Social media companies have been trying to play a part in the culture war, but their help is often counterproductive.
Credit: Oregon Department of Transportation, US26 eastbound remains closed due to wildfire west of Mitchell. Source U.S. 26 Fire Roadblock, Creative Commons
This article deals with the so-called culture war, a long-running ideological battle between difficult to define sides -authoritarians versus libertarians, social justice versus alt-right, political correctness versus rationalism… the list of potential adversaries is long and useless, just as much as trying to find an objective narrative. We do not purport to explain what the culture war is; for a more comprehensive take, we invite you to read this.
Imagine being prevented from walking down the street because the pavement disagrees with your views on effective taxation policies. The image may seem odd but this is exactly the game big social media companies have been playing for the past few years; in a drive to join in on the culture war, they are losing sight of what it means to be a platform.
The reaction (this time) was immediate and devastating: many backers -who were giving money to other creators- left the site altogether, while prominent names such as Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, or Dave Rubin announced they would terminate their partnership with Patreon; the latter two are now planning to create a competitor to the crowdfunding website, which they claim will steer clear of political considerations.
The ‘purge’ is nothing particularly new: Social media websites like Facebook and Twitter have been accused of unfairly targeting politically conservative accounts   for some time; though some of the accusations turned out to be unfounded, a de facto divide has been widened because of attempts by these websites to regulate what is being said or who can say it.
There was a time when the blue checkmarks on Twitter meant nothing more than what they were intended for initially: a way for people to know that the account they were following was the official soapbox of whoever it claimed to be. It was a marker of authenticity and nothing more.
Nowadays, not so much: From the moment that certain high-profile political ‘agitators’ (Milo Yiannopoulos, Sargon of Akkad, to name but a few) were either banned or lost their verified status, the blue checkmark turned into a symbol of political belonging.
The given explanation for losing the checkmark does nothing to help Twitter’s case either: “The social media giant, in an update on the help center portion of its website, explained how users can lose the blue check marks denoting that their profiles are verified. The violations include misleading users on Twitter, as well as promoting hate and harassing others, among other types of behavior that violate Twitter’s rules.”
There is a clear dissonance: the authenticity of Twitter profiles has nothing to do with whether or their behaviour on the site is inappropriate; as a matter of fact it would’ve been better to leave the checkmark alone, as proof that whatever was being put out was the official stance behind the name.
But no. Now, with the culture war raging especially online, those with a checkmark are automatically assumed to be on a specific side -usually progressivism/social justice-, and those without are automatically assumed to be on the other side, if they’re prominent enough. Both sides have, of course, fueled the divide, the starkest example of which comes in the form of #VerifiedHate.
Even better, there’s a new notch these ‘unverified’ personalities can put on their rifle: demonetization. Last month, YouTube decided to halt advertisement revenue for Tommy Robinson, a well known anti-Islam activist, and Markus Meechan (aka Count Dankula), a YouTuber most famous for getting sued, tried, and found guilty of making an offensive joke by a Scotland court. This likely was part of the company’s ongoing strategy to prevent another adpocalypse, a step in their drive to make the site more advertiser friendly, but the optics still don’t look so great.
Whatever your opinion of any of the names mentioned above, you must agree that a blanket demonetization, while devastating to their finances, is a political boon. They now get to be martyrs of the culture war and wear their revenue losses as badges of honor, as some kind of subversive blue checkmark of their own.
Worse yet, it does not matter ultimately whether it happens to anyone else for entirely different reasons: Many, if not all, will assume both the cause and the political standing of the targeted personality; that it happened multiple times already is more than enough to create a pavlovian response.
That companies, especially those dominating the, dare I say, ZEITGEIST, would want to hoist their colors, be it out of sheer cynicism or true belief, is not necessarily the problem. It is perfectly understandable that companies that live off of the good will of advertisers and investor would be first and foremost concerned with making their product suitable for the business they seek.
Non media -as in medium plural, digital highways- companies do not have the same kind of responsibility: The worst that can happen to them is an uproar following a poorly put together advertisement campaign -see Gillette’s recent controversy and the 2016 Audi Superbowl commercial- but in the end what matters is the product they market.
Social media platforms, however, are not actually marketing a service to their direct consumers, but marketing their consumers directly to advertisers and investors. So, if something on Facebook, Twitter, etc., could potentially not be to the liking of the latter, it might need to be cut. Of course, this is a terrible long term -and even short term- fix.
Platforms that pick sides give arguments to whoever they oppose, their tactics will only work as advertisement and lead to exactly the reverse of what they are trying to achieve: The creation of a stratified internet, with multiple castes of digital citizens.
The ubiquitous nature of Twitter and Google ensures that we would be hard-pressed to find any replacement: unlike a typical market environment, they provide the infrastructure, not an easily swapped product. As such, when such companies become concerned with, and limit, the output of those who utilize their service, they effectively cut these people off from large swathes of the internet – unpaving the roads that lead from them to civilization, as it were.
In the culture war games, the best move social media companies have is not to play at all.
Venkatesh Rao, “A Quick (Battle) Field Guide to the New Culture Wars”, ribbonfarm, March 6, 2018
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3. Dan Tynan, “Facebook accused of censorship after hundreds of US political pages purged”, The Guardian, October 16, 2018
4. Alex Thompson, “Twitter appears to have fixed “shadow ban” of prominent Republicans like the RNC chair and Trump Jr.’s spokesman”, Vice News, July 25, 2018
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