Social Media Regulation

To use (and abuse) my good friend Sangeet Paul Choudary‘s framework, Twitter is both a pipe and a platform. Whether it is a pipe or a platform depends on how you use it.

I always use Twitter in the “latest tweets” mode, which means that tweets from people I follow are shown to me in the order in which they happen, with most recent tweets on top. Twitter has no role in showing what tweets I see or not see. Someone I follow says something, it will come in its appointed place. This is the twitter in its “pipe avatar”. It is no different from reading blogs through an RSS feed. Twitter is just a pipe to convey these tweets to me.

However, this “latest tweets” is not the default mode for Twitter. The default mode is what I think it calls “top tweets” or something. This is the algorithmic timeline that Twitter launched a few years back. Here, twitter’s algorithms determine what you should see. Whether a tweet gets shown to you at all, whether you follow someone whose tweets you are shown and what order tweets are shown to you in – none of these are under your control. It is twitter’s (rather, and understandably, opaque) algorithm that determines this. This is twitter operating in its “platform avatar”, since it, through its algorithms, is effectively controlling the content you see.

Why is it important if twitter is a pipe or a platform? It has to do with regulation. I understand that twitter and facebook have recently suspended Donald Trump’s account. Some people are saying this is unfair, and that it is a step too far for social media. Others are using this as an excuse for more social media regulation.

My contention is that whether social media should be regulated or not is guided by whether social media is a pipe or a platform.

If social media is a pipe, like twitter in its latest tweets (or “traditional”) format, then regulation is unnecessary. In this situation, people are served tweets only because they’ve chosen to receive them. If some account only tells lies, so be it. People follow parody accounts all the time. By censoring accounts, twitter is denying people the right to see the thing they have subscribed to see. Any regulation or censorship means that people are not getting what they have signed up for.

On the other hand, in the algorithmic timeline format, one can make a case for some kind of regulation or censorship. This is because the platform here, either implicitly or explicitly, chooses what the user sees. And if the platform’s algorithms mean that lies and hatred and outrage get amplified, then that is a problem. If a tweet from a parody account suddenly appears in my timeline, it can throw me off and drive me bonkers. And that is not “fair”.

Then again, while one can make a case for censorship in the “platform model”, I’m not advocating that regulation or censorship is necessary. Yes, the opaque algorithms can amplify bad shit, but how are you going to even regulate that?

You want algorithms to be passed by some central board? You want the platform to deplatform your opponents but not your folks? You want a profit-maximising (likely monopoly) private entity to determine what is “truth” and what is not? Irrespective of how the regulation or censorship is defined, it is rather easy for it to have consequences that the designers of the regulation or censorship have least expected.

In any case, these occasional cals for censorship or regulation or cancellation are the reasons why I put most of my better arguments on this blog, which gets delivered through this pipe called RSS feeds.

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