Content moderation is a necessary governance mechanism to make digital platforms safer and more inclusive, but recent developments have seen social media companies employ it as a discretionary device to exert soft power and dictate the user experience to serve their own purposes.
Content moderation is the “detection of, assessment of, and interventions taken on content or behaviour deemed unacceptable by platforms” (Gillespie et al., 2020: 2). Content moderation was first introduced to the Internet as a way to prevent minors from accessing online pornography (Mikaelyan, 2021), but since then, digital platforms have proliferated everyday life and become inextricably linked with social and political discourse.
Content moderation is the “detection of, assessment of, and interventions taken on content or behaviour deemed unacceptable by platforms”
Gillespie et al., 2020
With 456,000 Tweets sent and 293,000 Facebook statuses updated every minute (Domo, 2017), the guidelines that were once appropriate for the static environment of Web 1.0 are no longer compatible. Using notable controversies to demonstrate its purpose and mechanics, this essay will explore the evolution of content moderation from a tool to safeguard users to a tool of influence and control.
Free Speech on Digital Platforms
The sovereign right to free speech is itself a complicated notion, especially within the context of social media.
Reddit, a platform distinguished by its alternative culture (Massanari, 2017), has repeatedly found itself in the middle of free speech controversies. In a recent incident, a US woman sued Reddit for allowing her ex-boyfriend to share pornographic images of her as a 16-year-old, claiming the platform “knowingly benefits from lax enforcement of its content policies”.
Digital platforms, due to their structural affordances, act as public spheres for people to engage in unmediated discussion. The issue facing digital platforms is whether they want to maintain the notion of the Internet as a bastion of free speech, and risk the threat of legal action or financial cost.
Famously, former US President Donald Trump has taken exception to their position as the gatekeepers of free speech online. In July 2021, Trump filed class-action lawsuits against Facebook, Twitter and Google for suspending his accounts, alleging they obstructed his right to free speech.
We are living Orwell’s 1984. Free-speech no longer exists in America. It died with big tech and what’s left is only there for a chosen few.
This is absolute insanity! https://t.co/s2z8ymFsLX
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) January 9, 2021
Although Trump’s protests are not grounded in legal basis, his argument does reveal the unprecedented power digital platforms have in determining the extent of free speech. Responsible for setting and enforcing norms, digital platforms are empowered to remove a user’s content if it conflicts with their beliefs. Noted by Gillespie (2018), through content moderation, social media companies act as the de facto custodians of free speech online.
The Power of News
Conservative NGO, Turning Point USA, was accused of paying young Americans to disseminate misinformation throughout social media about the threat of COVID-19. Although Facebook and Twitter suspended participating accounts, the incident highlighted the vulnerability of digital platforms to spread misinformation.
A common gripe facing digital platforms with content moderation is that they are developing into media companies. BBC (2020) reported that 40% of Australians get their news predominately from social media. However, as evidenced by the Turning Point USA controversy, the threat of misinformation and ‘fake news’ has necessitated extensive content moderation measures.
Recently, Instagram stories mentioning COVID-19 and dubious claims made on platforms are now automatically accompanied by verified information. Platforms are justified in implementing stricter content standards in light of recent controversies, but the challenge they now face is how to not become involved in the stories themselves.
Able to censor and promote content at their discretion, digital platforms have the ability to influence social and political discourse in the same fashion as traditional media powers. Whether by altering their top story algorithms or muting a post that conflicts with their values, digital platforms are dictating what news users consume (Tandoc & Maitra, 2018).
In the context of mounting ‘fake news’, content moderation on digital platforms is paramount, but not to the extent that it influences major global events.
Profits Before People
In the most recent example of Facebook whistleblowing, former employee Frances Haugen told the US Congress that the company put “astronomical profits before people”. In her testimony, Haugen purported that Facebook was aware of illegal activity and mental health issues on their platform, but failed to act because it damaged their profitability.
