Tech giants still stumbling in the social world they created

NEW YORK, August 11 (INP) — Who knew connecting the world could get so complicated? Perhaps some of technology’s brightest minds should have seen that coming.

Social media bans of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones have thrust Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and others into a role they never wanted — as gatekeepers of discourse on their platforms, deciding what should and shouldn’t be allowed and often angering almost everyone in the process. Jones, a right-wing provocateur, suddenly found himself banned from most major social platforms this week, after years in which he was free to use them to promulgate a variety of false claims.

Twitter, which one of its executives once called the “free speech wing of the free speech party,” remains a lonely holdout on Jones. The resulting backlash suggests that no matter what the tech companies do, “there is no way they can please everyone,” as Scott Shackelford, a business law and ethics professor at Indiana University, observed.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and crew, and Google’s stewards of YouTube gave little thought to such consequences as they built their empires with lofty goals to connect the world and democratize discourse. At the time, they were the rebels aiming to bypass the stodgy old gatekeepers — newspaper editors, television programmers and other establishment types — and let people talk directly to one another.

“If you go back a decade or so, the whole idea of speech on social media was seen as highly positive light,” said Tim Cigelske, who teaches social media at Marquette University in Wisconsin. There was the Arab Spring. There were stories of gay, lesbian and transgender teens from small towns finding support online.

At the same time, of course, the companies were racing to build the largest audiences possible, slice and dice their user data and make big profits by turning that information into lucrative targeted advertisements.

“Trying to piece together a framework for speech that works for everyone — and making sure we effectively enforce that framework — is challenging,” wrote Richard Allan, Facebook’s vice president of policy, in a blog post Thursday. “Every policy we have is grounded in three core principles: giving people a voice, keeping people safe, and treating people equitably. The frustrations we hear about our policies — outside and internally as well — come from the inevitable tension between these three principles.”

Such tensions force some of the largest corporations in the world to decide, for instance, if banning Nazis also means banning white nationalists — and to figure out how to tell them apart if not. Or whether kicking off Jones means they need to ban all purveyors of false conspiracy theories. Or whether racist comments should be allowed if they are posted, to make a point, by the people who received them.

“I don’t think the platforms in their heart of hearts would like to keep Alex Jones on,” said Nathaniel Persily, a professor at Stanford Law School. “But it’s difficult to come up with a principle to say why Alex Jones and not others would be removed.”

While most companies have policies against “hate speech,” defining what constitutes hate speech can be difficult, he added. Even governments have trouble with it. One country’s free speech is another country’s hate speech, punishable by jail time.

Inp/khan