The West & East, Politics, and Algorithms at Play
Since the dawn of the digital age, society has been given access, by the people who control media and messaging, to a wide variety of information, both for knowledge and power. With that, technological advancement in the 21st century has propelled and defined the development of social media ecosystems.
Social media has enormously impacted society, after all its premise is to connect people, create communities, and share knowledge. By shifting human interaction to a digital environment, everything ranging from information to news and opinions is easily shared.
Although social media platforms have expanded over the last decade, there has been a disconnect in the intentions users have online. This varies across the globe since social media is used and viewed differently in certain countries. However, the more information that appears to be misaligned with political agendas and legal frameworks, the more censorship becomes involved.
Social Media: Western Lens & Eastern Lens
Social media is probably the most popular and powerful medium, especially in the West. Social media platforms have uniquely contributed to how social, cultural, and political norms are shaped.
Platforms are used in countless industries, from business and finance to medicine and education. Take the real estate industry for example. Property managers and agents use social media to promote their properties to clientele. This is especially evident on Facebook which allows for highly targeted advertisements.
In western society, social media has become a part of almost every aspect of a person's life. In a nutshell, we use it for just about everything, to connect with family, to read the news, to find directions to that cute coffee shop your friend posted about, to learn something new or start a debate and the list goes on.
One aspect of western media that creates a trickle-down effect in social media, is the polarization that comes with the subscription model. This point is raised by Jennifer Richmond in her interview with RSnake surrounding the ways that the East, namely China and Russia, can exploit the West.
This then points to the fact that social media is primarily seen and used to push political agendas. There's no question that United States politics have been woven into social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram. However, in the west, social media is used for a variety of reasons whereas some eastern countries appear more deliberate in their usage.
Eastern countries, especially Russia and China, have a reputation for their usage of social media. In recent years, the two countries have been known for their attempts to control the narrative that is seen on social media. From censoring journalists to blocking platforms, Russia and China use social media to exert power over the population's perception.
The governments of China and Russia have implemented increasingly severe measures to restrict their citizens' right to free speech.
When Did Social Media Censorship Start?
It appears that as the years progress social media is becoming less and less free. This goes well beyond CSAM and other types of criminal censorship. An increase in censorship leaves people wondering when this even started happening
Donald Trump's election in 2016 incited a worldwide awakening. This event made the world aware of tech platforms' ability to disseminate false information and support anti-establishment ideologies. Since then, the former U.S president allegedly contributed to spreading political misinformation on social media platforms, causing a strong reaction from Silicon Valley.
Following this, Trump's social media accounts on Twitter and Facebook were banned as were many other political pundits. Morgan Warstler shared his perspectives on Twitter's censorship and what steps might be taken to mediate censorship.
Warstler's longstanding Twitter account was banned unexpectedly following coordination in direct messages. Following a discussion of what he believes Trump may do if his Twitter account is reinstated, Waster touches on the model that he thinks Twitter must evolve into. Interestingly, since Elon Musk has taken over the helm of Twitter, the likes of Morgan Warstler have been reinstated.
Morgan says the government should have access to the back end of social media accounts to ensure identity verification. This would lead to a reduction in unexpected account suspensions. Only time will tell if Elon takes Morgan’s advice.
Although this could be a future solution, Twitter is one of many social media platforms where all kinds of misinformation are spread. Many believe there's a fine line between freedom of speech and false information, as we have seen since the start of the pandemic.
The spread of misinformation surrounding the pandemic has been constant since it
began. If there's one event that triggered increased global censorship on social media that would be it. Government and public health agencies had been incessantly announcing preventative measures and precautions intending to inform communities.
However, this comes with the rise of what the WHO calls the “infodemic” which is known to be a slew of claims and data about the pandemic. Put together, misinformation and such flammable news as a global pandemic, one can see how censorship comes into play.
When the pandemic stuck in our society, everyone knew that it had originated in China, since it was blasted on social media. Over the past few years, however, story after story has been circulated over social media about where the pandemic originated from. There are claims it originated on US soil amongst many other interesting conspiracy theories. Regardless, China is still inciting lockdowns in their cities and refining citizens to their homes two years later.
RSnake and Morgan Warstler discussed China's continuation of lockdowns and what the underlying motive might be. They agreed that one possibility for China's continued lockdowns would be "...to exert as much political control as they possibly can."
Additionally, based on China's history of censorship, Warstler and RSnake suppose that the extended lockdowns would permit the Chinese government to exert high levels of surveillance. RSnake mentioned, multiple checkpoints and increased methods of surveilling to collect information about the population.
