.

In Social Media’s current form, everything is setup for failure.

Big Tech doesn’t moderate until too late. They don’t want to moderate in the first place! So they wait and wait and wait while the problem gets larger and larger. At some point public opinion forces their hand, Big Tech takes action, frothing and celebrating commence.

Instead. A framework should exist to help Big Tech understand how to handle specific situations.

In the United States, the Constitution should provide this framework—free speech is good, yeah?—but it doesn’t actually address reality. When someone with 88 million followers goes rogue, what do you do? Accounts with outsized followings must be treated differently. No one person should have all that power. Freedom of speech is not freedom of amplification.

I really don’t know how this works in practice, or what a best case solution is. Maybe their account is suspended for a predefined amount of time while cases are made through some sort of arbitration process. Maybe the announcement to permanently ban is not made until more than a few people at one company suspect sedition or the incitement of violence.

To be clear: It seems obvious to me Trump was inciting violence; I hope it would seem obvious to others.

And I’m not sure any of those maybes really fix it. People will still have outsized followings and outsized power and there will still be frothing and celebrating whenever a decision is made.

More importantly, Big Tech shouldn’t be organized this way. Twitter, Facebook, and at least the parts of Google that power YouTube should be broken into pieces. Something like:

  • Platform provides the technology for publishing content. This has an API that allows for integration with other 3rd party technologies.
  • Algorithm provides content manipulation and discovery for those consumers who choose.
  • Advertising provides advertising for those consumers or algorithm providers who choose.

In this scenario, the Platform is easier to define as something that can remain relatively exempt from liability. This is a pipe that information flows through.

Algorithm is a separate financial and structural entity. It helps people discover things. Or it curates things like a more traditional media outlet. It is here where some type of liability should be assumed.

Advertising is also a separate entity. We can’t seem to move ourselves away from this funding model, so of course the algorithms will want to inject advertising. It should be as far away from the Platform as possible.

Budding hatemongers may have a harder time finding algorithms to promote their content and may need to settle for the smaller groups they’re able to attract on the bare platform. People in general may need to get used to broadcasting their message to hundreds of thousands of people rather than tens of millions.

Of course the hardest part—I dunno, it might also be a red herring—about all of this is that the President of the United States caused the uproar. However things are structured, stuff is just not going to make sense when you’ve allowed such a horrible person into such an outsized position of power.

“freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness”

– Viktor E. Frankel, Man’s Search for Meaning

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