On platforms such as Facebook and YouTube, advertising represents the majority of revenue, and thus, adhering to the requests of advertisers is a core priority. This, however, is particularly problematic when considering the content on these platforms is user-generated. Companies want to advertise on platforms they believe are user-friendly, and to ensure this, social media companies remove, restrict or demonetise content if it violates community standards.
In January 2017, PewDiePie, one of YouTube’s largest creators, was sanctioned by the platform for using anti-Semitic language and imagery in his videos, and removed from their Google Preferred advertising program (Hokka, 2021). Similarly, it was revealed that TikTok ordered its content moderators to filter out people who are old, ugly, disabled, etc. because they “decrease the short-term new user retention rate (Biddle et al., 2020).
The perennial struggle of digital platforms is that their economic viability is contingent on content moderation, creating an issue of how to reconcile commercial interests with their open and egalitarian values.
Looking Inside the Black Box
The mechanics of content moderation, both human and algorithmic, consolidate the power of digital platforms by being deliberately subjective and opaque.
In its original form, content moderation was conducted by individuals, authorised to remove and censor content. At the inception of Google, general counsel Nicole Wong and her policy team were responsible for content moderation, forcing the New York Time’s to concede that “Wong and her colleagues have arguably more influence over the contours of online expression than anyone else on the planet”.
As a means to standardise decision-making and moderate content at scale, digital platforms are adopting algorithmic moderation. Whilst this makes the process more consistent, it lacks contextualised decision-making and leads to many false positives and negatives (Gorwa et al., 2020). Algorithms, for example, may flag a video on breastfeeding as pornography or news coverage on a terrorist attack as the act itself (Gillespie et al., 2020). In September 2020, YouTube declared it was reinstating many of its human moderators because their AI systems unfairly removed more than double the usual volume of videos.
Often described as a black box, users criticise content moderation because there is little explanation of its mechanics. Unless greater transparency is offered and ambiguous guidelines are clarified, digital platforms will continue to encounter the risk of frustrated users leaving their platform.
How Should Governments Respond?
In response to the prevalence of online trolls, Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, denounced the “lack of accountability” of digital platforms and foreshadowed future legislation.
More needs to be done in the content moderation space in order to neutralise the discretionary authority and influence of social media companies. Many of the controversies listed above could be mitigated by establishing consistent and transparent content moderation standards. Unfortunately, there are many practical hurdles preventing greater government involvement on social media.
Here are three reasons why governments struggle to enforce stricter content moderation:
In autocratic nation-states such as China and Russia, governments rather than digital platforms perform content moderation, which doesn’t lead to a safer online experience, but one where content is spread or censored for purposes of national interest (O’Hara & Hall, 2018). In nations where free speech is protected, governments will be accused of overreach should they dictate content standards.
The Internet does not fall under the jurisdiction of a single country. Governments can only legislate digital platforms within their authority, and whilst this may resolve certain issues, it will have an isolated impact. Australia recently became the first country to force Google and Facebook to pay for news content on their platforms. Immediately in response, Facebook removed all news content on the Australian version of the platform, flexing their ability to circumvent regional legislation.
How do governments regulate encrypted platforms, such as WhatsApp and Telegram, without compromising the integrity of the platform and the privacy of the user? In certain countries, governments have had to pressure digital platforms to provide ‘backdoor access’ to encrypted messaging, such as in the aftermath of the San Bernardino shootings. Similar to the authoritarian model of the Internet, moderating content on encrypted platforms would lead to state censorship and surveillance (Gillespie et al., 2020).
Allowed to self-regulate, digital platforms are afforded significant leniency in deciding how to balance free and open expression with their own priorities. How governments will supervise content moderation is yet to be seen, but the need to temper the discretionary authority and influence of digital platforms is clear.
Trump, Trolls & Terrorists: Content Moderation in the Modern World © by Will Mallett is licensed under CC BY 4.0.
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