This has already occurred in some capacities with China's usage of drones meant to order residents back to their homes during outbreaks and heavy usage of monitoring social media to identify potential areas of outbreak and civil unrest.
Throughout the pandemic, governments from multiple countries have attempted to control the narrative. It seems as though controlling the narrative also entails blame placing one country for the overall global pandemic. This is especially relevant when considering countries with authoritarian regimes, particularly Russia and China.
Authoritarianism: China & U.S.A
Authoritarian regimes may be most prominent in countries like Russia and China, however, it is on the rise in other countries. Somewhat before but especially since the pandemic, there have been rising traits of authoritarianism in the United States.
In RSnake's discussion with Jennifer Richmond, they discussed China and the US's connections with authoritarianism. Richmond says that if the authoritarian trend within the US continues, there will be a lesser chance of countering China. The United States and China both have different strategies in dealing with issues when at feud.
However, these strategies translate into the context of social media, as these two countries utilize platforms to push political agendas. Richmond explained through this China aims to exploit the West.
One can only guess that might mean the future of social media in the US entailing increased censorship, surveillance, and narrative blaming. But with the narratives of diversity and knowledge sharing in the states this would be a significant change. If the United States were to take on an authoritarian regime, society and culture within could experience divisions.
Social Media Can be Divisive
Although social media has been the thing to bring people together and keep connections going during the pandemic, it can also push people apart. On social media, people have different opinions, perspectives, and ideas.
This also includes social issues and more often than not they can be the sensitive subject matter. For example, RSnake's discussion with Raymond Kaminski covered the social media coverage of the Kyle Rittenhouse case.
As they discussed, this case was widely covered. However, due to the violence involved in the case, social media platforms like Facebook began to censor content results. This creates a situation where users then become divided. As RSnake mentioned, some might be simply looking for information or sharing their opinions. But at the same time, some users believe that platforms have the responsibility of censoring graphic material.
This is where social media algorithms come into play.
Social Media Algorithms: Seeing One Side of Things
In the early days of the internet and social media, it seemed as though there was a much smaller volume of what is considered graphic or harmful content. Nowadays, there appears to be more and more content that is being censored and social media platforms are using algorithms to do it.
Essentially, a social media algorithm will organize posts based on relevancy. However, that is only one method that social media platforms use algorithms for.
Pew Centre Research reports that there are multiple, "...including to decide and structure what flow of content users see; figure out what ads a user will like; make recommendations for content users might like, and assist with content moderation like detecting and removing hate speech."
It is moderation and censorship that have become a particularly hot topic especially since some think that while it can be useful, it can create filter bubbles.
The Danger of Filter Bubbles
Filter bubbles have been tagged as problematic by more than a few people. A literature review published by the Reuters Institute and the University of Oxford reports that analysts have expressed concern about filter bubbles due to the risk of polarization.
A filter bubble is directly linked with algorithms and ranking search results. However, to understand them, it is important to know about echo chambers, since a filter bubble resides within one. The Reuters Institute report explains that echo chambers are known to "describe a particular situation some people are in as a result of media supply, distribution, and/or their demand."
Essentially, social media algorithms end up creating echo chambers and subsequently filter bubbles. Once an algorithm puts you in a filter bubble, this implies you may lose out on critical information since these algorithms have cut you off from material and viewpoints that you haven't already expressed an interest in.
RSnake's discussion with Raymond Kaminski explored what can happen when you get put into a filter bubble. He believes that "if you're going to have if you're going to have content, have both sides of the coin, and don't censor one versus the other."
Kaminski says when algorithms censor and refine users, "we're not growing, we're not expanding our minds, it becomes an echo chamber."
Social Media in Years to Come
The relationship between social media and censorship is evolving as social media continues to morph in multiple avenues. As RSnake mentioned, now there's an app for everything. The potential for digital balkanization to continue in the future for social media could be possible.
However, as Kaminski mentioned, he thinks that people are getting sick of platforms. In a sense, this becomes information overload, too many apps and social media tools could have the opposite effect on users.
If technical apps were to multiply, for example, one for snapping pictures, and another for filming, users could begin to experience frustration having to use so many apps.
As Kaminski said, social media has exploded in the past decade, and many believe that the initial intent of social media has drifted away. People are supposed to share and connect, but it's becoming more difficult with high volumes of disinformation, political agendas, and censorship becoming more prevalent.
No one knows for certain what the future of social media will be, but based on the current ecosystem, it seems like a lofty goal would be to get back to the original premise of social media: connecting.