Democratic Censorship

There’s been a lot of discourse recently about the responsibility social media giants like Facebook and Twitter have to police their communities. Facebook incites violence by allowing false-rumors to circulate. Twitter only recently banned large communities of neo-nazis and white supremacists organizing on the site. Discord continues to be an organizational hub for Nazis and the Alt-Right. There’s been plenty of discussion about why these platforms have so little moderatorship, ranging from their business model (incendiary content drives views and is beneficial for Facebook), to a lack of resources, to a lack of incentive.

I’d like to explore a new side of the issue: Why should a private company have the role of a cultural censor, and how can we redesign our social media to democratize censorship?

To be absolutely clear, censorship serves an important role in social media in stopping verbal and emotional abuse, stalking, toxic content, and hate speech. It can also harm at-risk communities when applied too broadly, as seen in recent well-intentioned U.S. legislation endangering sex workers.

On Freedom of Speech

Censorship within the context of social media is not incompatible with free-speech. First, Freedom of Speech in the United States is largely regarded to apply to government criticism, political speech, and advocacy of unpopular ideas. These do not traditionally include speech inciting immediate violence, obscenity, or inherently illegal content like child pornography. Since stalking, abuse, and hate-speech do not contribute to a public social or political discourse, they fall squarely outside the domain of the USA’s first amendment.

Second, it’s important to note that censorship in social media means a post is deleted or an account is locked. Being banned from a platform is more akin to exile than to arrest, and leaves the opportunity to form a new community accepting of whatever content was banned.

Finally there’s the argument that freedom of speech applies only to the government and public spaces, and is inapplicable to a privately-owned online space like Twitter or Facebook. I think had the U.S. Bill of Rights been written after the genesis of the Internet this would be a non-issue, and we would have a definition for a public commons online. Regardless, I want to talk about what should be, rather than what is legally excusable.

The Trouble with Corporate Censors

Corporations have public perceptions which effect their valuations. Therefore, any censorship by the company beyond what is legally required will be predominantly focused on protecting the ‘image’ of the company and avoiding controversy so they are not branded as a safe-haven for bigots, nazis, or criminals.

Consider Apple’s censorship of the iOS App Store - repeatedly banning drone-strike maps with minimal explanatory feedback. I don’t think Apple made the wrong decision here; they reasonably didn’t want to be at the epicenter of a patriotism/pro-military/anti-war-movement debate, since it has nothing to do with their corporation or public values. However, I do think that it’s unacceptable that Apple is in the position of having this censorship choice to begin with. A private corporation, once they have sold me a phone, should not have say over what I can and cannot use that phone to do. Cue Free Software Foundation and Electronic Frontier Foundation essays on the rights of the user.

The same argument applies to social media. Facebook and Twitter have a vested interest in limiting conversations that reflect poorly on them, but do not otherwise need to engender a healthy community dynamic.

Sites like Reddit that are community-moderated have an advantage here: Their communities are self-policing, both via the main userbase downvoting inappropriate messages until they are hidden, and via appointed moderators directly removing unacceptable posts. This works well in large subreddits, but since moderators have authority only within their own sub-communities there are still entire subreddits accepting of or dedicated to unacceptable content, and there are no moderators to review private messages or ban users site wide. A scalable solution will require stronger public powers.

Federated Communities

The privacy, anonymity, and counter-cultural communities have been advocating “federated” services like Mastadon as an alternative to centralized systems like Twitter and Facebook. The premise is simple: Anyone can run their own miniature social network, and the networks can be linked at will to create a larger community.

Privacy Researcher Sarah Jamie Lewis has written about the limitations of federated models before, but it boils down to “You aren’t creating a decentralized democratic system, you’re creating several linked centralized systems, and concentrating power in the hands of a few.” With regards to censorship this means moving from corporate censors to a handful of individual censors. Perhaps an improvement, but not a great one. While in theory users could react to censorship by creating a new Mastadon instance and flocking to it, in reality users are concentrated around a handful of large servers where the community is most vibrant.

Components of a Solution

A truly self-regulatory social community should place control over censorship of content in the hands of the public, exclusively. When this leads to a Tyranny of the Majority (as I have no doubt it would), then the effected minorities have an incentive to build a new instance of the social network where they can speak openly. This is not an ideal solution, but is at least a significant improvement over current power dynamics.

Community censorship may take the form of voting, as in Reddit’s “Upvotes” and “Downvotes”. It may involve a majority-consensus to expel a user from the community. It may look like a more sophisticated republic, where representatives are elected to create a temporary “censorship board” that removes toxic users after quick deliberation. The key is to involve the participants of the community in every stage of decision making, so that they shape their own community standards instead of having them delivered by a corporate benefactor.

Care needs to be taken to prevent bots from distorting these systems of governance, and giving a handful of users de-facto censorship authority. Fortunately, this is a technical problem that’s been explored for a long time, and can be stifled by deploying anti-bot measures like CAPTCHAs, or by instituting some system like “voting for representatives on a blockchain”, where creating an army of bot-votes would become prohibitively expensive.

This should be not only compatible, but desirable, for social media companies. Allowing the community to self-rule shifts the responsibility for content control away from the platform provider, and means they no longer need to hire enormous translator and moderator teams to maintain community standards.

Posted 4/22/18